Work-life balance is an issue of tremendous perplexity — and one that plagues every woman who seeks to “have it all.” altM will be featuring a series of conversation-style pieces between working moms Asma and Mariam (both lawyers who have been practicing for 10 years) that will explore the struggles they face and their advice to other women in similar situations.
Asma 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).
Mariam 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).
Asma: Salaam, Mariam! How are you?
Mariam: Salaam! I’m good Asma. I’ve been thinking about the news that Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband a few days ago. I just finished reading Lean In last year, and I kept thinking that one of the reasons she did so well as a working mother was because she had such a great support system. Particularly her husband.
Asma: That was my first thought, too, when I saw the news. She has lost her biggest supporter, the example from which she draws in encouraging other working moms to find a system that allows them to “have it all” – career and motherhood. I have a system like that, alhamdulillah, and I can’t imagine losing it.
Mariam: Yes. I can’t imagine doing what I do without the full support of my husband. Also, my mother. She was my motivation and inspiration as a young woman – she inspired me to go out there and be the best, and get the best education and avail myself of the opportunities that she herself did not have. And then when I was finished with law school and starting off at a law firm while also starting my family, my mom was my rock. She helped take care of my boys when I was at work, and even when I moved far away from home, she came to my rescue every time things weren’t in balance. I feel like every woman who wants to have a chance to balance work and family needs to build up a strong support system.
Asma: Absolutely. What are your thoughts on how to “build” that system? I never saw it as a conscious process (other than choosing a husband I knew would support me); I was just blessed with it. For example, in addition to my husband, my mom and siblings and my sisters-in-law have been totally indispensable. I never knew it would work that way, but it did, and the added plus is that my kids have really close relationships with all these people because they’ve had so much one-on-one time with them.
Mariam: I think there does have to be some conscious effort expended to create a support system, as a working mother. That starts at a fundamental stage, when you start looking for your life partner. You really have to ask yourself: is this person aware of the demands of my profession? Does he understand what I’m getting myself into, and is he interested in supporting that? A lot of guys, especially in the Muslim community, have been raised to respect education, but that does not necessarily mean that they have a lot of examples of successful career women in their families or communities. So women who are pursuing educational tracks leading to demanding careers have to be careful in choosing the right partners. Without that support, balancing work and family would be pretty much impossible.
Asma: Agreed – it’s easy for a lot of men to say that they will support you, but often, they have no realistic idea of what that entails. Supporting your spouse in this way requires sacrifice. A woman who expects to be a working mom needs to make sure her spouse knows, in real, practical terms, what he’s getting into and is cool with it.
Mariam: I agree – but then ask yourself this question. Did you know, ten years ago when you were just ending law school, what your life would really be like as an attorney with young children? I don’t think I did. But when I met my husband and got to know him, I could tell from our interactions that he had the patience and the respect for me to stick this out with me. Not only did he have similar views about education, he also had a very laid-back personality. It was clear to me that he didn’t mind my A-type tendencies, and he actively encouraged me to be vocal about my views, to work and to be involved in my pro bono work. When we were getting to know each other, I was also very struck by the fact that Haroon is a great cook. Not only that, I also learned that Haroon’s brother and his dad were also excellent cooks. It may sound silly, but this told me a lot about him.
Asma: The ability to cook is definitely a great indicator. It suggests that he’s less inclined to group chores according to gender and, of course, that he can pick up the slack as needed. While gender roles have their practical value, I have always eschewed this idea that we are obligated to perform certain tasks simply by virtue of our sex.
As for planning for my future, while I didn’t have a precise idea of where my career would take me, I knew that, at my core, I am ambitious, and that I like to think outside the box. So I knew that I needed my future partner to give me the space to think and do work creatively rather than force me to fit a mold. I guess, for me, that knee jerk reaction to gender roles seeps into strictly defined roles of any sort.
Mariam: You know it’s been ten years since we graduated from law school? I think back to my plans for myself back then, and I realize that while a lot of things were happening at the same time (getting married, finishing law school, starting at a law firm), I was making choices in my personal life that were laying the foundation for my career. I think it’s important for all those young women finishing college or starting new jobs or grad school to keep in mind that there is a direct connection between the choices you make in your personal life right now, and the future of your career.
Asma: Yes. While you and I are speaking from the perspective of working moms with demanding careers, there are many women out there who have far more demanding and stressful work requirements. Part of my conscious calculation regarding work-life balance was that I chose a path–public interest law instead of working at a large, white-shoe law firm–that I knew would pose fewer challenges. And while I have to travel for work from time-to-time, I feel that that is more than made up for by all the hours I spend working from home. It’s a fine balancing act, and in my mind and in the experiences of my kids as I see it, it seems to be working.
Do you feel you made similar choices?
Mariam: Yes. I was pregnant with Hamza during my third year at the law firm in Chicago. One of the first things I did when I realized I was expecting was to move closer to my mom — gave up the slick apartment in the city and moved back towards the suburbs so I could provide the best care for my child. And after Hamza was born and I returned from maternity leave, I started working a flex-time schedule. This allowed me to continue developing my area of expertise while also giving me the time to be a very involved mom. There is no one way to make this work, and I also realized that as a working mother I need to cultivate the ability to be flexible and to compromise. For many women who’ve long focused just on education and career, this can be a difficult change. But it’s one I feel we must make to retain our balance.
I know in my own family, a lot of my cousins and now even my nieces look up to me as an example of someone who has managed to have both a family and a career. I hope this generation of women will have more role models than we did, and that those of us who are managing to balance this can be a resource to young women contemplating their future. I hope this series of reflection pieces will cover much of the advice you and I usually give young women who reach out to us.
Read Part II.