“Being a strong woman means being able to accomplish whatever you want to do.”

Name: Lily
Age Group: 36
Race/Ethnicity: Asian / Chinese
Career/Profession: Lawyer

1. Have you ever been told something a man would never be told?

When I told a coworker that I was engaged, she asked whether I would be coming back to work. I don’t know if she thought I was marrying a bazillionaire, but what a weird question to ask! And certainly one that wouldn’t be asked of a man.

I was also once speaking with two other attorneys – one a woman and one a man. We two women were discussing how being a working mother means that we’re often juggling parenting and management of the household. My male colleague added to the conversation by saying, “Oh, my wife does all of that.” To which we responded, “Well, I wish I had a wife!”

2. Has anything changed about your idea of what it means to be a woman since you were a teenager? In your 20s?

First, I was a single unmarried woman in my mid-20s who was working a full time job and living by myself. Suddenly, my mom could not understand what I was doing with my life. I wasn’t in school (despite her efforts to convince me to get a second graduate degree). I didn’t have kids to look after. According to my parents, I was having “too much fun.” And I realized that this was a phase of life that my parents, and especially my mom, never got to enjoy. The simple freedom of being completely independent and having the ability to choose to do whatever you wanted without having some crushing responsibility weighing on you. I think men have likely been able to enjoy this freedom much more than women historically have been able to. Women used to leave their parents’ house only to move into their husband’s house. And here I was, earning my own money, and paying for my own vacations, and buying (responsibly) whatever I wanted!

I think the second big shift in my idea of what it means to be a woman has to have been when I became a mother. Suddenly every priority in life is turned around. I am now not just worried about making my marriage work and advancing my career, but first priority is keeping this person alive and happy and thriving. That isn’t to say that my husband doesn’t share these priorities, but there are vastly different expectations placed on wives and mothers than husbands and fathers. I find that the mental load on women weighs much heavier. I’ve had to learn to delegate appropriately, and make a lot of lists.

I also think being a mother/parent in today’s internet age is drastically different than when we were raised in the 80s. The sheer amount of information that’s easily accessible about parenting styles, breast feeding, sleep training, product reviews, how to deal with tantrums, etc. is astounding to my mother who had about 2 books. My parents have many times expressed horror at how we’re parenting – although I suspect that isn’t necessarily new for this generation. But there’s an enormous pressure to do everything “right.” This is not unique to being a mother, but I do think mothers talk to each other a lot more than fathers do.

3. What does being a strong woman mean to you?

Being a strong woman means being able to accomplish whatever you want to do. It also means recognizing your limits and knowing when things are “good enough.”

4. What is the most frustrating/challenging thing about being a woman today?

Hands down, it’s maternity leave. What is wrong with our country that we can’t support paid maternity leave for a decent amount of time? I’m fortunate enough to live and work in California, where we can get about half pay for 12 weeks. And I’m fortunate enough to have a husband who earns enough that we can go to half pay for that period of time and still survive in this extremely expensive location. But in most parts of the country, there is no such thing as paid leave – just your sick and vacation time! FMLA guarantees you 12 weeks (if you’re working for the right size employer for long enough), but I don’t know who has 12 weeks of accrued vacation time to make sure that time is paid.

And who says that 12 weeks is enough? Most disability insurers believe you have recovered from a vaginal delivery at 6 weeks and are able to go back to work. That’s crazy talk. It’s very likely that you have not physically recovered. And you very likely are not emotionally ready to go back to work. Even at 12 weeks with a newborn, life is still insane.

5. Have you faced any personal or professional struggles because you are a woman?

Yes. Because I went on maternity leave, my next annual merit increase and bonus were diminished because I was on unpaid leave.

6. Have you ever had any moments of self-doubt?

So many. Every time I started a new job, or even taken on new responsibilities at work. I wonder if I’m really qualified or is someone’s just made a mistake choosing me. And especially the first time I was at home with my newborn baby, and I had no idea at all why she was crying.

During those moments, I think you just need to muddle through it. Take a deep breath to calm yourself, and just give it a go. Don’t expect perfection. Good enough will do. But typically in those circumstances, the consequences of failure if you don’t give it your best shot is worse.

7. When did you start to feel comfortable in your own skin?

29-30. After I got out a relationship that was not good for me, I spent about a year relearning about myself as an adult. I was a single, well-employed adult, who had the time and means to explore anything I wanted. I went on a lot of first dates to learn how to talk to men again, and to figure out what was important to me. It was fantastic. I honestly think that because I felt comfortable in my own skin, I met the right person to be a partner in life. He is a wonderful person, who allows me to be myself, which is key to making our relationship work. But I think that period of learning about myself was really key.

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