Juggling marriage, motherhood and a career: can you do it?

Relationships|February 1st 2010

Women are still encouraged to “have it all”, juggling motherhood, marriage and high-powered careers without dropping any of the balls. So what gives? A stressful lifestyle can leave its mark on family life: perhaps it is no coincidence that many of the clients we see at Stowe Family Law are in their late 30s or early 40s, with young children.

At the same time, the latest statistics show that divorce rates have fallen to a 29-year low. There are several reasons for this but clearly, the rise of the working mother and soaring stress levels have not triggered a divorce epidemic. So if greater numbers of women are “making it work”, how are they doing it? I have my own ideas…

Winding down after a hectic series of meetings in London last week, I had lunch at J Sheekey in Covent Garden. (For relaxing and taking stock, this fish restaurant is the perfect venue: yummy comfort food, the best wine, white linen tablecloths and old-fashioned puddings!) My lunch companion was in her early thirties. She is very bright and our conversation kept me on my toes. She also has a bustling, highly-pressured lifestyle that makes mine pale into insignificance.

She is married with two young sons. She commutes to Central London every day; her husband commutes to his job on the south coast.

Their sons are dropped off with the child minder. Her job is highly sought after, but stressful. Her guts and determination have helped her to thrive in a cut-throat jungle. I was full of admiration for all that she has achieved – and continues to achieve, on a daily basis.

When I went to the Cabinet CBBC party in Paris recently, I met another British career mum. Her home is in London and her office is in Paris. Her commute is a round trip of some 400 miles – and she has a young child to care for at home. When we met she was overnighting, attending the CBBC launch before returning straight home the following day.

Working mothers v stay-at-home mothers

After leaving J Sheekey, travelling back to Yorkshire, I thought about both women and thought back to the 1990s, when my son Ben was little. I was a mother, a wife, a housewife and a lawyer running my own firm, all at the same time. It wasn’t easy. When I look back I smile, but I also wonder how on earth I managed.

The guilt was the worst thing. I felt guilty about being at work, when my baby was at home being looked after by someone else. How was he? Was he safe? Was he well? Was he fed? Was he happy? He was fine.

Then there was the guilt when my baby was at nursery and I was at work. I remember phoning the nursery on his first day and being told curtly by the head (a friend): “Marilyn, we knew you would call. He is fine,  now buzz off.” And he was fine.

But then I felt guilty when I took days off work, to stay with Ben and work from home, often in the garden sitting next to his pram. I couldn’t win!

I juggled as best I could, but on occasion something would give. I once turned up to a meeting a day early. I was frequently ticketed for speeding, while dashing between school and the office trying to be on time for one or the other. The pressures piled up.

Despite those fast, frantic, roller coaster, sleep-disturbed years, I appear to have raised a well-adjusted son. We have a great relationship and he is now a law student following in his parents’ footsteps. He can’t have had it that bad!

Last year at Stowe Family Law, one of our partners took the difficult decision to leave. It doesn’t happen often. In this case, our colleague had forged an exceptional career for herself – but felt that she’d had enough of coping with the pressure of being a working mum. Now she is a full time mother to her young family, and I am pretty sure that her law career is over for good. She is a great family lawyer and we miss her, but we respect the difficult decision that she and her husband made for their family’s benefit.

How to balance marriage with a career

The young mums I met last week battle on. How I admire their courage! I know they are finding it hard and must worry about what the future holds – just as I did.  I wish I could reassure them, and tell them it will be all right. I am confident that if stick it out, everything will work out fine.

Why? Staying married is never guaranteed, but a genuine agreement between partners to share childcare, work and domestic chores can give a marriage a far better chance of survival.

Both of these women told me of their decisions to keep working to get to the top of their professions, and described the great support they received from their husbands. Each man supports his wife’s endeavours and plays his full part in the marriage – far more than might have been the case just one generation ago.

Each husband shares in the childcare and plays his part in the domestic arrangements. It is as tough for him as it is for his wife. Thus neither spouse is taking it easy. Instead, husband and wife are working towards shared goals: a successful family life and successful career paths.

We women have fought hard and forged fabulous careers which were dreams thirty years ago, but we have proved we can pull it off successfully with partners who accept that women are also in high positions in the work place yet need equal partners in a marriage.

Times are changing

In the past 20 years many marriages have broken down because couples couldn’t cope with “doing it all”. Wives complained that husbands paid mere lip service to domesticity. Caught up in the macho man image of the time, many men refused to do the cooking, dusting, vacuuming, childcare or shopping. These days it is considered cool to cook, shop and clean. Many men adore time spent in the kitchen. They like to look after their children.

I believe that many men have altered their mindsets to accommodate a new type of partner. They no longer expect to be the breadwinners. Instead they accept that they are equal partners with their wives, both of them working and raising their children.

With divorce rates continuing to fall, I can’t help thinking that one reason for this is that women are no longer just seen as breadwinners. Now they are also accepted as breadwinners, with their own careers. Men are more willing to adjust to shared domestic duties – including childcare – without complaint or resentment. The pressures of balancing work life and family life are reduced because they are shared. The chances of a successful marriage are increasing.

Am I right?

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Natalie says:

    I agree that it is possible to practice law and have a family life although I believe this is highly dependent on the practice area and question if it would be a ‘happy’ family life. Family law may offer a degree of flexibilty but having practiced in banking and litigation and observing harassed and emotional mothers around me I do not agree this is the case across the board. The pressures faced by mothers in law is unlike the pressure that mothers face in in other professions such as medicine, pharmacy, accountancy and teaching. There is little pressure in other professions to attend evening client drinks, to work late nights at short notice and there are clear guidelines as to working arrangements. All these things can make or break a legal career. Many of the mothers that I knew had who had returned to work 4 days, were taking work home, coming in at weekends or even going home to pick their children from a child-carer and then coming back into the office at night. I agree that to become a successful lawyer you have to work hard and dedicate the hours and compromise your personal commitments at times but I can also say that to become a successful mother and to have a happy marriage you need to allocate time to nurture both your children and your marriage. I do not agree that both are compatible if practising in corporate law. I’m sure some female lawyers will tell you that their firm was very supportive of their decision to have a baby but you would then have to question why these women would only take a few months maternity leave.And matters can be complicated if you become pregnant betyween 25- 30 the early years of a career in law. 6 months maternity leave often signals career suicide for a lawyer at this stage as there is often little room for flexibilty. All these issues can take their toll on a marriage and family life but thats not to say that you cannot work as a lawyer and have children.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    You are absolutely right and how I sympathise with you. What I didnt mention in my post, is that I used to be mainly a commercial litigation lawyer. I loved the work which also included international aspects. It was highly stressful and so I had to change direction after Ben was born as I wanted to keep working as a lawyer. I found myself taking an unplanned, different direction into family law, first with commercial clients who were getting divorced and asked me to represent them. I found it very interesting work, with pressure that I could (mostly) handle, work I could (mostly) do without the requisite after hours/late night toil/deadlines/ and I am very glad I did it. So I kept going in that field, decided to specialise, and gave up commercial work.
    I never studied family law at University, and studied it only as it was a compulsory option for my final professional exams. My original goal was always corporate law – but whats that saying;- Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans?
    Thank you for your valuable comments and please dont hesitate to get in touch again.

  3. JamesB says:

    The professional women I know are single. Thus they don’t divorce or worry about husband or children.

  4. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Hi James
    Thanks very much for all your comments, Im going to reply to them.
    In this case, choosing not to have a family – its a lonely choice don’t you think? But on the other hand, it’s all about the right to make choices?

  5. Lukey says:

    Divorce rates have fallen off for 2 reasons:

    (i) The economy is difficult at the moment, it is known that divorce tends to decrease in hard times – basically people tend to put it off until their financial position becomes clearer.

    (ii) The marriage rate hasn’t just dropped – it’s gone off a cliff, so it is inevitable that the divorce rate will drop – this doesn’t mean that couples (if you include cohabitants) are splitting up less frequently.

    As for women working with children – women should do what makes them happy and what they can agree with their partner – at least it is one area where nobody is trying to legislate – yet 🙂

  6. JamesB says:

    Marilyn, I am not sure it is a conscious choice. Bit rushed as have my dinner on the way.

    Personally I have really enjoyed bringing up children. I have 3. I do often think that the women who I refer to, often University educated and childless into 40s may regret not having children.

    My beef with that is I couldn’t wait, and I had young relationships founder where the girl wanted to pursue career.

    Informed decision making, yes, I am all for that and agree with that. I certainly do not want my two daughters tied to the kitchen sink. That said, I do not want them approaching the age of 40 desperate to find a man and have children with.

  7. JamesB says:

    Agree with Lukey, is about respect. Women and men need to be ok with either being the main earner and compromise and be ok with each other rather than fighting sexual politics. As I think I have said before, I like it when men and women get on and I’ll drink to that.

    Women wanting to earn a lot and then expecting the man to earn more I think is much of this problem and is sad. Hopefully that attitude will change and more respect between the sexes will happen (rather than going back to the 50s, or Islamic). See, I am not a misogynist as my ex wife and some exes would say, quite progressive really ;-).

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