I Married a Lawyer

Ex-Bitter Advice from an Ex-Bitter, Columns, Lawyer 4 Comments

Q I came across your site late one night while waiting for my wife to get home from work, and I thought, what the hell, why not ask for some advice? But I’m not a lawyer. I married one. We’ve been married 7 years, which predates law school but not by much. In other words, I married her supposedly knowing what I was getting into.

Or did I? Sure, I learned quickly not to offer vague answers to questions or inquiries, and we can joke about that—e.g., try answering “not really” to a lawyer and see what you get. But I’m not talking word games. I’m talking the larger life issues of being married to a workaholic lawyer.

Most of the time she is not here. Typical hours are: leave the apartment at 8, call to say she’s running late at 6, and get home at 8 or 9. Sometimes I’m the one who gets our three-year-old up and out of bed, out the door to preschool, and back home and into bed before she walks in the door. And every time I try to bring up how much time she spends at work and how little time she actually engages with me or with our son when she is at home (she’s either on her smartphone checking email or “doing research” on the computer), she says something along the lines of “you don’t understand the pressure I’m under.”

While it sounds trivial, the last straw for me was when I repainted the living room two weeks ago as a surprise (she hated the previous color). She didn’t notice. She still hasn’t noticed. I’m about ready to give up. So, my questions to you: do I really not understand the pressure she is under? And what should I do?

A Probably. That is, you probably have a pretty decent understanding of the pressure she is under. But who cares if you do or don’t understand that? What does that get you? A medal? Special uber-secret lawyer insight?

You and your wife are asking and each trying—in your own separate ways—to answer the wrong question. The real question is “what’s a female associate to do?” Which has been a classic question since, oh, 1950. But it’s heated up in the last decade or so as different generations of women lawyers come at what it means to be a successful big firm lawyer a bit differently.

While you may think your wife doesn’t understand what she is missing, I’d wager her annual salary that she does. She’s a mom. And while I’ve seen many lawyer dads guiltlessly work themselves out of a marriage and into a world of weekend custody, mistresses, nannies, and partnership, I’ve also seen female lawyers torture themselves with guilt over how relatively little time they are able to spend with their kids and families. It’s frightening to witness the guilt, if you ever do get to see it.

Here’s the deal, though. Unlike male attorneys who seem to get a green light to overwork (it’s so righteously called “providing for the family”), women lawyers don’t. They are instead expected to do it all—be a lawyer, mom, wife, and provide for the family. Worse, typically the other senior female lawyers at the firm are seen as the role models—the ones who “paved the path” and sacrificed everything to make it. Except they’re the ones who didn’t marry and don’t have kids. Not all, mind you, but that’s the stereotype of the senior female attorney.

Your wife looks at her role models and wonders if making partnership, being that big time female lawyer who does it all, is worth it. And I’ll also wager her annual salary that she thinks it’s not. She’s just not there yet in her calculation.

I’d sit down with your wife and say a couple of things. First, tell her you support her career and you’ll do whatever you can to help her advance. Whatever you can, but so long as you agree on a shared direction. And figure out that shared direction. But tell her you want her to consider a change. Say that you do understand—and I think you do—all the pressure that she’s under, which includes being a mom and a wife. But also suggest she’ll kill herself at her rate and, in the end, still not have it all. She probably already knows that.

Finally, know that, if you want her to quit her job and do something that leaves her with more time with you and the little dude, the stats are out there that she’ll probably do that, and likely within one or two years. Female associates leave big firms at a faster rate than men, mostly for the reasons I’ve outlined. In other words, they’re smarter.

Good luck. Oh, and happy father’s day. To you and the other dads out there.

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  • Ellen B

    Check out what my father called me! FOOEY!


  • GabW

    Wow – this is very spot on. I’m in the very early stages of this: new female associate, married, trying to get pregnant. It is really a lose-lose situation, isn’t it. Why didn’t someone tell me that having it all was going to suck!

  • southern bitter

    as usual, Ex-Bitter has some solid insight. as a motivated female associate myself, i can say that it is terrifying to think what will happen when i decide to start a family.

  • Mary

    This is so sad. So if you’re in this situation; does that mean the only options are divorce, have spouse quit his job, or just be miserable?