by Effie Hawthorne, Associate General Counsel at the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners
Children. Legal career. Burnout. Did those four words just resonate down to your bones? I speculate that you’re a mother, likely of younger children, who just so happened to pursue a career in the law. Did I get that right? I know I did because I’m describing myself. As a lawyer and the mother of a three-year-old and newborn twins, I know all too well the feeling of burnout, of the unbelievable exhaustion that comes with motherhood, of the drive to succeed in my chosen career, and of the often-overwhelming combination those two factors create.
Just by being a working mother, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers.[i] That means in the U.S., there are roughly 2.4 million additional cases of burnout due to the unequal demands of home and work that are placed on working mothers. And cases of burnout are higher among Black, Asian, and Latino mothers compared to their White counterparts.
Women who are “Onlys”—meaning, they are often one of the only people of their race or gender in the room at work—have especially difficult day-to-day experiences.[ii] Being an Only can dramatically compound other challenges women are facing at work. Mothers of young children are one example of this—they already face more bias and barriers than fathers and women overall, and when they are often the only woman in the room in their workplace, their experience is even more difficult.
Depending on your practice area and where you work, being a lawyer can take a brutal toll on work-life balance. From the very beginning, law students are taught to burn the midnight oil and compete for top honors. That mentality is carried into legal careers and, at least in BigLaw, a first-in-last-out mentality that has led to mental health crises and burnout in the profession. Asking for help has historically been perceived as a sign of weakness. And admitting you’re having trouble handling your workload goes against the superlawyer and supermom tropes.
Indiana University sociology professor Jessica Calarco ran an online survey of 2,000 parents in December 2020 and shared her analysis with the American Bar Association Journal.[iii] “Mothers are supposed to sacrifice themselves for their children in every possible way,” Calarco observes. “We have this idealized version of intensive motherhood. Research has shown that this is a norm that all mothers are held to. It creates this standard where women are expected to sacrifice their careers, their well-being, their sleep, their mental health for the good of their children.” Calarco says this “glorification of motherhood” is even more insidious in high-performing careers like law, where there is an expectation of total commitment or the perception of failure. Add in all the daunting challenges stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and it’s clear the pandemic has disproportionately affected women and minority attorneys, with female lawyers of color feeling increased isolation and stress.
So how can we combat burnout and the disparities attached to being a working mother and an attorney?
- Identify and acknowledge the signs and symptoms of burnout. Working mom burnout symptoms all spring from the catalyst of exhaustion — extreme fatigue, regardless of how much sleep you get.[iv] Once exhaustion sets in, the following symptoms begin to appear:
- Low productivity, lack of motivation, slipping job performance
- Negative attitude toward yourself and others and a loss of enjoyment of any activity
- Sleeping problems that sometimes include teeth grinding
- If these signs occur more than occasionally and last for several weeks, you are in burnout stages.
- Set and hold boundaries. Multitasking can lead to working mothers feeling significantly overwhelmed. If possible, give it up. With toddlers, it’s important to create and stick to a daily routine for things to run smoothly. Since toddlers are the top age group that causes burnout, this is a game changer. Reevaluate the expectations you place on yourself. Stop chasing the dangling carrot that is perfectionism. It doesn’t exist in your professional life, and it doesn’t exist in this journey of motherhood.
- Communicate your needs. Ask for help and take it when offered. As formidable as it may be, broach the subject of being a working mother with your employer. Companies have a responsibility to their employees who are parents. Advocate for yourself as a working mother and insist that your employer evaluate your needs and the needs of coworkers. Share data when available and request that your employer use that data to ensure their policies and their cultures support working moms.
- Practice self-care. As cliché as it sounds, practicing self-care can be an effective method to combat burnout. As a working mother, self-care may look different than expected but it all comes down to what refreshes you and allows you to take a step back from your responsibilities. Examples include exercising or getting a pedicure on your lunch break, reading a book or playing video games for 30 minutes before bed, and grabbing coffee or dinner with a friend.