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Jillian Morris: Employers Can Help Ease Women’s Transition From Mommy Mode to Work Mode

By Thai Phi Le

March 21, 2017

Jillian Morris

Over the last month, we've spoken to attorneys at Markham Law Firm, an all-women family law practice owned by D.C. Bar member Jessica Markham, about their ups and downs trying to grow their careers as they expand their families.

In the last of the three-part series, we interview Jillian S. Morris, who clerked in Washington, D.C., for two years following law school at Catholic University. Married with two kids, Morris spoke with the D.C. Bar in May 2016 about the challenges of returning to work after giving birth to her daughter in November 2015.

From breastfeeding to pumping to getting herself ready for work in the morning, Morris says the struggle is real for new mothers going back to work. "Do I ask for a bench conference where I ask the judge if I could go pump? Do I bring my pump with me along with my litigation bag? These are challenges! The courthouse, as far as I know, doesn't have a nursing room for pumping," she says.

Below, Morris talks more about making career decisions based on what is best for her family, including being a stay-at-home mom for a year and slowly transitioning back to full-time work after maternity leave. The D.C. Bar also reconnected with Morris this week for updates.

Can you give me some background about yourself and your career?

In January 2011, I started in private practice doing family law working for two partners. I was the only associate. By that August, I was pregnant with my first child. I had my son in May 2012. At that point, I was planning on going back to work at my firm within four months, but my husband ended up getting recruited for a job in New York. The salary they were offering him was enough for me to take off for at least a year. We thought maybe this was a sign that we should move to New York and be closer to my family. We moved and I stayed home the first year with my son.

We ended up moving back to D.C. I went back to my old firm, part-time, and I gradually moved back to full-time status. [After a year and a half] they ended up closing, so I went to another [small] firm.

As soon as I got there, I became pregnant with my second child. I was actually only there for nine months. I ended up leaving that firm to come work for Jessica. Now I'm part-time and gradually getting back to full-time.

I've had a lot of recent and different experiences. All of these decisions have been based on my family.

Tell me about your experience with your first maternity leave.

I had only been in private practice for a year and a couple of months. I was truly their associate. I didn't have a lot of my own cases. So when I went out on maternity leave, I didn't need to do a lot of work to get everyone up to speed on my cases because I was really just helping them on their cases.

They were pretty flexible with when I wanted to come back and if I wanted to come back part time or full time. At that point, I had decided I was just going to take four months off because, to be honest, that's all we could afford. I wasn't offered any maternity benefits. The only thing I was offered was short-term disability, which was a few thousand dollars. That was definitely helpful, but my husband and I made the decision that we could only afford for me to take off for four months. That was the plan. Then this job offer came about and we moved to New York.

[I thought] maybe it was a sign to take the opportunity to see how I like being a stay-at-home mom. To be honest with you, within six months, I missing work and having something of my own. I hadn't taken the New York bar so I couldn't work in New York.

Then we moved back to D.C. and I went back part time. That scenario worked out really well because I knew what it was like to be home and I knew it wasn't for me. At that point, my son was 12 months [old]. He was more of a person and not as attached to me. It was a little bit easier to leave him in day care. Still it's emotional for me, but he was perfectly happy. When I got back to work, I was ready to go. It was just a different feeling.

I gradually went back full time as my workload got busier. I think I was able to do that because I was working at such a small firm. That's the same feeling at this firm that I'm at now.

If you didn't have the financial constraints when you originally planned to take four months off, would you have chosen to stay home longer?

Yeah. I probably would have taken six months off and then gone back part time if that was something we could work out.

Before I came to Jessica's firm, the one thing I was struggling with is that it feels very all or nothing. It's either stay home or you go back to work full force to keep up with all your peers. There aren't any part-time opportunities.

I've been told by some attorneys that being an attorney is not a part-time job. It's just not possible. That's frustrating. So that's it? I choose my family or my career? There's no in-between?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a part-time attorney now. It's a struggle. Sometimes I feel like I'm not as available to my clients as I would like to be, but at the same time, when I'm not in the office, I'm plugged in. I'm on my email. If I have to take a phone call while my daughter's napping, I'll do that. I'm always available in some sense.

[Editor's note: Morris now works five days a week at Markham Law.]

How did you prepare for your second maternity leave?

This time around, I had a lot of my own cases. I made sure to start [the] process early. I was due November 1 [2015]. Right after Labor Day, I started to be very meticulous about my note taking. I started a running to-do list for every case, with every hearing date, everything that was due, everything that needs to be filed. [My thinking was,] if I go into labor tonight and somebody needs to take over my cases tomorrow, what would they need to know to take off right where I left?

I would edit it every night before I went home. I was upfront with my clients. I told them as soon as it made sense that I was pregnant and would be going on maternity leave. I made sure to get another attorney lined up on the case. About early to mid-October, I sat down with whichever attorney who would take over the case and gave them a full synopsis, and I let my client know [they were] going to talk to. The more prep work you do leading up to it, the easier it is.

For the most part, I was plugged in during maternity leave. I had my phone. I had my email up. My firm didn't bother me that much, but because I was meticulous, I think that I was able to enjoy my maternity leave.

You returned to work sooner after the birth of your daughter. What are some of the challenges you're facing?

Getting my act together in the morning is next to impossible. Trying to get both kids fed [and] ready, making myself look somewhat presentable, and trying to show up somewhere on time is a challenge. I can look like I'm put together, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors to get to that point. I think I need three hours to get everyone out the door.

[Another struggle is that] my daughter is good for a certain amount of time—eight or nine hours before she becomes impossible. The only thing that's going to make her happy is for me to be nursing her. That's it. It's hard because if I have work late one night, I feel like I'm choosing between making her happy and doing my job.

A lot of people say you can plug in after they go to sleep, but by the time we get them both down, make lunches and everything, it's 9 or 9:30 and I'm exhausted. It's hard to plug your brain back in. You definitely need more hours in a day. You always hear your parents say that, but you don't get it until you have a kid.

How would you improve the process for parental leave?

I think employers need to be more flexible with the idea of part-time [work]. I'm not asking to be a part-time attorney forever. I would've been fine for six months or a year. If an employer lets an attorney come back part time and slowly build up to full time, I think the employer would be surprised at how quickly that attorney gets back in the groove.

There needs to be that adjustment period. You're home with a newborn for three months, and then the next day you're working 9 to 5, five days a week? That's a huge difference. Going from mommy mode to working mode right away is really hard to do. It's physically exhausting. It's emotional. It's gut-wrenching to leave that little baby.

[Also,] don't make parents take their time [off] together. Let mom take her time first, and then dad take his time. It's more time to be with the baby. These babies need their parents longer than three months.

Our country needs to be better about paid maternity leave and making transitions from part-time to full-time. I know some of the big tech companies are saying you can have a year. You can take the year or take half a year, but you get a year. I think if that was offered universally, that would be a big help. It's that first year that's the struggle, the hurdle. I think in that first year there needs to be more flexibility and understanding.

Since our conversation in May, has anything changed?

I am now working five days a week. In September I added a [fourth] day. In February, I added a fifth day. Two days a week I leave at 2:30 to go get my kids from school by 3 p.m.

Even though I'm here five days a week, those two days where I get to leave early are huge. I feel like I can really spend quality time with my kids on those evenings. It isn't just dinner, bath time, bedtime.

[Editor's note: When Morris's two colleagues, Jessica Markham and Chanel Dolinsky, went on their respective maternity leave in early 2017, Morris chose to add another day in February to help out at work.]

I really like the team atmosphere we have here. I wanted to be here [at work] to make their life a little bit easier for their maternity leave. The fact that Jessica allows this flexibility and supports you makes you want to do more for the firm. That flexibility is huge in the whole balance I'm trying to achieve.