It was the Fall of 2008, and I was basking in the radiance of my “success.” Little did I know, in a few hours, the innocent and totally honest words of a three year old would shatter the rose-colored glasses from which I viewed my world.
I had defied those pessimists who said a woman could not have it all. My husband and I had a beautiful, smart, precocious son and a very happy marriage. I had recently been made partner in the largest law firm in Colorado, Holland & Hart. I had been awarded the Women's Trade Fair Recognition Award for Outstanding Performance in the area of Professional Service. A year earlier, at age 32, I had been the youngest person to ever win election to the Colorado Springs District 11 School Board, then the third largest school board in Colorado.
In some ways, that day was an average day for me. My morning began about 6:00 a.m. with a quick run on the treadmill, followed by the beginning of a hectic day dealing with all the issues that arose in my law practice. I left work early at 5:30 p.m. to attend a board meeting for one of three non-profit organizations on whose board I sat. However, it was abnormal in that the board meeting adjourned early and I was able to get home by 7:00 p.m.
How was I able to devote so much time to my career when I had a three year old son and a husband? I am one of those fortunate wives whose husband readily took on more than his fair share of the domestic responsibilities of being a parent. Ron and I got married in 1974, four months after we met. I was only 18 and had no intention of ever getting married because my experience up to that point was that marriage was a dead-end for a woman’s career. My observations of my mother and all my aunts, as well as the lessons my family and culture tried to instill in me as a child, taught me that a woman’s sole job after marriage was to take care of her husband, children, and household. She might also have to work a job on top of all her household responsibilities to help support the family, but not one that would allow her to make more money than her husband. As my father once advised me, “No man wants to be married to a woman who is better educated than him and who makes more money than him.”
That was not a life I envisioned for myself. So, I had fully accepted that I might end up an “old maid” because no man was going to tell me what I could and could not do with my life. But my first week as a freshman at CU Boulder, I met Ron. He was so unlike the macho Hispanic males I had grown up with. He cooked and cleaned for himself. His clothes were always immaculately ironed, with the creases on his jeans and shirt backs precisely where they needed to be. He had a healthy self-image and was not intimidated by the fact that I was an outspoken and intelligent young lady who intended to have a career. He was intrigued, rather than intimidated, by my intellect. He teased me by counting the syllables in the words I used in every day conversation saying, “Wow, five syllables. I’ve never dated a girl who spoke in words with as many syllables as you.” When I confided to him that I dreamed of becoming a lawyer and attending Harvard Law School, he was entirely supportive. In short, even though I was only 18 and he was my first boyfriend, I was in love with a man that I truly believed was my soul mate and life partner. Ron would help me succeed. He would not hold me back because his ego couldn’t handle my being better educated or making more money than he.
In 1974, the “free love” lifestyle of the hippies was quite prevalent at CU and it was not uncommon for girls to sleep with guys they had just met. But both of my parents were strict Catholics and they raised me accordingly. In my young, indoctrinated mind, a man and a woman having sex or living together without the blessings of a church-sanctified marriage was a mortal sin. So, when Ron realized I would not move in with him unless we were married, he proposed marriage. Even though I wasn’t really ready to get married, I knew I could not let him get away. So, I accepted his proposal with one important condition: “I need to get through college, three years of law school, and three years of my career as a lawyer before we start our family. So if you marry me, we won’t have children for ten years.” I promised him he would be a dad by age 30. We were married two months later during winter break.
As I’ve aged, I have become a bit wiser. I now understand that there is so much more to success than I originally thought. It took the innocent words of my three year old son to open my eyes.
Eleven years later, our son was born. We never consciously decided that Ron would sacrifice his career so that I could reach “success” in my career, but that is the direction in which we proceeded. Ron became the dominant caregiver for our son and, eventually, all of our children.
But I digress. Back to Thursday, September 15, 1988, I arrived home earlier than usual. Ron wanted to go to Lynmar Tennis Club to play a match with one of his friends. Our son Ronnie Bryan was only three years old, but he went everywhere and did everything with his dad. He began crying because he wanted to play tennis with his dad and Uncle Wendall. The one activity that my son loved to do with me was to have me read to him. To calm him down and distract him, I said, “Why don’t we read some books?”
While his dad sneaked out of the house, Ronnie Bryan and I went into his bedroom where he selected some of his favorite books. We first read Brown Bear Brown Bear, which he had memorized, and loved to “read” to me every night before bedtime. We read a few others, whose titles I don’t recall.
Finally, I pulled out his Richard Scarry Best Word Book Ever, from which we were building his vocabulary. I loved listening to his sweet, sing song voice as he explained to me what each picture represented. When we got to the letter K, I pointed to a picture with a baby peeping out of its mother’s pouch. He didn’t skip a beat.
“That’s a kangaroo. That’s the daddy kangaroo with the baby kangaroo.”
I was totally caught off guard by that response. It had never occurred to me that that was anything other than a mommy kangaroo. I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I had to get a further explanation from my baby.
So I asked him, “Are you sure that is not mommy kangaroo?”
He slowly shook his head from side to side and solemnly answered, “No, mommy kangaroo is working.”
The last thing I wanted my baby to know was how devastating that answer was to me. It took all the emotional control I had, but I held my tears in until after I had him safely tucked into bed. Later, as I lay in bed, all kinds of thoughts swirled in my head. I realized how blind I had been. I had thought that everything was fine. I wasn’t neglecting my son because my husband was there to take care of him while I was busy “being successful.” Then I began envisioning my son graduating from high school and heading off to college. As I cried myself to sleep, I realized that, if I didn’t change my life, one day I would wake up and my son would be heading off to college. I wouldn’t know him and, likewise, he wouldn’t know me.
The next day at work, I confided my devastation to two of my closest friends, neither of whom was married or had children. They tried to comfort me by telling me that Ronnie Bryan was simply manipulating me and yanking my chain, but I knew that he was too young for this type of manipulation. His statement had been a totally honest and candid response to my question. That was his reality – mommy kangaroo was always working.
The innocent words of my three year old son, made me realize that, although it was possible to have a career and a family, there was a price to pay. To achieve both personal and professional success certain sacrifices had to be made in both realms. The choice was up to me. I chose to make a career change because I would not sacrifice my relationship with my son.
As a Type A personality, I knew I needed a job that would challenge me while allowing me more flexibility in my work hours. Becoming a law professor provided me with the intellectual challenge I needed because I had to become an expert in the subject matter areas that I taught and wrote about. But it was not a career in which success was based on high billable hours and client development activities. As long as I was fulfilling my teaching and writing responsibilities, my time was my own. If I wanted to leave in the middle of the afternoon to read to my son’s class or go on a field trip with him, I had the flexibility to do so. I could leave every day at 5:00 p.m. and be home to have dinner with the family and no one batted an eyelash. I could tuck my children in to bed at night and then turn to my class preparation or my scholarly writing and research.
As I’ve aged, I have become a bit wiser. I now understand that there is so much more to success than I originally thought. It took the innocent words of my three year old son to open my eyes. Although gaining admission to a school like Harvard, or making partner at a big law firm and making a lot of money are laudable achievements, they are not true measures of success. Since that day, about 30 years ago, I have tried to live up to the closing stanza of my favorite poem, entitled Success: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”
Today, I am happy to report that my son and I have a very close relationship. Ronnie Bryan, who now goes by Ron, followed in our footsteps. He is a CU Boulder alum with and B.S. degree in Finance from the Leeds School of Business and a Juris Doctorate from the CU College of Law. When he was a second year law student, he and I were discussing his career plans over lunch. He told me that he was going to forego the high salary the private sector would offer him because he wanted a work/life balance, like the one our family had after I became a law professor. Today, he is a top notch attorney in the Westminster City Attorney’s office. I realized then that I had been a positive role model for him in several different ways. I also realized that my son is as wise today, as he was at age three.