is a regulatory lawyer. Raised in the U.S, Mariam moved from a law firm in the U.S. to work at a futures exchange in Dubai, where she is currently the Head of Compliance & Risk. Mariam and her husband, Haroon, have two little boys, Hamza (8) and Maaz (4).
is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of altM. She is also a lawyer specializing in religious liberty. Her work includes U.S.-based litigation as well as international advocacy, which requires considerable travel abroad. Asma and her husband, Shabbir, have two kids, Zaynab (8) and Eesa (3).
is the Executive Director of Arete, a multi-unit research strategy team at the University of Chicago. In this role, Samar works with faculty and University leadership to launch complex research initiatives. Samar also works on anti-sexual violence advocacy and is mother to three children, Safa (8), Marya (7), and Reza (3).
Mariam: I was a pretty intense college student. My days were dominated by my classes and school work, and from my junior year, my life started to revolve around my intense desire to go to law school. I’d put signs on my bedroom door telling my family, “LSAT in Progress. Do Not DISTURB!” and I’d practice full-length timed law school entrance exams. My room was covered in tabulated law school rankings, and every time I’d score my LSATs I would scan through this list, reassuring myself that this LSAT score would be enough to get me into my dream schools.
While all that focus and drive helped me get me into one of my law schools and then into a large law firm, I was unprepared for the issues that cropped up as soon as I got married. How, exactly, was I supposed to continue on my trajectory of excelling at school and then work, if I also had to be a traditional Pakistani wife? And even harder, how could I excel and still be a mom? It surprises me now to think that despite my nerdly ambitions, I actually didn’t think about these things, and I was unprepared for how difficult this is. Did you think about these things when you were in college Asma and Samar?
Asma: No, I didn’t. But that may be because, despite having a traditional, stay-at-home mom myself, I never envisioned myself being that person. While I was less sure than you, Mariam, about what I wanted to do after college, I knew that I was going to go to a grad school of some sort and that my life would be spent giving back to the world through my intellectual and professional contributions. The wife and mom thing never figured prominently in my plans for the future, even though, of course, I fully expected to be those things. I just figured they’d fall into place, somehow, some way.
Samar: As a college student, I also don’t think that I put a lot of conscious thought into what it would mean to pursue a career and family life someday. My own mother is a physician and so in many ways I already had a real life example of someone who was a working mother. Interestingly, when I was much younger, probably in grade school, I sometimes used to resent the fact that my mother worked while most of my friends had stay-at-home moms. In my mind, I had idealized the kind of stay-at-home mom who had fresh baked chocolate chip cookies set on the table after school with a pot roast (whatever that was) waiting in the oven. By the time I was in high school and college, I began to lose interest in that ideal as I came to appreciate the candor and insightful life advice my mom could offer me as a professional woman. Although I didn’t chart out the how when it came to balancing career and family, it just seemed natural that my own path would be much like my mother’s.
Mariam: I wonder if young women today have a better sense of the issues around work-life balance than we did. At the time I was being a gunner in college, I knew very few women who worked. Most of my mom’s friends and my female relatives were stay-at-home moms, and there were no discussions about nannies and work deadlines and working mom guilt in our house. I think that is changing now, and these questions about balancing everything are raised more frequently.
Asma: It may be that it’s changing, or maybe it’s just different for us because of our lived experiences. I am sure those women, like Samar, who grew up with working moms were more familiar with the balancing act during their youth.
Samar: Although I had a working mother, I don’t think I witnessed a lot of overt conversations about work-life balance in the same way that we now do. For starters, there probably weren’t many people that my mother could relate to at that time. In a strange way, I think that might have helped my mother because the standards she set for herself as a working wife and mother were her own. She was big on keeping things as simple as possible – both in her career and in her home and social life. In contrast, I think I’m pretty good at making things overly complicated for myself. I’m not sure if that’s a result of overthinking it or if it is consequence of something else but it is definitely something to consider.
While I don’t think overthinking things is necessarily helpful, I do think there is a lot for women to benefit from in learning from and having access to this encyclopedia of lived experiences, as Asma called them. Young women today aren’t alone in the choices that they make.
Mariam: While it may seem unfair to expect an 18, 19, or 20-year-old woman to think about how she will pursue her career along with managing a home and kids, it’s something we should encourage women to think about at an early age.
Whenever Muslim women reach out to me for career advice, I give them a couple of tips. First of all, I tell them to think carefully about their skillset. It’s important to consider — what excites you? What fascinates you? What are you really good at? Then you think about what potential professions would allow you to utilize those skills and pursue something that interests you.
One of the best ways to manage the hectic daily schedule required to maintain career and kids is to do something that you really care about. Don’t enter a profession just for money or prestige, though those two things are so important in our community.
Asma: Absolutely. And I’d add that doing something that excites you should be the rule, even if you decide that marriage and/or kids are not for you. Life’s too short to spend it being miserable, doing something you don’t want to do – if life’s circumstances aren’t forcing you to do it. The other thing working moms learn really quickly is that, if you hate your job, it becomes utterly torturous at times to leave your child to go do that job.
Samar: I completely agree. If she has the luxury of choice, I would advise any young woman to pick what fascinates her over what might be more lucrative but dull. If you like what you do, you’re going to be better at it. That kind of fulfillment undoubtedly has positive spillover effects on your family and personal life.
Mariam: I also tell women to do the math. Ask yourself — if I want to go to grad school, how old will I be when I graduate? What is the likelihood that I will get a job in my area without having to relocate, and will I be dealing with a fiance or husband at that point who won’t want to move for the sake of my job? If I want to go to medical school right now, when will I graduate, and will my family be expecting me to get married right around the time that I will be starting my residency?
Asma: Fair enough, but I think living your life according to a well-formulated math equation may not be the best (or most realistic) path, especially since we truly don’t know what we’ll encounter in our lives. It’s good and admirable to plan for your future – but don’t overplan. At the end of the day, being aware of the challenges that lay ahead will be better for you than being surprised by them. But know that a supportive husband, family, and God’s support can work miracles, even without all that math!
Mariam: Bear with me Asma, I’m still delving into the math. I always tell women to consider the financial aspect of your career. If you need to take substantial student loans to pursue your degree, remember that you cannot discharge those loans even in a bankruptcy. You must pay them back, and this can be a significant challenge if you are being pulled away from your career track because of familial expectations.
Also consider if you will actually earn enough to pay for childcare. There have been times in my career where I’ve spent the majority of my paycheck just covering the costs of working — childcare, commuting, taxes. That, despite the fact that I was a well-paid attorney at a large law firm. For many women the math does not work out, and they have no choice but to forgo their career tracks to stay home for as many years as it takes for the kids to be in school. And once you sit out that long, the likelihood of getting back on track (particularly in the more demanding professions) is very low. It’s a difficult path.
Asma: Now, THIS sort of math I agree is definitely important to work out. Loans and childcare costs can be crippling. Even without loans to repay, childcare costs alone can make working outside the home financially unfeasible. I remember finding it utterly shocking to discover just how much childcare costs–especially if you live in a big city. I also found that even with the best childcare, that nagging feeling of leaving your child behind can be unbearable. I negotiate that by working from home a lot; even my wonderful au pair can’t make me feel comfortable enough to stay away for too long. So in addition to the financial calculation, consider the emotional calculation as well.
Mariam: Yeah, it’s important to highlight the emotional cost of this. While I wish this advice was less pragmatic, it is always the case that years matter for women in a way they don’t for men, especially in our community. The older women in the community who try to matchmake start to circle around you as soon as you hit your 20s, and by the time you are in your late 20s or early 30s the pressure is intense to get married and start having children. Those are the same years that most people are putting in the long hours at work.
Asma: Agreed. I should also note, though, that our community in many parts of the US is moving away from the aunty match making machinery to a DIY approach: meeting potential matches on online platforms or through friends and engaging in some sort of “halal dating.” That requires time and effort, and can be hugely distracting from work or educational obligations. Moreover, our community is seeing the age of marriage pushed further and further out–which is fine in and of itself, but is posing increasing hardship for women as they near, then cross, 30 and still find themselves single. At that point, many find that the available pool of Muslim bachelors is suddenly very small.
Samar: From my own experiences with marriage with children, divorce, and more recently, single motherhood, I can absolutely attest to the fact that sometimes all the planning and preparation in the world can be for naught when you come across life’s unexpected bumps and hurdles. While charting a life plan for five, ten, fifteen, and even twenty years down the line might be a useful exercise, it is important to recognize that it is simply an exercise in imagining what one of many possible paths in your life might look like.
In addition to doing the math when it comes to financial planning, women also need to strategically be thinking about what I like to think of as resiliency planning. If a setback happened to you tomorrow, do you have the social, spiritual, and internal resources needed to get through tough times? Have you invested in relationships with people that will actually help you get you through those unimaginable occurrences should they happen, God forbid? Are you working on your own inner strength and resilience so that you can tap into your reserve when you most need it? Do you find joy from more than one source (i.e., your children, your job, your spouse, your community work) so that if one of those things is removed from your life, you still have alternative wells of fulfillment to draw upon?
My first marriage imploded in a most unexpected way and what helped me to navigate out of that mess has been my spiritual relationship with God, my ability to earn a living, and the social and personal support that I receive from family and close friends. I think every young woman needs to know that there simply are no guarantees when it comes to lifestyle. That might sound gloomy, but I also think that we as women can use uncertainty to our advantage. Uncertainty can be the fuel needed to help one to consistently reassess what is essential in order to survive and even thrive in absolutely any circumstance. Once you know that, you have a better idea of what to focus your attention on. An uncluttered life has far greater benefits than just a clean closet.
Mariam: The other advice I give women is to research their options. If you think you want to be a nurse, or an investment banker, or an architect, do your due diligence. Find people in those professions and reach out to them. Learn as much as you can about the daily lives of people in these professions.
I often speak to students who tell me they want to be lawyers, but pretty much none of them ask me one crucial question: what do you actually do as a lawyer? If you are interested in something, dig into it enough that you have a good sense of the actual work involved in that profession. Ask the person to describe to you what her typical day looks like. You may find that your perception of that profession was quite inaccurate. One of the best ways to get information is, of course, to work as a volunteer or intern in the area of your interest. Also ask: how do you balance it all? What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Asma: Yes, the reality of a profession is very different from the glamorized version as seen on TV! Many students also mistake the careers of a few for the reality of all or most people in that profession –like you’ll see an international human rights lawyer traveling the world defending helpless victims and think that’s an easy option to achieve for all lawyers. Or you’ll see the wealthy, powerful corporate attorney in all her glamorous glory but have no idea about the everyday sacrifices she and her family have to make for her to achieve that goal.
Samar: Here too, I agree with you both, Mariam and Asma.
If you have the luxury of choice, choosing a career in many ways is like choosing a life partner – your career and your spouse have to be interesting and exciting to you but you also have to be able to live with that person’s particular flaws or what might be the worst parts of your job.
Lastly, if you make a mistake or you’re unhappy, remember that you are only as stuck as you let yourself be. Work with a trusted mentor or friend and figure out a better path for you and your circumstances.
This is Part 2 of altM’s new “Working Mom Series” led by Asma Uddin and Mariam Ahmed. You can read Part 1 here.