Mommy’s Law: Achieving “Balance”

My daughter, Sophia, was born on December 21, 2009. At the time, I was working as a full-time staff attorney for a legal aid agency in St. Charles, Illinois. My office was forty snowy miles away from my cozy Oak Park home. Despite the commute, however, I loved my job! While pregnant, I worked up to the last few days before Sophia’s birth. I loved helping people, feeling needed by my clients, and leading my own cases without being tied to the billable hour. As a self-proclaimed feminist, I was determined to return to work once my all-too-short twelve-week maternity leave was up. Once I returned, I was optimistic and energized. I remember the smell of my office (a newly renovated space) on my first day back—new wood, old coffee cups, and tired clients. I was ready to hit the ground running.

And so I ran. I picked up several new clients, got comfortable in my office again, and started working on some more difficult cases. I began with a smile and left with a smile on most days. Before too long, though, I started to question what all the running was for. Three to four hours a day in the car with my daughter, overpriced daycare, breastfeeding drama, emotionally demanding clients, and the constant need to prove that I could in fact “do it all”—it wore on me, and fast. One day I spent the entire car ride to work trying to express milk for Sophia (yes, while driving, and of course with little success—how could I possible relax?! Crazy mom left the already expressed milk in the freezer…), just to find out later that the daycare teacher had mixed my measly two ounces of liquid gold with formula, and thereby created what my daughter seemed to think was poison. She barely ate that day. I nearly lost it. Another day (after the expressed milk debacle) a client–who will never understand the amount of time and energy I spent trying to preserve the only apartment she could afford–questioned my dedication to my job, in several written pages, to my boss. That time I did lose it. And then there was highway construction, adding even more time on to my arduous commute. One severe panic attack later, I knew it was time for a change.

So, I quit my job. I spent the summer with my daughter, nursing (successfully!), taking walks, pushing her on the park swings, reading books, and taking afternoon naps next to a half-full glass of lemonade on my front porch. It was heaven, and just the respite I needed before my next endeavor.

I am tuned in to myself well enough to know that I couldn’t be a full time stay at home mom permanently. It’s just not who I am. I had a law degree and wanted to use it “outside of the home.” (But please don’t underestimate the value of being able to “think like a lawyer” at home! Constant analysis and the ability to justify just about anything is a source of many fun discussions in the Ott household. Just ask my husband, who is—for better or for worse—also a lawyer! Poor Sophia…)

I started my own law practice working from home. I formed an LLC and got my hands dirty in my own website design. I joined things. Many things. A Board of Directors (yay, Parenthesis!), a local business networking group, and an Oak Park village commission, all in addition to the two book clubs and church volunteering I already did. To put it lightly, my Oak Park roots grew fast and deep. I advertised, joined bar associations, and truly took no prisoners while putting myself out there.  I got clients. My business grew.

But what about your daughter, you ask? What about those naps on the porch and the glasses of lemonade? Believe it or not, my new gig, even with all of my chosen community activities, gave me more time for my family and self than I had had in a long time.  Having a home office helped. My cousin, Alyssa, watched Sophia for fifteen or so hours each week so I could attend meetings and, god willing, go to court. But I was with Sophia for the majority of day. And even if the quantity of time we had lacked at times, the quality of the time we spent together was top-notch. I loved the look of elation on her face when I came home from a meeting, and eventually the hugs that came with it.

Now I have an office. This summer, my not-so-little-anymore Sophia will start at a full time, home-based daycare. I’m actually very excited for our next big transition. When people question the change (“Isn’t that what you wanted to get away from?”), I remind them how different my life really is now. Now I am my own boss, I make my own hours, and, because the daycare and my office are less than two miles away, I will have ample time to play with sidewalk chalk and run and in and out of the sprinkler with my daughter before dinner.  And no one (except an ornery client now and then) is going to make me feel guilty if I want to take a day off to spend the day with my daughter. It’s liberating, exciting, and rewarding.

You probably already noticed that the term “balance” in my title is in quotation marks. The truth is, when it comes to the life-work balance, there really is no such thing. For me, I feel like I have come pretty close. But every day is different, and there are always struggles. And, more importantly, every mom is different—we all cope and “balance” (and lose our balance) in different ways. But there is one thing that makes us all the same: we all want what is best for our children. And, as caring mommies, sometimes we have to be willing to throw our own lives askew in order to provide that. And lastly, to my daughter: know that sometimes life takes you in new directions, but with some faith (in yourself, your loved ones, and ideally something bigger than all that), courage, flexibility, and energy, you can achieve at least some semblance of success and balance. And always remember, if you start to feel off kilter, go to Mommy. That’s what she’s here for.

Andrea Ott is an attorney specializing in disability and elder law in and around the western suburbs of Chicago. For more information, please visit www.ambottlaw.com

9 Comments

  1. Sujata Raman said...

    What a great article, Andrea!! I’m so glad to hear things are going so well with you! I’m just in the beginning stages of starting my own business from home as well and you’ve given me new enthusiasm for the venture! Best of luck and I hope we can keep in touch!

    Jun 07, 2011 at 10:48 am
    • HipMum said...

      Congratulations on the new venture Sujata – wishing you all the best.

      Jun 07, 2011 at 12:24 pm
      • Andrea said...

        Sujata – that is so exciting! I’m glad that I was able to give you some momentum. You’ll do great things! And yes, please keep in contact, and send our love to your little one! :)

        Jun 08, 2011 at 11:42 am
  2. Jordan said...

    Great, well written touching story. Except for the breast feeding, I can relate to not spending enough quality time with my children. My recent Peru experience reminded me that American/capitalistic values are not the only path to a happy life. Thanks for sharing your path.

    Jun 07, 2011 at 11:22 am
    • HipMum said...

      I agree Jordan. Whenever I travel to a developing country I am in awe of the kindness and happiness of people who have (in our minds) so little. It’s great to get some perspective.
      Sometimes I feel we are so busy being busy – it’s like an addiction.
      Thanks for your comments

      Jun 07, 2011 at 12:22 pm
      • Andrea said...

        I completely agree with both of you. Many of us have far too many expectations for one another and ourselves, and seem to be unable to just stop and enjoy the now… learning to be happy with what we have doesn’t seem to come naturally for enough of us! Maybe it’s time for me to travel… If only I had the time. :)

        Jun 08, 2011 at 11:40 am
  3. HipMum said...

    I remember locking myself in a cubicle pumping breast milk in the bathrooms at a clients office thinking ‘OMG what am I doing and how do these 2 worlds exist harmoniously?”

    Jun 09, 2011 at 9:43 am
    • Andrea said...

      I hear you! I think the worst for me was in the middle of a public bathroom – NOT in a stall – at a solo and small firm law conference. I was lucky that no one walked in, but if they had I would have said “SORRY! You gotta’ do what you gotta’ do…” If I had more time, I’d lobby for “mother’s rooms” everywhere.

      Jun 09, 2011 at 11:18 am
  4. Donna said...

    Wow, is this a familiar story! Great job putting it into words and also showing how you are able to redirect as your life changes. I love how you did not get too disheartened (or maybe you did!) that things weren’t working out as you planned. As a fellow attorney who could not make the job I loved work with young children, I know it’s a constant challenge and it’s great to read of one solution.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Aug 09, 2011 at 2:02 pm

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