Why I Quit My Job to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom in Italy

One of the fun things about blogging is that you get to meet cool people, at least virtually anyway.

I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered Hey Eleanor, the brainchild of Molly Mogren Katt, but I immediately crushed pretty hard.  The blog is gorgeous, the writing is awesome, and I adore the idea.  Trying new things is pretty much my definition of adventure, and you know I’m down for that.

Molly has a series on Quitters, and I realized, hey, I have an interesting quitting storyCheck out my interview over on Hey Eleanor here.  I’d love to know what you think!

P.S.  Another fascinating article on quitting: “The ‘quitter’s mindset’ could be the secret to success

No more Sunday afternoon sadness, but still some mixed feelings

We are coming up on our anniversary in Rome.  Or our Rome-iversary as I like to call it.

Wow.  We’ve come a long way.  I look back on early recaps like this and realize just how different things are now.  We have enjoyed plenty of trips.  We have eaten at lots of restaurants.  We have had lots of fun exploring the city.

Sometimes I get frustrated because it feels like all the new arrivals are able to do stuff immediately that it took me six months to do.  I’m happy for them.  But I can’t help but wonder: what was wrong with me?

And then I try to tell myself that I’ve come a long way on the kids front.  When we arrived, l didn’t have experience watching one of my kids full-time, much less two of them.  There was an adjustment period.  (Understatement of the year, that one.)  Now I’m much more comfortable with the adorable weirdos.  I still get intimidated by them at times.  We don’t always try for big adventures.  But we’re getting better.

Things aren’t perfect.  Things could be tweaked.  I’d love a little more uninterrupted time for myself.  But I’m happy.

I realized how happy when it hit me:  I no longer dread Mondays.

Back in DC, I suffered from chronic Sunday afternoon sadness.  James can attest that this was very real.  It would manifest itself in various ways.  I might frantically try to squeeze in one more adventure so that I could feel like we enjoyed the weekend enough.  I might get cranky.  Or mean.  There could be crying.  It was not a good scene, yo.

All of this because of my anxiety about work on Monday.  Even when things were going well at biglaw, I never bounded out of bed ready to start my week and lawyer everyone.  When things weren’t going well, I truly dreaded setting foot in the office.  Even though the office found you outside of normal hours, being at work usually felt worse.

Now Monday is just another day.  It will be filled with kids and frantically typing at naptime and cooking and messes and running.  Sometimes I’m tired.  Sometimes I’m bummed that James has to go back to work.  But I don’t dread anything about the day.

I like this.

But I can’t say that everything is all roses and sunshine.  Even though I’m pretty content on a day-to-day basis, I worry about the future.  And I worry about money.

The best thing about my biglaw salary was that we didn’t worry about money.  We didn’t spend like crazy or anything.  But I never worried about it.  I didn’t think twice about buying a shirt I wanted or going out to dinner.  There was always enough money for whatever we wanted.

Now there is still enough money for whatever we want.  But I have to think about it.

This came to a head when plotting our August trip to SC.  We are pumped to see all of our family in South Carolina, but it felt all kinds of wrong to fly all the way across the ocean and not see our dear DC friends.  James and I plotted deploying Camp Grandparents and heading up to DC for a day sans spawn.  But the plotting did not turn into reality.  First, it was worry about Mac and the boobs.  Then just general worry about the kids even though we knew they would be fine and not wanting to take advantage of grandparents.  We also squeezed in some worry about whether DC in a day would be fun or stressful and disappointing because we wouldn’t be able to see and do and eat everything we wanted.

While we worried, airfare, of course, just kept creeping up.  Every price hike set off a new round of worry about whether we should be doing the trip.  Which caused more delays in action.  Which resulted in higher prices.

Long story short:  we eventually booked a flight.

But all of this back and forth and worry did not feel good.  I didn’t like it.  And I couldn’t help feeling that law firm salary-earning Melissa would not have had this stress.  Yes, I would have wanted to get a good deal on a flight.  Yes, I would have grumbled when prices went up.  But, no, I don’t think I would have had the same gut-twisting anxiety about whether to do it.

I’ve started reading The Compound Effect.  (The tone is a little aggressively self helpy, but seems like good info so far.)  Just like compound interest, the general principle is that very small, hardly even noticeable changes add up in a big way over time.  The first step on making a change is tracking your behavior.

So that’s the plan.  After mentioning a financial challenge to follow the 30 Day EVERYTHING Challenge, I’ve actually tried a few days of tracking spending, but I get derailed before accumulating a month of data.  Failed information capture rears its ugly head again.

And THEN when I thought I had a plan to deal with all these feeling of weirdness, we actually did the flight overseas and the Passport Customs Whatever dude looks at me and asks, “what is your occupation?”

Uh . . .

Cue the crickets.

Serenading a deer in the headlights.

Part of this was because I was racking my brain (good to know) about whether my passport actually LISTED an occupation.  Was this a quiz?  Was I failing?  Would I be singled out as an unsuspecting drug mule because I gave a shady answer??

I think eventually I mumbled something awesome like I don’t have one.

And slow clap for this Passport Customs Duder who is all “do you take care of these kids?  Hardest job in the world there.”

I appreciated what he was doing.  I guess.  But I was more all like THANKS dude.  I don’t need rando Passport dude to make me feel better about my life choices.

Or maybe I do.  Because this continued to bother me for several days.  I haven’t dealt with many “so what do you do” insinuations in our current gig.  There are a lot of people who are in between things or doing something unconventional.  I don’t ever feel like I have to EXPLAIN myself.

And even if I could bring myself to say it, homemaker or housewife just doesn’t sound right.  My house is not clean.  I don’t bake.  Don’t homemakers have their S*** figured out and NOT wear their husband’s boxers because they haven’t bothered to buy new underwear?

My main “occupation” is keeping the adorable weirdos from killing themselves.  But saying “Mom” doesn’t seem appropriate as an occupation either.  I’m a mom whether I’m doing work to be paid or not.  As are bazillions of other women in the world.  So being Mom is something I love.  It is something I am.  But I wouldn’t call it an occupation.

I’ve thought more about what I would like to tell Mr. Stamp My Passporter.  Would I have liked to say “I make money off the internet?”  (I currently don’t.)  Apparently money is not a prerequisite based on Duder’s standards for listing occupations.  I could have said I’m a screenwriter!  I mean, I’ve never gotten paid for being a screenwriter.  Technically, I haven’t even written my screenplay.  BUT I TOTALLY feel like I have a screenplay within me.  Just this morning I was tickled at the thought of Santa’s reindeer operating a submarine.  If Pauly Shore can make a move, I surely have 85 minutes of laughs in that premise, right?  I should tell that Judgmental Duder that I am a screenwriter!

James, of course, is vehemently shaking his head and screaming NOOOOOooo in the vacuum that is trying to reason with me.  Because YES I know that the whole point of Passport Control is NOT to be a shady weirdo and YES I get it that the lady who pauses for 20 seconds and declares she is a screenwriter is SUPER SHADY.  Don’t stick out.  Blend in.  I don’t need to explain that I’m a former lawyer.  I don’t need to explain that the piecrusts I’m not attempting to make are not light and fluffy.  Just be a full-time Mom.


So, a rambling 1300 words later, there we have it.  My day to day happiness has undoubtedly increased.  But I still worry.  Money.  The future.  I still have some ambivalence about my “occupation.”

All good things to think about for the coming year.  Unless you never hear from me again.  Then just assume that I was imprisoned by Border Control for wearing a beret and being an “Aspiring Writer and Recovering Lawyer and Child Minder and Adventure Planner and Traveler and Runner and Food Lover” on my trip back Romeward.  Their fault for asking really.

You can’t beat the billable hour

I did well in law school.  I know, I know, this is kind of bragging.  But doing well in law school does not seem to be a marketable skill on its own so let’s give me this one thing.

What was my secret?  (Besides hours and hours of hard work?)  Let me tell you something shocking, particularly for those of you that know me well.  After the first year, I stopped doing the reading.

Wait, what?  How does an uptight, Type A person such as myself do such a thing?  Simple.  I realized that doing all the reading was not the best use of my time to get results.

Results in law school are grades.  For the vast majority of classes, your grade comes down to one exam at the end of the semester.  There are no pop quizzes along the way.  No five page essays.  There may be some amorphous participation component, but the real meat of the grade is your performance on this single exam.

To study for this exam, you outline all the material you learn, putting all the cases into neatly digestible bullets.  This is what you see all the kids doing in every law school movie you ever watch.  You might see study groups splitting up sections of outlining responsibility and then sharing.

The facts of (most) cases don’t really matter on their own.  You read the case to see how some legal principle played out.  This legal principle is what you need to know and what you put in your outline.  The case is just an example.

The first year, I spent WAY too much time reading cases.  I was so nervous about being cold called in class that I read each case like five times.  (And it didn’t even really help that much when I was called on!  It was like my mind blanked and I heard this rushing roar.  It was never the collegial conversation about a case that I envisioned.)  I don’t regret all of that case reading.  It taught me how to read cases.  How to dissect the procedural history and explanations and to see what matters.  To do this, you have to read a lot of cases.

But then I discovered that, after your 1L year, cold calling is not the law of the land.  At this point, professors have different tactics that they publish in advance.  Some professors might have you on call one day a week.  Or one day a semester.  Some might give you an option to be super prepared for one week, but to be left alone the rest of the semester.  Some might go down the alphabet so that you could roughly see when your number is up.  Some still cold called.  I tried to take classes based on rock star professors–I would take shoe law if an interesting professor taught it (wait, maybe shoe law actually sounds pretty interesting)–but I tended to shy away from straight cold call classes if I could.

I did the reading on days when I needed to; otherwise, I very lightly skimmed what was assigned and just enjoyed my time in class.  It was such a relief.  I could breathe again.  I could pay attention to what was happening without feeling a sinking feeling and panic whenever the professor looked up.  But then, after class, I spent the time I would have spent reading and dedicated it to my outline.  I may have read some major sections of cases, but generally I just worked at plugging what we learned into a neat set of indents and bullets.  Then by the end of the semester, I already had a full outline, ready to go.  Because the outline, not the reading, was what mattered. 

Doing well in law school did land me a job at a prestigious law firm.  At the firm, I quickly realized that there was no such shortcut.  No hack to promote efficiency.  At the firm, you had to do excellent work.  You couldn’t anger your colleagues.  But the most important yardstick was the almighty billable hour.

You can’t fake the billable hour.  You can’t hack it.  The only way to do it is to put in the time.  You are super productive and manage your energy wisely so you blow through everything on your to do list?  Doesn’t matter.  You still need to work the hours.  You need to take on more work.  No matter that this work might shift your balance so that you have too much work.  After all, that memo you finished today is coming back to you later this week for edits.  Bill, baby, bill.

Lest you think that you can sit down and just plow through eight hours of billables straight, let me tell you that it isn’t possible.  First off, you frequently have to do things that aren’t billable billable.  Yes, you have a code so that you can record your time, but they don’t really count to your total.  These are things like trainings, firm meetings, and clearing out your inbox.  Second, it isn’t possible for anyone to work straight with zero breaks.  You need to eat.  And pee.  And occasionally interact with other human beings.  All of these things mean it takes longer to hit your billable quota.

(To be fair to my firm, I never hit the billable hour quota, and I was never asked to leave.  I was, at times, asked to take on more work.)

Laura Vanderkam, my favorite time management guru, wrote recently about whether billable hours lead to unhappiness.  She understands the challenges of the billable hour.

“[S]pending half an hour on a document instead of an hour doesn’t mean you get to be done. It means you need to tackle some other billable work.”

Vanderkam offers suggestions on tackling billables, such as bill first, start billing earlier, dedicate larger chunks of time (like a dedicated weekend) to have other chunks free, and plan quality activities for when you aren’t billing.

These are good ideas, and I certainly tried some, specifically bill first and bill early.  Post-kids, I adopted the schedule of a 4:30 or 5:00 am wakeup to get a few hours in, spend time with the baby, and then head into the office.  These early hours were precious writing hours, and I tried not to squander them on low-brainpower tasks that could wait until the afternoon.  (In case this sounds horrible to you, all I can say is that I did not do well with a split evening shift–although I sometimes had to work one.  At the end of the day after commuting, dinner, bath, I just wanted to chill with a glass of wine, not log back on.)

These early morning hours were also protected.  Particularly as someone more junior, your schedule is not your own.   You don’t decide when the conference call happens.  You don’t schedule the training.  For someone usually generating the first version of documents, these interruptions can kill your day.  (Maker’s v. Manager’s Schedule.  YES, this.)  My early morning hours at least gave me a jumpstart before the unpredictability of the day.

The suggestion to have dedicated work weekends or evenings to catch up, however, I think is a little trickier.  This assumes that hours are fungible.  One hour could be worked either at 10:00 am one day or 10:00 pm the next.  But hours are not worked in a vacuum.  Enter clients.

Clients pay the bills, and peskily, have certain expectations on when they will receive work.  Ideally, the work-bringer-in-er would negotiate a reasonable schedule so that the work could be done in a timely, but un-crazy fashion.  But that doesn’t always happen.  Emergencies come up.  Things can fall through the cracks.  Sometimes you are just slammed no matter what.

But sometimes you aren’t busy.  Sometimes there are built in lulls.  You just sent a memo to the client or partner and are waiting to hear back.  You just filed a brief and are waiting for the court or opposing counsel.  Ideally, you’d have something else to turn to, but you may not.  If you take on more work, you won’t be able to juggle everything together.  Everyone says to enjoy the slow times; that the busy times will make up for it on hours.  But first, I like my lulls much more when I can plan something, which is hard to do when you suddenly end up with a slow afternoon.  Second, what if the busy times don’t even out, even though it feels like they should?  If you throw in some weekends or nights, it starts to feel like a lot of work, even if your overall hours don’t tell the same story.

So I don’t think a dedicated work chunk would be helpful, at least in my previous corner of biglaw.  If I had a dedicated weekend, I might already be working it or burnt out from whatever I’d just worked.

The closest efficiency hack I could offer would be to avoid all non-billable activities.  Don’t be on a committee.  Don’t be social with summer associates.  Skip the trainings.  Don’t stop and talk to your neighbor.  These activities are double whammies because they eat time and take away from possible billing.

But this approach isn’t very fun.  Or sociable.  It creates people who are not good firm stewards.  It may work in the short term, but I don’t think it would sustainable over a career.

I never found any secrets to fix the billable hour.  Someday I will figure out a new pricing system for firms and become a gazillionaire.  For now, I’m just enjoying not having to bill my hours.

Fellow lawyers, did you adopt any more successful strategies?  Or anyone else on the billable hour? 

One theory on why fewer women partners in law firms

So I stumbled across this article the other day, Being a Stay-at-Home Parent Is a Luxury … for Your Spouse.  I swear, I am really not trying to wade into any of the mommy wars.  But the article made me think about my previous experience at a law firm.

Of the male partners I knew, many had

To caveat, I’m speaking purely anecdotally about my own experiences, but I think some of this likely rings true in other places.  Also, please prepare yourself for some guesstimation. Ok, moving on to the part where I really try not to offend the interets.  [UPDATE:  this is also not a comprehensive theory on why fewer women partners.  This is more like one possible contributing factor.  If I had it all figured out, I could hire myself as a law firm fixin’ consultant and clean house.]

My firm had over 400 attorneys in its DC office.  At the associate level, the ranks are pretty evenly split between men and women.  For partners, however, less than half are women.  Maybe around 1/4?  1/3?  Like I said, I’m guesstimating, but–as at most firms–fewer women partners.

Of the male partners I knew, many had stay-at-home spouses.  Of the women partners, one did.

Law firm life can be very flexible, but it is certainly demanding.  It really helps not to have to worry about leaving at a certain time to pick up the kids or rescheduling a conference call to take someone to the doctor’s.  As the author notes, having someone at home certainly makes travel and staying late easier.  And you can be more productive when you can outsource all those nagging tasks like remembering to buy more band-aids, picking up a present for the birthday party on Saturday, and waiting for the internet repair peeps to show up.

It is possible to have these benefits with a working spouse, but you have to hire help.  Which means finding good help and then managing someone.  It’s not impossible, but it adds layers.  Many lawyers with big careers are drawn to coupling with other people with big careers which can mean less wiggle room and time to manage people.

In sum, my generalization is that, in my experience, more male partners than female partners had situations where they had less to manage on the domestic front.  Law firms reward those who can fully commit to the office.  Having someone else do things at home makes that commitment easier.  Now again–I am not trying to anger you, oh internet–I’m in no way saying any of these things are better than any others.  This is just my observation on the way it played out at the firm.

Hope about you, hopefully unangered reader?  Would you benefit from a stay-at-home spouse?  Have you noticed any differences for those with a stay-at-home spouse?