The ‘Parent Track’ – Lawyer Moms and Dads Explore Childcare Options

By Erica C. Glaser
Originally appeared in June 2008 OSB Bulletin

Being a parent and a lawyer has been an unremarkable phenomenon for a long time until recently. Most lawyers used to be men, and most of those male professionals were parents; the two roles presented little conflict, as most of those men had wives who took on the lion’s share of the day to day child care responsibilities.

Times have changed as the gender profile of our profession has changed. My graduating class at the University of Oregon School of Law (1996) was remarkable for being the first to include more women than men. Women comprise a larger percentage of lawyers than at any time in the history of the Oregon Bar. Many, but by no means all, of these women are parents. Talk to any group who wear the hats of Mom and Attorney about “quality of life,” and child care will factor into the conversation. Being a good parent and a good lawyer means lining up suitable care that works for both your particular job and your individual family. This article explores a few of the options that are working for Oregon lawyers. It is not a comprehensive child care how-to or an endorsement of any particular child care model. Rather, it is an opening conversation on a subject that affects our collective quality of life both inside and outside of the profession.

As I see it, the options available to parents include: grandparents/family members; licensed in-home day care providers; day care centers; nanny-shares; au pairs, nannies; and leaving the profession.

Jennifer Abbassian, an insurance defense attorney, had her first child, Emily, in 2000. Abbassian had the good fortune to have her parents move to Portland from Eugene in order to take care of Emily and her cousin, a boy born the same year. This grandparent arrangement worked well for Abbassian, her husband (who owns his own software business) and for Abbassian’s mom, who enjoyed seeing her grandchildren on a regular basis. Some people pay their family members to provide care and others, like the Abbassians, have a grandparent who does the care out of the goodness of her heart. Jim Curtis is one such grandparent: Curtis is a semi-retired lawyer who works out of his Northeast Portland house, and he cares for his granddaughter in an effort to both help his daughter’s family and spend quality time with family.

Day care centers can have long wait lists, as immigration attorney Sherilyn Holcombe Waxler discovered. When she was eight weeks pregnant, Waxler toured centers and put her name on wait lists. Many of the centers never called as they had no space for an infant, given the ratio of caregiver to child is 1:4 for children under two. Waxler found an in-home child care arrangement that came highly recommended through other attorneys (three of the four families involved had at least one attorney parent). However, when the day care provider downsized to a condo from her home, she no longer had room for the five children she cared for. The in-home situation morphed into a nanny-share arrangement; now the child care provider comes to the Waxler home and cares for a 22-month old, a 20-month old, and Waxler’s 17 month old son, Olin. Waxler enjoys the convenience of not driving her son anywhere in the mornings. Another bonus, notes Waxler, is that a when your child is sick, a nanny-share arrangement is not altered or upset, as in a day care setting, which requires you to keep sick children home.

For my family, finding an au pair answered the child care question. Au pairs are foreign nationals, usually women, between the ages of 18 and 26, who are welcomed under a visa to come to the United States to live in an American household and provide up to 45 hours per week of child care. Au pairs, are “on par” or “equal” to a family member in that they participate in the family as an older daughter or cousin might. The American family works through a nonprofit agency and pays for health insurance, air fare, room and board for the au pair, and a stipend. This option is flexible. It’s is like a nanny arrangement, but offers a cross cultural component, which can broaden a child’s world view and maybe even foreign language skills. As long as you have a house big enough to provide the au pair her own bedroom — and the willingness to welcome a new family member — I find the au pair arrangement to be an excellent choice in child care.

When employment attorney Kristine Lambert needed child care eight years ago, she knew she needed continuity and flexibility. A private nanny selected though a local nanny agency provided Lambert and her husband, Joe Safirstein, an orthodontist, with both. Lambert acknowledges that the cost involved is high, but entirely worth it because the nanny is a professional who chose a career in caring for children, not a college student “finding herself,” or someone who couldn’t find any other employment. Lambert had the good fortune to find a nanny who stayed with her family for five years, until both children attended full-day school. The arrangement provided continuity and peace of mind for both parents.

Leaving the profession is also an option for lawyers who decide that having someone else provide their child care is not for them. Tara Parillo left her family law job in Eugene in anticipation of the birth of her first child. Two children later, Parillo is happy with her decision to stay home with her three children, a choice that has worked well for both her and her husband, attorney Scott Lucas. Parillo recently returned to work as a director of a preschool where her children attended. The change in profession seems to be a better fit for her than her stressful work as an attorney ever was.

Leaving the profession while one’s children are under the age of five or six (before full-day school begins) and then returning later appears to be an option which is not often pursued. For whatever reason, most of the female lawyers I know who left the profession to care for children full time chose not to return when their children reached school age. Many, like Parillo, found other careers instead of re-activating their bar memberships.

Aside from quality of care, financial considerations weigh heavily in the decision-making process. This column addresses the types of available child care roughly in relation to cost: from least to most expensive. Leaving the profession for six or more years is arguably the most costly of the choices, in that when retirement comes around, those six or more years without income will affect one’s Social Security benefits as well as one’s ability to contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA, 401K, or other retirement vehicles.

The conversation with employers needs to continue. Our country is one of only two industrialized nations, along with Australia, that does not have government-sponsored paid parental leave. Oregon’s Family Leave Act only provides unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks — and only if you work in a place with 25 or more employees. This leaves a lot of employees out of the loop. Not to mention that 12 weeks is not very long; compare that to European countries’ benefits that provide up to two years paid leave to parents to care for young children.

Child care issues present challenges for attorneys from all types of practice. Now that women are joining the bar in near equal numbers to men, I propose we all have this conversation in order to stem the tide of women leaving firms within five to 10 years, as other recent articles have documented. Just by saying “it is not possible to be a part-time lawyer,” perpetuates a status quo that just doesn’t have to be. Saying that there is a “partnership track” and a “parent track” reinforces old models that shut women out of positions of power within the profession. Thinking creatively about how to balance career and family and not having to leave the practice altogether in order to feel solid and secure in one’s child care arrangements should be a goal of our professional organization.

The OSB Quality of Life Committee welcomes any suggestions for things the bar can do to aid in keeping parents as active members of the practice: keeping them happy, balanced and available to provide legal services to the people of Oregon.

Erica C. Glaser, a trial attorney in Clackamas, is mother to three children, ages six, four and nine months. She lives with her family, which includes an au pair from France, in Northeast Portland. She is a member of the OSB Quality of Life Committee.
© 2008 Erica C. Glaser