All work/life balance is not created equal. While all professional people struggle to find the proper mix between professional responsibilities and personal desires, things can get pretty heated when colleagues start comparing their "life" decisions.
If work/life balance means making sure people have time to go to their kid's ballet recital, does it also need to extend to making sure a non-parent can go to a Katy Perry concert? Depending on where you are on the breeding continuum, the answer probably seems obvious to you.
An associate at a respected Manhattan law firm, Cleary Gottlieb, thinks that both choices are equally valid. She sent an email around her firm, advocating for an "I"m having a baby day" for associates who have important commitments outside of work that don't involve children. Here's what she wrote in full:
At a recent Women Lawyers meeting, we had a lively conversation discussing the notion that while large law firms have come to respect the obligations of female associates as mothers, this respect for commitments outside of the office hasn't yet transcended to young associates who aren't parents, both female and male for that matter. The discussion centered on the fact that no one would question or fault a woman for being unavailable on a team as a result of "having a baby", but that other engagements may not receive the same amount of deference. In an effort to find solutions and not simply highlight problems, it was suggested that all associates on a team should be awarded a "baby" every so often – a hobby, engagement or event for which they are unapologetically unavailable and on which the rest of the team volunteers to cover, without question.
At this same meeting, it also came to my attention that, with so few midlevel and senior female associates, second year associates quickly become mentors to younger female associates. As such, I find myself compelled to lead by example, and to try and practice what is preached at these Women Lawyers meetings.
So here goes: I'm having a baby on Tuesday, June 23rd. My best friend is coming into town, and we have amazing tickets to the Katy Perry concert. This is as important to me as a child's birthday party or ballet recital. I would be very grateful, if as my teammates, you could cover any urgent issues that might arise on our case that night. Please let me know if you plan on having a baby in the near future, and I will gladly repay the favor. Everyone on this team is, simply put, really cool and reasonable, so let's be the change we wish to see at Cleary.
Sorry, associate, but I am a parent and you're gonna to hear me roar.
Having a baby is NOT the same as "a hobby, engagement or event." That's an inapposite analogy; really, it's something that one would expect a child to say as they struggle to understand the concept of being a parent.
I'm not sure I can explain this to non-parents, but for what it's worth, I think the heart of the error is when the associate says, "This is as important to me as a child's birthday party or ballet recital." That's how childless people think: there are things that are important to me, and those things are just as valid as what is important to another person. But a child's birthday is not deserving of more unapologetic deference than a Katy Perry concert because of where it ranks on the parent's priority scale, it gets more deference because it's more important to the child. Katy Perry doesn't give a damn if you make it to her concert, but the child surely cares if mommy makes it to her birthday. As a working parent, you are constantly weighing what's important to your kid versus what's important to your employer. Usually, the two are at cross purposes, and you have to make tough choices. It takes a village to raise a child, and if your employer is a little bit more understanding when you have to do something for your kid, that's great. It's very different from not having kids, where often (but not always) you are trying to weigh what's important to your employer versus what's important to you.
It appears that the associate was totally aware of the incongruity of Katy Perry versus childbirth, and used that particular situation to highlight her point about different yet equally valid priorities. And I get what she's going for. But while we're here, let me point out that parents also like to go to Katy Perry concerts! If you think it's bad that work doesn't respect your personal days unless you have children, wait until work treats all the little crap you have to do for your children as "personal" time. Taking, say, three months of maternity leave is NOT tantamount to taking a three-month freaking vacation. First, you have to push a bowling ball out of your genitals. Then, you have to turn your body into human Seamlessweb. Then, when you come back to work having not slept for three months, some officious bastard asks how your "vacation" was before telling you about the promotion he got while you were "out." But don't worry, because all of the personal days for the rest of your life will be consumed with things like watching uncoordinated five-year-olds rip the tutus that cost you what's left of your disposable income while your friends ACTUALLY GO TO THE BALLET.
Meanwhile, there's another fundamental inaccuracy in her email. The associate writes: "[N]o one would question or fault a woman for being unavailable on a team as a result of 'having a baby.'" Who in the HELL told her that? What kind of post-sexist, happy-clappy utopia does she think she's working in? People "fault" mothers for being "unavailable" ALL THE GODDAMN TIME (fathers too). You just watch, there will be people, men mostly, in the comments to this post who will indirectly argue that the mere physical possibility that women can have children is justification for paying women less for the same work. Women get "questioned" or "faulted" for having children in every profession, especially law. Oh, it might be taboo (and illegal) to directly punish a woman for having a baby, but let's not act like deciding to have children carries no professional consequences.
All of which is to say, go to the f**king Katy Perry concert. If it's important to you, if being able to go is a big part of how you balance your high-pressure job while still having a life outside the office, go. You're a grown-ass adult, and a law office is a not a prison. But if what you're trying to accomplish with this "having a baby day" is to be able to do what you want without paying a price for it, sorry, that's not gonna fly. That freebie doesn't exist even for people who are actually missing work right now because they are in labor.
There are no choices without consequences. Every parent understands that.