By Irene Segal Ayers ’82

Before her fourth birthday, my daughter, Lucy, was attending classes in Torts law. At age 4, she was attending Contracts, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law. At 5, she was in Securities Regulation. Her twin brother, Andy, did not get such an early start but caught up fast. At 5, he was in advanced courses in Copyright Law and Remedies.

My twins were not preschool-age prodigies. They were the children of a mother in law school. I applied to the University of Cincinnati College of Law when my twins were 2, enrolled when they were 3, and completed the J.D. this spring, with twin 6-year-olds and their father in attendance at the commencement exercises.

I did very well in law school. Thanks largely to my Bryn Mawr education, I won a three-year full-tuition merit scholarship. I was on Law Review and made Dean’s List every semester. But I am no more a prodigy than my twins. I am not the kind of person you read about sometimes in Class Notes:

“Perfection Smith writes that she defended her doctoral dissertation in theoretical physics while in labor with her sixth child. This is Perfection’s second Ph.D. She writes that she regrets not having time to compete in this year’s Olympic decathlon (for which she qualified), but she encourages all alums to buy a copy of her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.”

I admire the Perfection Smiths of the world and wish I could be more like them. But I am no genius, and I am not a paragon of self-discipline, diligence or organization, much as I once hoped my years at Bryn Mawr would have turned me into one. Had you dropped in on us unannounced one evening, you likely would have found: a not-very-clean, toy-strewn house; an exhausted father of twins who worked all day, now washing dishes after dinner; me in my study trying to read the cases assigned for the next day’s classes while one twin sat next to me drawing pictures with my highlighter pens, and the other twin sat across the study at the computer, playing noisy little-kid computer games and commenting uninterruptedly on the action. If you stayed for a while, you would have seen Dad bathing the twins, Mom doing the laundry, Dad reading bedtime stories, then goodnight kisses for all. And if you were still here, say at 10 p.m., you would have found a quiet house, twins and their father sound asleep, and me in my study fighting to keep my eyes open and struggling to make sense of legal principles and reasoning in some judge’s opinion.

I have often heard people advise women, “You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.” The message seems to be: have your family young and then start a career when your kids are grown; or, conversely, get the advanced degree now, launch the career, and when you have tenure, or have made partner in the firm, when you have achieved professional success and security, then have the family. If only it were that simple. Had I been ready for motherhood at 21 (and I wasn’t), my 21-year-old boyfriends were not exactly racing to volunteer for early marriage and fatherhood. So I single-mindedly stuck with my initial career plans to be an English professor. I would be in my late-30’s (at best) before I’d have tenure. What an enormous gamble that seemed: to land a tenure-track job, actually to get tenure, and to bank on being able to find a spouse and, in the face of legions of infertility stories, expect normal, healthy pregnancies and deliveries into my 40’s. Nevertheless, I started out on that path.

But as it often does, life resisted the command to shake itself out along an orderly timeline. I met my husband mid-doctoral-program when I wasn’t planning to, and got pregnant with twins when I thought my post-age-30 body might take a few years to get pregnant just with one. Then I watched tenure-track jobs in my field evaporate from cost-saving university budgets as I pondered how my husband (completing a Ph.D. in chemistry) and I would ever find jobs in the same part of the country. We would each need to be a prodigy in our respective fields of study to pull off such a feat, and we weren’t. So I switched to that other path: family now, career later. I was a full-time stay-at-home mom with infant twins, following my husband from Indiana to Delaware to Ohio as he established his career as a scientist.

Thirty-two years old when my twins were born, I’d be over 50 when they finished high school. Could I wait that long to start a new career? Would I be alive then? Would I have the health and stamina I’d need for a career change then? What effect might 18 years as a housewife have on a less-than-prodigy mind with less-than-model study habits? That wait seemed as extreme a gamble as the other kind of wait. And truthfully, reluctance to gamble aside, I just really did not like staying home all day with little children. Moving around the country as my husband established his career only made it worse: with no family or friends in the cities to which we moved, without the instant company of colleagues at work, I was alone in unfamiliar suburbs with children too young to converse. I hung out at playgrounds, parks and library story-hours, where I struck up conversations with strangers, more often than not nannies or women 15 years my junior who’d married and gotten pregnant right out of high school.

Law school full time at 36 with 3-year-old twins may seem a bizarre, drastic solution to suburban-housewife blues. But it proved to be surprisingly doable, and provides me with a way to earn a living, even in other cities should my husband be transferred to another location or decide to work for another company.

How does one succeed in law school with preschool-age twins? With a very supportive spouse who does at least half of all household chores and more than half the child care. With quality full-time preschool/day-care at a local community center. With a progressive, family-friendly law school. And by involving the children in the law-school adventure. Andy and Lucy are known by name to many of the faculty whose classes they attended when unforeseen crises (snowstorm, ear infection) meant no preschool that day. The twins knew which faculty have candy in their offices (tax law professor), which of my classmates had candy in their backpacks, what varieties of treats could be found in the vending machines in the student lunchroom. They knew where to nap (on the sofa in the Law Review office, or on Mom’s lap in Contracts class, slack-jawed and snoring, while the other 80 students wished that they too could nap in class so openly). They knew that in the nearly-empty law-school building on Sundays there was fun to be had: computer drawing and painting in the library’s computer lab, art projects made with highlighter pens and copy-machine-mistake paper, races to be first to find my mailbox or my locker or first across the long corridors (giggling when I turned green watching them pause to peer over the atrium railings to see the floor below).

Combining a career change with small children has required sacrifices and compromises of all of us. The financial burden is heavy. My husband sweats over the bills, especially the enormous cost of full-day preschool for two. If anyone ever cleaned up the toys strewn all over the house, people would notice there isn’t much in the way of furniture. What there is, is all relics, a grad-school-era hodgepodge of hand-me-downs. For Andy and Lucy, there are very long school days and not nearly as much time as they’d have liked with Mom in the evenings and weekends. For me, there is an emotional price to pay in relinquishing being Main Parent. It was painful to say no to the children when they want to play and I had to study. And it’s painful to know that the parent they call for when they fall and hurt themselves or when they wake up in the middle of the night is no longer me, it’s their father. And there are career compromises. My husband wonders whether his career wouldn’t be advancing faster if he had had evenings and weekends free for writing scientific papers. I wonder whether I would have been first in my law-school class without kids. Maybe not, but I know I would have made a more concerted effort to compete for a Law Review editor position for my third year. After a less than glorious second year of late drafts and missed meetings, I ended up with a non-editorial-board position as a “contributing member.” And I will not have the kind of high-power partner-in-big-firm career my top grades might have put me on track for. At 39, I’m too tired to work 80 hours a week. I want some time with my family, and realistically I know I may have to move again for my husband’s career.

The most helpful advice I was given about law school came from another Bryn Mawrter, but with a twist to it. In the fall of 1995, when I was applying to law school, I attended Alumnae Council at Bryn Mawr. One night at dinner in Wyndham, I was seated at a table with more recent alumnae, early ’90s graduates. A beautiful, elegantly dressed and coiffed young woman sat next to me. I’m not sure if she was the younger sister of Perfection Smith, but she was a successful attorney and a recent graduate of one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation. When I mentioned my twins and my law school ambitions, she gave me excellent advice. Law school, she said, is all about diligence. You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to show up prepared for every class and pay attention. There’s an immense amount of work, but if you stay on top of it, you’ll do fine. She was right, but to follow her advice while being the mother of young twins, I had to lose some of the bad habits, like procrastination, that Bryn Mawr and graduate school hadn’t fully cured me of. The twist, though, was this: after she had given me this advice, in perfectly poised and articulate fashion, she told me she’d met a young medical student and hoped to marry him, quit her job, stay home, and have babies.

Author’s note: Irene Segal Ayers graduated from law school in May and accepted a position as an associate with Peck, Shaffer & Williams, a Cincinnati law firm specializing in municipal bond law. She hopes to have a less-demanding schedule and more time for Andy and Lucy after passing the bar exam. She’s had some publication offers from law reviews and is giving serious thought to an academic law position!

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Shoulds. I’ve heard them from friends for years. I’ve rarely listened to a man agonize between career and childrearing. I think many men feel the tension between the two, but few speak about it. Yet every mother I know, admittedly a self-selecting sample, has told me she feels torn. My friends have made every possible variation of the decision, from full-time parenthood at home through part-time jobs to full-time careers in demanding fields, and not one is at ease with her decision. Each has simply made the compromise that she could live with best. Life’s not perfect. We can tolerate that. What we mustn’t tolerate are formulas that deprive us of our individual solutions and our peace of mind. Feminism should mean the freedom to choose what is right for each woman. It should also mean compassion among women. All of us know how imperfect the available choices are.


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By Meredith G. Warshaw

I always knew that, if I had children, I’d be unhappy staying home with them full time. What I didn’t realize, until after I had my son, was that I’d be equally unhappy at the thought of working outside the home away from him full time. Of course, it also didn’t occur to me that I’d become a single parent with a special-needs child.

Working part time has been a blessing for my family and me. The form it has taken has varied as my son’s age, our family circumstances, and my job have changed over time. I have worked half time from home, two-thirds time split between home and office and, most recently, 80 percent time at the office. Each has both advantages and disadvantages, and each has required flexibility on both my part and my employers’. One pleasant surprise is that I have still managed to advance in my career, albeit at a slower pace than if I’d been working full time with no family obligations.

Until recently, I worked as a biostatistician doing psychiatry research. Just before I got pregnant, my research group moved from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to Brown University in Providence, 50 miles from my home. Because of this, after my son, Keith, was born and I was working half time, I worked almost exclusively from home since I couldn’t make quick trips to the office. We had a baby-sitter who came to our house; this allowed me to continue nursing easily as well as to be very involved in my son’s care. I was able gradually to develop trust in his caregiver and could join them whenever I heard laughter or tears. On the other hand, I was isolated from co-workers, missed the office gossip, and needed a great deal of discipline to get work done. In addition, I lost my eligibility for many benefits and had to pay much more for health insurance. (My husband was self-employed, so I provided the insurance for our family.)

When my son turned 3 and was in preschool, there were two major changes in our lives. The most important was that I separated from my husband. Although Keith’s father picked him up after school two days a week and spent much of every Sunday with him, I was the sole parent seven nights a week. I increased my work hours to 67 percent time, which brought my benefits back to normal, and started spending two days at the office each week. This situation worked very well for me in a number of ways. I worked long days at the office on the days that my son was picked up by his father, and was able to pick him up from school on the days that I worked from home (an arrangement that continues to this day). Because of this, we have not needed to use afterschool care. Keith really appreciates going home with a parent every day. I also was often able to do errands while he was at school, avoiding the dreaded 5 p.m. trips to the grocery store with a cranky child. Two days was enough time to keep me more connected with people at work, and enabled me to do more supervisory work and accomplish all those things that could only be done at the office.

As my supervisory and administrative roles grew, it became clear that I could not perform the job in the way I felt necessary without spending more time at the office. Given the long commute, I decided to find a job closer to home. My greatest fear was that I would not be able to find anyone willing to hire me part time. To my great relief, I did find a job much closer to home that allows me to work 80 percent time, continuing the afterschool schedule that has worked so well. However, it has been hard adjusting to being at the office five days a week, and I miss my quiet time at home.

Being a single parent has presented challenges. Keith sleeps at my house every night. I have never been a morning person, although it has gotten easier as he has grown, and I really miss having someone to share early morning awakenings, as well as those in the middle-of-the-night. I also miss being able to run out after he’s in bed to get that carton of milk we need, and things are difficult when I have early morning meetings.

My son has special needs that have made finding appropriate schooling for him a challenge. He is highly gifted and, even after a grade skip, is doing math several years ahead of his classmates (meaning that I have to prepare math lessons for him to take to school, since he is beyond the curriculum his elementary school uses). However, he also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mild dyslexia, and dysgraphia (problems with the physical act of writing). Unfortunately, we did not figure all of this out at once. In the past three years we have gone through several rounds of testing; it was only this winter that we discovered the dyslexia. Due to these special needs, finding the right school for Keith is a challenge. Testing and looking at schools have been very time consuming, as have parent-teacher conferences to work out the accommodations he needs. If I were working full time, it would have been very difficult to take off the time it has required.

I do not know how I would have managed through all of this if I had to work full time; most of the time I wish I could cut down to 50 percent. I have been lucky to have worked for very family-oriented bosses, who have always been understanding when I had to take off time for looking at schools, testing, school conferences, childhood illnesses, ad infinitum. I know that working part time is not possible or desirable for everyone, but I feel very fortunate to have been able to find an arrangement that works so well for me and my son.

Author’s note: Meredith G. Warshaw is Scientific Administrator for the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiology Research and Information Center. She is also a single mother and co-listowner of the GT-Special e-mail list for families with gifted/special needs kids ( Since this writing, she has cut back to working 50 percent time and is now homeschooling her son.


1     My office has a clear understanding of the investment it makes in training new workers and of the value in retaining experienced employees.

2     I was difficult to replace. Statisticians are in short supply, and I also had a master’s degree in clinical social work, which is very useful for psychiatry research.

3      My work consisted of multiple projects going simultaneously, so by dropping some of them, it was possible to cut the work load without missing deadlines.

4      Much of my work could be done by telecommuting, which gave me a great deal of schedule flexibility.

5      My department chair was very family oriented. Although he works extremely hard, and expects a lot of his employees, he always supported putting my son first and was especially helpful the year I separated from my husband. I was never hassled about missing meetings because of school events, staying home with a sick child, etc.


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