It’s been a slog for both career and personal life this past year, hasn’t it? We’ve all read the articles about the huge number of women being pushed out of the workforce. And how many of us haven’t thought about throwing in the towel at some point?
With zero judgment of anyone’s decisions related to work this year, I’m here to share an important perspective: holding onto the career ladder and rising in experience and tenure can actually lead to increased autonomy. And autonomy makes working parenthood *so* much more doable.
Here to share her story about the irony of higher-level positions coming with more flexibility is Cara L. O’Brien. Cara is mama of 3 and the managing partner of the Law Offices of Evan K. Thalenberg, P.A. in Baltimore, Maryland. Here’s Cara’s career advice for working moms of little ones:
In 2013, I had just gone back to work after taking 8 weeks of maternity leave with my first baby. I loved my career as an attorney. But when I got home after that first day back, I sat on the couch, crying while nursing him.
I told my husband that I couldn’t do it. The thought of juggling motherhood and my career seemed overwhelming. We had arranged for excellent childcare, but I was confused about how much milk to put in his bottles and when to pump at work. My work clothes didn’t fit my body that would never be the same again. My heart felt like it was going to break at the thought of being away from him 5 days a week. I was operating on a few hours of broken sleep.
But my husband looked at me and said, “You can do this.” He told me to take it one day at a time. We talked about strategies to make it work, including dividing household tasks and staying mentally and physically healthy. He told me it would get better.
And it did. A couple months later, I was taking my infant son to a conference in Florida, so that I could learn and network. It wasn’t easy to bring him, but attending the conference was great for my career. And one of my all-time favorite pictures of my son is from that trip.
A year after that, with a team of attorneys at my law firm, I tried 3 complex civil jury trials over a span of 3 months, prevailing in each case for our clients. The sound of a breast pump made my blood run cold, and my clothes still didn’t fit right. But my heart didn’t hurt as much.
I was doing it.
The Second Time Around: Career Advancement Leads to Freedom
In 2016, I had just gone back to work after taking 9 weeks of maternity leave. Again, I sat on the couch, nursing my second son.
This time, I was cradling my phone on my shoulder while trying to negotiate a settlement for a client. By that time, I had been promoted to Managing Attorney by the founder of our firm. He is a mentor of mine who is surrounded by strong women in an amazing wife and two incredible daughters.
My promotion meant more responsibility. But also, perhaps ironically, more flexibility. With two young children who went to bed before the sun went down, I often left work at a reasonable hour. I then spent time with them and worked after they went to bed.
If they had an appointment or event at daycare, I went. If there was a deposition that started early or ended late, I didn’t worry about it, because my wonderful team of attorneys was on it. I was able to pick and choose the legal work that I wanted to do, while fulfilling my management duties on my own time. The flexibility that came with my management role allowed me to be the best mom, lawyer, and manager that I could possibly be. Even on my worst days, I felt fulfilled and in control of my schedule and life. The harder I worked professionally, and the greater success I had in my law firm, the more freedom I had with my career, my time, and my family.
Baby 3, and There’s No Stopping Me
In 2019, after a lot of soul searching and a little therapy, we decided to have our third child. By that point, I refused to choose between my career and my family. I could have both.
Our daughter was born last Halloween, and I cannot imagine life without her. I truly believe that she would not be here today, if I had not been promoted in my law firm. What had once seemed impossible was now clear: success at work actually made it easier to juggle motherhood and my career.
I know that climbing the ladder while starting a family may seem impossible. But it doesn’t have to be. Find an organization with caring people who support your growth as a woman and as a mom. Do the best you can with your job duties and professional networking. Climb the ladder in that organization. I promise you that you will find that the higher you get, the more able you are to juggle it all. You can do it.
Cara L. O’Brien is the managing partner of the Law Offices of Evan K. Thalenberg, P.A. in Baltimore, Maryland. For over a decade, she has been dedicated to representing and advocating for children that have been poisoned by lead-based paint and now continues to achieve justice for individuals that have been injured by others. Ms. O’Brien is the co-chair of the Maryland Association for Justice’s Women’s Caucus and sits on the Board of Directors for Community Law in Action, among other things, while raising her three little humans thanks to her village that includes her supportive husband, energetic parents, amazing nanny, wonderful teachers, caring neighbors, extraordinary mentor and firm founder and, last but certainly not least, her incredible team at her law firm.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave