Posts Tagged ‘goals’

Life as a stay-at-home mother of three children, five and under, was an endlessly demanding job. I had always been a hard worker and an over achiever, but child/care 24/7 was the most exhausting challenge yet. There were days when, as much as I loved my three little ones, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get up at sun rise and keep going. I had never been so tired in my life. And I had a sinus infection that lasted for three and a half years. One unhelpful and terrifying male doc said I needed to be tested for HIV. The woman doc whom I went to for testing and whose children were the same ages as mine couldn’t stop laughing when I told her why I was there. Honestly, it wasn’t very funny.

I became fascinated with Princess Diana in that period. I’m not sure why. There were probably a lot of reasons for my fixation. First, I loved her clothes. Whether in her early Laura Ashley mode or in her shoulder-padded Power Suit mode in the 1980’s, she was gorgeous. She was the IT Girl of Style.

Second, she delighted in mothering just the way that I did. In the pictures of her with William and Harry, who were only a few years older than my children, her love shines off the page. Granted when she played games with them in their nursery, she’d had a full night’s sleep because her nanny was on call, but even my sleep-deprived brain could connect with another mother who loved her children the way I loved mine.

Third, she and I had entered into similar marriages. My husband’s job was to our marriage what Camilla Parker Bowles was to Diana’s. The third party to my marriage was a corporation whereas for Diana it was the Other Woman; but the result was the same. And Diana had married a man who wanted a wife and children from Central Casting to be available only for photo ops. And so had I.

Fourth, Diana went through a very public divorce with a man determined to wound and humiliate. One of my few consolations on those terrifying days when I left the Family Law Courthouse threatened with the loss of my children and so emotionally upset that I was afraid to drive, was that at least the venom that had just been spit in my face wasn’t going to be heard around the world. For Diana, it was a very different story.

I didn’t lose my children. I would have if I hadn’t been a lawyer. Oddly enough, the role that sat most uncomfortably on my heart was the one that saved the people I loved most from being lost to me. But that victory came at a heavy price. During that marriage, I had done the thing I had wanted to do all my life: I had written a novel. After a lot of tries, I even got an agent in New York. In those early dark days of my divorce, my little book traveled from editor to editor at major publishing houses. Some did not like it. Some liked it but would not buy it. It was called Summers’ Child, a title that another writer would use for her own very successful novel some years later. (I had copyrighted my manuscript, and I knew she hadn’t done her homework before using my title.)

But when my husband found out that I had written a novel that was not succeeding with New York publishers, he dragged me down to the Family Law Courthouse and accused me in public of being a no-account deadbeat who was trying to live off child and temporary spousal support. He argued that I was trained as a lawyer, and so I had to go back to work as a lawyer. Even though I hadn’t done any work as a lawyer for eight years and hadn’t the foggiest idea, anymore, how to even sigh on to a legal research service.

Family Law Court, at least in those days, was a terrifying hell of illegality. I had graduated second in my class from law school, and I knew how unconstitutional the various rulings from that court were. The family law court operated at that time as if the Right to Privacy did not exist. At one point, I actually thought they were going to send me to involuntary psycho therapy to force me to withdraw my accurate and true statements that my husband had abused me and the children. I felt as if I’d wound up in a Russian Gulag as a political prisoner for not Speaking the Party Line.

I knew how to challenge these outrageous family law court rulings in higher courts. But the problem was I had to play the Family Law Court game or lose those dearest to me. It would do me no good to take my case to the United States Supreme Court only to be reunited with my children by my victory there when they were adults. So even though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished involuntary servitude, the state of California said I had to go back to work as a lawyer. And I did. In my living room, where I wrote appellate briefs and remained close to my children. But who I really was born to be was quietly dying, day by day.

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In the end, I drifted up the road from Richmond to another, smaller firm in Washington, D.C. where my creative bent found a home. Not long after I arrived at New Firm, the Most Important Partner came into my office one day to congratulate me on a memo I had written for him that the Florida Legislature had then adopted at a statute for the benefit of one of the firm’s clients. He was a very happy Most Important Partner. The client was a Very Happy Important Big Bucks Client. And the firm sure could bill for that one! Redeemed at last.

But finding a home as a lawyer wasn’t as fulfilling as I had thought it would be. It was all still paper and stale conference rooms and working trips on air planes. And business suits, starched shirts, and floppy bows. So I struck out for California (on an airplane, not in a covered wagon) and motherhood.

By 1991, I had three children, ages five, three, and newborn. I had hired a college girl as afternoon help three days a week because I just could not keep up with the demands of the mother job, which was a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week affair. I had no family to give me a break. Babysitters didn’t want three kids or a newborn. And the kids’ dad had parked us in a ritzy part of town where moms had Hispanic nannies. (And went back to Work. To avoid the tough job of Mother, I was convinced.) So no one needed a Mothers’ Day Out Program. (Except me, apparently.)

Mothering, I soon discovered, was an endlessly creative job. My artistic self smocked tiny dresses for my daughter, rompers for the boys. I marched clowns and balloons, cupcakes, and teddy bears across their tummies. I looped ribbon into “frou frous” and sewed them onto my daughter’s dresses and hats. I made tiny linen and velvet suits and vests for the boys. I made doll wardrobes and Halloween costumes. (Think my daughter as Pooh and my first son as Piglet when I was pregnant with Number Three.) I made matching velveteen mother-daughter-son outfits for Christmas. And I used a gallon milk jug and fake fur to create a dead wringer for a Coldstream Guards hat. (For my daughter, not the two boys.)

Of course, this activity was not a California Mother Thing at all. California Mothers (the ones without nannies) wore yoga pants and stuffed their children into knit rompers from Mervyns and Gymboree. My activities were so unusual that I had to smuggle a “pleater,” the device consisting of rows of tiny needles that prepares fabric for smocking, back from Tennessee in my suitcase. I ordered smocking patterns and laces and tiny French hand sewing needles from Georgia and Florida and Virginia and Texas.

And naturally I didn’t send my California children to school in these artworks that only a Southern Mother could love. No, as soon as my daughter could pull the OshKoshs off the hangers and put them on, one leg at a time, the dresses hung in the closet quietly waiting for Sunday, like the Good Girls they were.

But, of course, Sunday came. And again, I behaved as a Southern Mother would. CHURCH. Being Episcopalian, we had no duty (Thank, God) to proselytize the California Mothers and their offspring. I could quietly dress my little ones in their smocked and French handsewn best and shuffle us all off to Sunday School (which, true to Southern Mother Form I taught) and CHURCH. (Where I provided stickers and crayons and paper and tiny coloring books to keep the small troops quiet through the boring (to them and sometimes to me, true confessions) service. One interesting Sunday, my small daughter pointed out we were almost the only people there under fifty. Everyone else was at BRUNCH in their yoga pants and knit rompers, California Style.

But I was a Southern Mother. I didn’t know any better.

Being creative as a mother wasn’t just about their clothes. No, it was far deeper and more fun and more substantive than that. Southerners love stories and are born storytellers. I told stories about the South and about their grandfather the FBI agent and their great-great-grandfather the Civil War solider (for the Union!). I read and read and read and read. We loved Thomas the Tank Engine (we called him “Thomas Tanken”), Madeline, Good Night Moon, the Runaway Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, any alphabet book ever written, and all forms of Nursery Rhymes. We watched Sesame Street, talked about “Bee Bo,” “Oscar the Grouch,” “Cookie Monster” and “Count One Count.” (My daughter’s name for him which I thought much better than the original.)

We went to Disney moves, although my daughter wisely decided she did not want to be a Disney princess like her California counterparts, who would ditch their knit rompers for princess gowns, tiaras, and scepters to wear to the park. My daughter, on the other hand, put on her Coldstream Guards costume for outings and marched beside her little brothers’ stroller.

We ate fish sticks and tater tots for supper with plenty of ketchup. We had pillow fights and said prayers at bedtime. (Always the Lord’s Prayer because Now I Lay Me had terrified me as a child because it talked about dying.) We waded in the Pacific on days that never seemed to end because of the stifling heat. (The kids’ dad, who worked in air conditioned comfort, said we didn’t need to be cool.) And we promised every time that we wouldn’t go in the water in our clothes. But we always did. In short, the four of us laughed and created and played and had fun, Southern Mother style, in the foreign country of California. We made few friends, although we tried. But we had each other.

Somewhat skimpy ribbon frou frou on dress

Bee Bo!

Thomas Tanken!

A Smocked dress

Her costume looked like this!


A pleater.


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The seasons change in Southern California, but subtly. For the first two autumns I spent here, I was always waiting for the cold, wet, windy day that would announce winter had landed. That day always came in the South, a day when it became apparent that winter coats were now inevitable until late March or early April.

But to me autumn in Southern California has always consisted of the uneasy feeling that real winter is just around the corner. Except there is no corner, and real winter never arrives.

In my second autumn-waiting-for-winter here, my September baby began to settle into life. By late January, she slept more and cried less. From her infant seat, she began to look around at the world she found herself in, appraising its potential to entertain.

Less sleep deprived, I started to recover from months of living in survival mode. At last I began to feel separate from the child who had not allowed me to put her down since birth. And as I did, I began to reconnect the dots of the picture that was me. It was as if coming to California had severed my life into two halves. In half number one, I had been first a teacher and then a lawyer, married to a gentle man who wanted me to assume the responsibility of breadwinner. In half number two, I had married a man who ignored me, I had had a child, and I had lost myself. Why had I chosen this path? What had I been running from?

At least part of the answer could be traced to a deep winter day in February in Virginia. One morning I was sitting in my tiny cubicle of an office (it was exactly the same size as a secretary’s cubicle, but it had a door), watching the icy James River slide by my window and wondering if there would be black ice on the commute home. To say I was bored would be an understatement. I had never dreamed life in a big law firm could come to a crashing halt, day after day. But the litigation partner I worked for was busy on matters that didn’t require my help; and likewise the senior associate, who would be a partner within a year, hadn’t produced any interrogatories for me to draft or answer for more than a week.

Enter a Newly Minted Partner in the labor practice, looking for an associate to do a research project. I was “loaned” to the labor section and ushered into a conference room whose floor was white with paper. Every legal job begins with a story. And this was the story.

Newly Minted Partner, who was the rarity of all rarities at The Firm, a Female Newly Minted Partner, had just lost a Motion For Summary Judgment with her Mentor Male Senior Partner (to become partner at that firm, it was an advantage to have one of these). Now Summary Judgment is the worst legal insult possible. It means your lawsuit did not even get to first base. You filed something that didn’t state a claim a court could consider. Bad news. You’ve wasted everyone’s time. And money. And the client doesn’t think you are very smart.

Now The Firm, being one of the smartest and best anywhere, rarely fell victim to Summary Judgment. But, then, again, no one is perfect. Although The Firm did not see things that way.

At any rate, the paper on the floor was nearly every sex discrimination case ever decided by an appellate court. My job was to find the rest of the slippery little dears – if any more existed – and turn them into a memorandum that would be The Firm’s Secret Weapon to be used by Newly Minted Partner and Mentor Male Senior Partner when they went back to show the judge just how wrong he had been to dismiss their Age Discrimination Case. Or, in the alternative, my memo would be the basis for writing a new lawsuit that no one could throw out. Either way, The Firm had been embarrassed in front of one of its Highly Important Clients. And I was now thrown into the breach to repair the damage.

That project seized my imagination as few projects had done since becoming a Big Firm baby lawyer. Maybe it was the sight of a woman who had survived to join the Inner Sanctum that grabbed me. More likely it was just the intellectual challenge of making sense of all that paper. One of my professors in graduate school, when I’d been dreaming of being a professor myself one day, had explained we are biologically driven to create order out of chaos. So perhaps my creative juices were happy to be alive and well again.

I was given two weeks to produce The Firm’s Secret Weapon, otherwise known as my memorandum. I threw myself into it, spending twelve hour days reading and researching, sometimes working while lying flat on my back on the floor because I was in the grip of a nasty inner ear infection that gave me vertigo. (Someday I will tell you how I discovered baby lawyers were not allowed to be sick. But that is a story for another day.)

My then-husband was quite supportive. An extraordinarily bright man, he listened as I talked endlessly about the project and my findings. He made helpful comments here and there even though he was not a lawyer himself. And I’m sure in the back of his mind was his devout hope I would survive to become a Newly MintedPartner one day for our Mutual Economic Benefit.

Trouble was, about three days into the project, I saw why The Firm had lost. The existing law was against what they were trying to do. The judge, whom Newly Minted Partner had not had nice things to say about (use your imagination, but remember to keep it professional), had actually gotten the law quite right. Oh, dear. What was a baby lawyer to do?

Now, despite what happened next to me in this story, the truth is the best lawyers are creative. Think Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education. He saw the possibilities in the law where none yet existed and pushed forward to change the lives of every non-white, non-male American forever. (Yes, Virginia, the African American civil rights movement made the Women’s Movement Possible. And now the push for Gay Rights. We owe it all to Thurgood.)

Anyway, I wrote my memo, explaining the existing state of the law and then explaining how Newly Minted Partner and Mentor Male Senior Partner could draft a new pleading, using the Sex Discrimination Law creatively for an Age Discrimination client. If it had been a law school exam, I would have had an A plus plus. I finished, after a nearly all nighter, handed over the thirty page extravaganza, and went home to sleep the sleep of the Righteous. My then husband, Ph.D. in English in hand, had read my magnum opus and congratulated me on my writing and my presentation. Even he, a non-lawyer, got it.


I know it was the end of February. I like to think maybe it was leap year and the 29th, so it is a day not often to be repeated. But I am not sure. I was summoned to the Ninth Floor to the office of Newly Minted Partner where I expected to receive congratulations on my work. For not every one of us spiffy little J.D.’s can see how the law can be pushed and molded and prodded to the next level of social change. And no one had ever said I couldn’t research and write with the best of them. Until that day.

She was one of those enviably thin women whose suit skirts never had to be fastened with a safety pin. (True confessions. All that sitting at a desk and Firm Luncheons had taken its toll on me.) She had the short, professional haircut we all thought was required in the eighties, and she had the most highly polished French manicure I had ever seen. She was certainly a woman in charge of her life and highly successful in a world and time where women did not succeed. She’d sacrificed marriage and children to her success, but I assumed it was a choice she happily made.

I admired her as a sort of Legal Rock Star. And I had put my everything into her work. And she spent the next forty-five minutes telling me what a Worthless piece of Human Trash I was. About three minutes into the diatribe, delivered in the low professional tones you would associate with someone of her standing, I realized that she hated me, my work, and the creative solution I’d given her. Rather than seeing the beauty of my striving, she pronounced me an ignoramus for not coming to her on Day Three of the project and telling her the law was not on their side. (Something I had assumed was obvious from the beginning since they were the victims of Summary Judgment.)

Newly Minted Partner wore hats. Even now, it is rare to see a professional woman in a hat. Especially a red hat. As the diatribe continued, I fixed my eyes on the stryofoam head behind her desk that held her hat and pictured my head there in the morning, eyes glassy in what she would have considered my well-deserved death. The whole idea was so ludicrous, I wanted to laugh out loud. But I’m sure Newly Minted Partner would not have taken it well.

Her parting shot, as she released me from the hell of her office, was “We couldn’t bill the client for your work!” The ultimate disgrace for a Big Firm baby lawyer.

I went home and cried all night. My then-husband tried to comfort me, reminding me over and over how unreasonable she had been. But she looked so wise and knowing behind that Big Firm desk under the guise of Big Firm Partnership, I forgot who I was. And I let her bully and humiliate me. And then I eventually fled to the other side of the world, away from everything familiar, cutting a swath through the center of my life, in an effort to escape my own incompetence. Except, I wasn’t incompetent. And I had nothing to escape. But I was a long way from discovering that fact in the first autumn of my daughter’s life.

So, as I began to come back to myself in the mild California January, I blamed myself for being creative – the very thing I was born to be.

Below:  Richmond in Winter.

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I began law school at the University of Tennessee in the summer of 1978. I had no idea what lawyers actually did, but liberal arts grads all around me were turning into them, so I figured I could, too. My then husband, like me an English major with a graduate degree and no teaching job, was happy to see me darken the legal doors of learning.

I came out in 1981, number two in my class, and still without much of an idea of what lawyers did. For three years I had done what I excelled at – read, memorize, and regurgitate facts – but I had never been inside a courtroom or taken a deposition or even seen a real live client. I had done one mock oral argument in moot court my first year with sweaty hands, a dry mouth, and a heart slamming in my chest. That was the entire extent of my “practical training” in law school. (Think medical school where you memorize the symptoms of every disease on earth but never see a body, dead or alive.)

At first being a lawyer wasn’t so bad. I’d accepted a job with a Big Firm in Virginia where I had family, and they paid me to study for the bar all summer, sitting in the apartment they rented for me and my husband. I watched the ducks swim on the pond out back and re-memorized all the law I’d learned in three years of law school. This time, Virginia style.

On the day before Princess Diana married Prince Charles, I drove to Roanoke where I stayed in the hotel room The Firm paid for. Next morning, I put on my lawyer suit, went to the Civic Center, and sat at a long table where I took the Virginia Bar under the watchful eye of the Bar Examiners IN PERSON. They sat on a dias above us and watched us spill our brains into blue books for two, very long days. (Weren’t they bored to death?) At night, I ate room service and watched the royal wedding.

Perhaps the fate of that marriage was a metaphor for the fate of my Big Firm career.

On my thirty-first birthday in August, I put on my lawyer suit again – this time supposedly for good – and took my place in my tiny office at The Firm in the litigation section. Until the Bar Examiners certified me as “passed,” I could not sign pleadings or take depositions or appear in court as anything except a clerk. And that was just fine with me. I wrote research memoranda that, as one senior lawyer observed, he could actually follow and understand. What a concept!

But my luck ran out in October. The day after I passed the bar, I was sent to court with the Firm’s Tallest Partner (I am five feet two), to oppose an injunction that Legal Aid was seeking against one of Our Most Powerful Clients. The Firm’s Tallest Partner was only there to watch me; I was the performing bear that afternoon. Of course, it was not a major matter (or they wouldn’t have sent newly-minted lawyer me); but, as far as I was concerned, it was The End of The World.

I didn’t even know which table to stand behind in the courtroom. And what questions to ask my witness? OMG. No CLUE. I used up at least three of my nine lives that afternoon, standing mute behind the defendant’s table, listening to the judge tell me he didn’t believe my witness. (While I wondered what the witness had actually said and what to say to a judge who says your witness is lying.)

A couple of miserable hours later, the Firm’s Tallest Partner, who had watched me demonstrate total incompetence in that courtroom, walked me back to The Firm in a steady downpour, with no umbrellas. My client had been enjoined, big time. Or small time, really; but it didn’t feel that way to me. It was my own personal Trail of Tears. The Firm’s Tallest Partner had nothing to say to me on the way back. I wondered if I’d offered to throw myself in the James River, if he would have given me a push.

Never mind that I had been a successful English graduate student, teaching three sections of freshman composition per semester. Never mind that I could take kids from writing C themes to A themes and have them laughing all the way. (Beware the flying commas!) Never mind that I could recite the Rules of Evidence backward and forward, and I actually understood Constitutional Law, including the dreaded Commerce Clause. Law on the hoof was a very different animal than in the classroom, my home turf. Teaching colleagues had always said they could stand in the hallway and know which class was mine because that was the room that the laughter was coming out of. Judges don’t laugh. Killer creative comedic timing is a useless skill before THEIR HONORS.

So for the next two years, I struggled to figure out the alien world I had landed in by mistake. Next time: More Baby Lawyer Adventures or The Judge who Taught Me Why You Never Change the Words and Still to Come: the Female Partner Who wore HATS and Ate Associates for Breakfast and High Tea

Below:  the James River

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Several years ago, my youngest child headed off to college, and I was left to contemplate the change in my life now that all three of my children were away at school. Right away, I noticed that the word “change” was like a prism with many sides, refracting life instead of light in multiple directions. The more I thought about “change” the more I realized I didn’t really understand what it meant. Oh, I got understood the kind of “change” that outside forces compress onto our lives. Time is an example. Time had grown up my children and changed them into adults who didn’t live at home any more. I hadn’t asked for that “change” or attempted to create it, but it arrived on its own, nonetheless. And I accepted it cheerfully and asked, “What’s next?”

But “what’s next” appeared to have more to do with me than the outside force of “change” that had created my empty nest. The change that time brought by giving me adults in place of children was not going to also bring a new goal and a new meaning into my life. I had to make that “change” happen myself. And that’s when I realized how many times I had set off on the road of “change,” and nothing happened. Why? I’m a very disciplined person. Multiple graduate degrees, and I run my own business. Surely I knew how to create “change” when I wanted to. But the truth was, I didn’t. The word “change” was an empty box I didn’t know how to fill up with meaning. So I began an experiment to understand the nature of the “change” that starts inside and eventually manifests in the outer world. Or at least is expected to manifest in the outer world.

I have studied clarinet most of my life, and I am always trying to be a better musician; so this looked like a fertile area to study the nature of “change.” I had long needed to make some “changes” in the position of my jaw, lips and teeth on the mouthpiece. In musical terms, my embouchure needed to “change.” So one day, I sat with the instrument and repositioned everything the way my teacher had been telling me to do for some time. The new way I was holding the mouthpiece in my mouth felt awkward and uncomfortable, but I was sure I’d have a fabulous, deep clarinet sound the moment I pushed air through this new set up. But I didn’t! In fact, I sounded the way I had on the very first day I had picked up the horn, too many years ago to count. So, automatically, I shifted back to the old embouchure, and then realized why I didn’t know what “change” was. “Change” involved sticking with discomfort. If I wanted to be a better player, I’d have to keep doing this new embouchure over and over until it became comfortable, and until it gave me the results I was seeking. If I didn’t want to get better, I could just stay with the old way and avoid “change.” And then I knew why I hadn’t really understood the meaning of “change” from within because as soon as a”change” I was trying to make became uncomfortable, I’d slip right back into the old way, often without even noticing. I had thought I was “changing” but I wasn’t.

Since that moment of enlightenment, I have put my theory of the meaning of “change” to lots of different tests. And sure enough, the moment I apply myself to a “change” I want to create, I immediately encounter the “Zone of Discomfort.” But now I’m prepared for it; and, if it is a “change” I really want to bring about, I stay in the zone until I’ve gotten my results, and I’ve created the “change” I wanted to create. Knowing that I need to prepare for the rocky start that “change” brings with it, helps me focus on getting the results I’m seeking. And it also helps me evaluate whether a proposed “change” is one I truly want to bring about. Sometimes I try new things and learn they are not for me. Going back to the old way is just fine. But functioning from my new understanding of how to cause change from within has enriched my journey and allowed me to put meaning into the empty box of that used to be the word “change.” More about the journey of change and setting new goals next time.

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