For some reason, people don't see a career as a human rights lawyer being compatible with giving birth to and raising humans. When I was pregnant with my third child, a colleague asked me if it was a planned pregnancy. Another colleague, affiliated with a women's rights organization, warned against releasing a report from my organization while I was pregnant, "given your condition." And a few years back, I noticed some of the mothers in my daughter's preschool flashing me and my pregnant belly looks that seemed to day, You are so busy with your career, how could you even think having another child?
There is no question that being a mother and professional is a never-ending challenge. I have three children—-ages 5, 3, and 4 months old. There is a crazed juggling act that I must do every day to live out my professional goals as a working mother. And, Lord knows, that if I didn't have an awesome husband, I would fall flat on my face trying to maintain that work-family balancing act.
My generation of 30- and 40-something moms is trying to figure out how to honor our identity as mothers and still strive for personal success. Our mothers had to subordinate their identities as parents in order to achieve professional success on a par with men, but we are determined to negotiate how to hold a fully dual identity—and subordinate neither role.
We do not want to be like so many of our mothers and other women of their generation who believed, and rightly so, that you didn't talk about your kids in the workplace if you wanted to be taken seriously; or that really loving motherhood made you less of a driven professional, and even less of a feminist. Perhaps as their daughters, we watched our mothers make these painful choices, and now we insist on a whole other construct of mothering and work.
That insistence on a new construct of mothering and work, however, makes for a very exhausting and judged life—and a constant sense of How do I make this work?
But it is important to take note of how that full, dual identity of mother and professional also makes us stronger and better. Mothering teaches us to be better professionals—to think more deeply with our hearts, to feel a powerful connectedness to other men and women struggling to raise their children, and to come up against what we thought were our limitations.
Mothering has made me a better person in the work that I do relating to violence against women and girls. I now understand these issues as a mother, and not simply an advocate. There is an emotional tie in a policy conversation around children and families being subject to exploitation and violence that I did not possess before. This emotional tie makes me a more fearless, empathetic and determined lawyer for human rights and justice.
But it's not like that makes it easy though. I am constantly feeling inadequate. When I feel good as a mother, I don't feel that I am good at work because I have given it less time and attention. And of course, the reverse is true, too. I feel judged in every corner of my world, by colleagues who get snarky when I have to leave a meeting early to pick up my children, or the school that frowns on that fact that I am late to pick up my children because I couldn't get out of a meeting quickly enough.
But on this Mother's Day, I am going to make the deliberate choice of thanking my children for making me better. I am going to honor my mothering as that which makes me more powerful in every aspect of my being. I am going to claim the seamlessness between my professional and mothering identities and give praise to the strength, grace, humility, vulnerability and joy that mothering has given me—in both of my roles as mother and human rights lawyer.
Malika Saada Saar, M.Ed, J.D. is the founder and executive director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity and reform for vulnerable families.