Written by Jacqueline Courtenay, 22 May 2022
So many people help us along the way, however because so much happens in life, oftentimes it is easy to forget or even misremember exactly how we come to make the decisions we make. We forget the small drops and pearls of wisdom that cause ripple effects in our lives. We all too often fail to recall how something triggered another thing which in turn led to whatever it was that eventually got us to where we are stood today. Not all of it may seem significant but in actual fact, even the seemingly little, brief and fleeting influences are all important aspects of our journey towards achieving our goals. In this blog post, it is in this vein that I would like to share a little story from almost a decade ago. As now a fully-fledged, full-time working mother of three, I reflect on one of the moments which helped cement this decision, reinforce this call and underpin this vocation of unapologetically doing both. I am looking back to one particular day almost ten years ago to share a brief story about how attending a seemingly immaterial event assisted in cultivating my entire approach to working motherhood.
I am 21 years old, the year is 2013 and it is an overcast Saturday afternoon one day late in March. At that time, I live in my hometown Islington with my mum and my younger sibling. I am also a few months shy off graduating from university, after which point I have set my sights on studying law. I have an offer to study at City Law School later in the year, and I am determined to soak up as much information about entering, working and thriving in the Law as possible. As 1pm approaches, I am hurriedly getting ready to head out to a workshop entitled ‘Get YOU ahead in Law’[i] which is being held at Birkbeck university, and is organised by Sonia Meggie through her incredible organisation, Inspirational YOU. I am running late for the talk which starts at 2pm and as a then budding law student, I am desperate not to miss out on hearing from the four successful lawyers as billed on the Eventbrite page. Back then, I made a point to attend as many such masterclasses and networking events as possible to hear from industry trendsetters, pioneers and trailblazers. And as a student who undertook ten internships, work placements and volunteering roles, collecting business cards was a treasured hobby.
At around 1:30pm, I jump on the 91 bus from Caledonian Road, to Kings Cross, then up Euston Road before it sedately arrives at Russell Square just minutes before 2pm, where I alight. I walk through the heart of the University of London Bloomsbury Campus Area before entering Birkbeck University’s Torrington Square building, making it just in time. Upon entering the lecture room, I present my ticket to the Inspirational YOU staff and then take my seat. I also take in the breath-taking view of the four panellists on stage – all women and all leading lawyers.
For context, the panellists (and the positions they held at the time) were: Laurie-Anne Power, Barrister; Miranda Brawn Legal Counsel at Citi Bank & former banker; Julia Furley, Barrister & Partner; and Elizabeth Nolan Solicitor & Head of Employment Law
|Be Inspired 2 Empowering workshops and inspirational talks for all||14:00pm: How to get into law and succeed Inspirational YOU – Be Inspired – Series 2||Birkbeck, Torrington Square, London, WC1 7HX Saturday 23rd March 2013 From 12:00pm – 7.00pm|
The host Garry Green, Barrister at Tooks Chambers, kicks things off and from there the we hear from each panellist. With the topic of the talk being getting ahead in law, I was expecting to hear about the intricacies of getting into the profession, and was hoping to pick up some gems about routes into law and how to make a great first impression in interviews. As the talk went on I realised it was about having a far more in-depth conversation. I listened intently as the panellists shared not only their insights into law and their journeys into the profession, but also the obstacles they faced within it. Throughout the talk there was an air of “you can make it”, regardless of the status quo or the conventional way. Each panellist shared their career highlights, their lows and what had been required of them to succeed in a still male-dominated career. It was inspiring to hear successful women of differing cultural and demographic backgrounds share their commonality in coming from humble beginnings and moving into a profession widely known for its high barriers to entry, its reluctance to include minorities and women and its preference to permit access to the elite.
I pause here to say that, it has been almost a decade since this talk took place and fortunately in that time, many efforts have been made to diversify the make-up of legal professionals. Things are slowly improving. A welcomed transformation.
It was altogether an incredibly heartening talk to take in but why it has elevated into a standout moment of my coming age story and a moment that has been seared into my memory is because the conversation unexpectedly moved into how motherhood and relationships intersects with work. Until then, most of the masterclasses I had been attending throughout my time as a student were formulaic in their approach discussing matters of work as if there were little to no connection between work and social life. However, in this talk the panellists generously shared candidly advice about how their romantic relationships and decisions had impacted their careers, and this was incredibly refreshing to hear.
Some shared their regrets about pursuing careers and abandoning their love lives, because of the fear of needing to commit to their work. This is a well-known experience and is a theme that has blighted the careers of working women for years and continues to hinder our ability to not only break the glass ceiling but to remove it altogether. Others inspiringly shared how becoming mothers at a young age, before university, had not deterred them from starting a career in law nor had having more children since.
By the end of the talk, the host opened up the floor to questions. Now, anyone who knows me (and knows me well) will tell you that I love asking questions: good, solid, thought-provoking questions. If you were to ask me what my personal values are, asking questions would easily make it into the top three! I ask questions for four main reasons: it is in my nature to do so, it helps build emotional intelligence, it is an effective way to communicate and connect with others, and finally because I am always seeking to learn and gain more information. There is also a fifth reason: I love to talk, and what better way to talk than through the art of asking good questions?
As soon as Garry Green turned to the audience for questions, I shot up my hand. I had a burning question and surprisingly to me, it wasn’t the sort of question I thought I would be asking when I was rushing my way to the talk earlier on that afternoon. As I made my way to the event, all that was on my mind was law, training contracts, pupillages, vacation schemes etc., nothing about relationships and their impact on work were on my mind. I believed that such a topic was reserved for the kitchen table. But by the time it was my turn to hold the mic, I stood up and found myself thanking the panellists for being so open and honest about their experiences and asking, with respect to relationships and work, what advice they would give to their 21 year old selves?
It is the responses to this question that have inspired me to look back on this small moment in such great detail and discuss how from the moment that “advice for your 21 year old self” question was answered, my approach to working life changed forever.
I received several responses, all of which were something to the effect of: “Avoid regrets by doing both. You can do both”. In fact, one response in particular, was almost exactly that!
Another said, “if you meet a nice young man don’t let him go because you want to focus on your career, you can have both!” The audience chuckled, as one panellist said something like if I met a young man who couldn’t handle that, then he wasn’t worth pursuing.
I remember going home, telling my mum all about it. To my surprise, she was in complete agreement. Of course she was, whilst not in the ways she planned, she has been a working mother herself. She has always been driven and strived to get things done and I have always been inspired by that example. Perhaps, because of this, I was always destined for working motherhood in the way I am doing it now anyway, but I believe that my upbringing coupled with this unique experience of having several thriving women in the Legal world imploring me to believe that both can co-exist, has played a key role in shaping the working mother I am. Ever since that talk I have been an advocate for doing both and as I practice it now, I believe that it is not a myth and one does not have to give for the other. I truly believe that we can have it all, but I can see also why, sometimes, some of us cannot and much more work must be done to ensure that all mothers can live in a way that their work and parental responsibilities co-exist harmoniously .
A year later when I met my now husband, I told him about how these women had inspired me to be a working mum one day. Early on in our relationship, I made a point of sharing this with him – I won’t say whether my aim was to see if it would scare him off or not but I will say this: it was a very nerve-wracking thing to do. When you’re dating it isn’t typically the “done thing” to lay your cards on the table and say this is who I am, this is what I want to do with my life and if you’re not on it, well then, bye-bye! I honestly thought he’d run a mile and I told myself that if my ambition of being a full-time working mother, who shares the load equally with her partner sent him flying, then I’d know whether he was the One for me, not that I am much of a believer in the One but I digress. Surprisingly, he was on the same page. Coming from a two-parent household where both his parents worked full-time for most of his childhood, he wasn’t some millennial cave man who expected his partner to stay home with the kids. Something about working parenthood resonated with him almost as much as it had resonated with me. In one of our earliest conversations, we talked about splitting the pick-ups and everything else. Nearly a decade together and three children later, supporting one another in parenthood and working lives, is something we practice each day.
I am so glad we talked about who would do what and just how working parenthood would work, early on in our relationship because whether I am supposed to say this or not: male partners play a crucial role in the success of their female partners. You know the saying, “behind every great man, there is an even greater woman”? Well, I’d go so far as to say, “behind every successful working mother, is a supportive working father who wills her to earn her own living”. I strongly believe that successful working mothers, specifically those like me in heterosexual unions are only as successful as their male partners support them to be. A male partner who is not fully in support of his female partner is not one who is going to help her dedicate herself as much to her career as to their home life, by taking an equal share in the duties of being an equally present parent and sharing in the running of the household.
And so, as we continue to demand equality in the workplace, I am hopeful that more and more women will continue to demand equality in their households, because the key to successful working motherhood is in having an equal balance in both our romantic and working lives without fear that doing so can hinder your career.
I thank the women who shared this piece of advice with me on that day in March 2013. Thanks for letting me know that when it comes to work and motherhood, that doing both is possible.
[i] Get YOU Ahead in law, Inspirational YOU, 2013
[ii] Bloomsbury Campus Area Policy brief, Camden Council, 2020
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