September 8, 2011

But I do have a law degree.

One of my favorite new blogs is written by a mom who, after a few years of practicing law, decided to give it up and stay home with her kids. I enjoy her blog because it's funny, and well-written, and a lot because there are so many similarities between our lives. She lives in the DC area. She stays at home with her kids. She blogs about her children and their quirks.

She calls her blog But I Do Have a Law Degree, because she wants people to remember that she has a J.D., that she went to law school and worked hard, that she has a strong legal education behind her.

And that's where we're different. Because I have spent a lot of time wishing people would forget.

I started law school in 2005, mostly because I didn't know exactly what to do with my B.A. in English Literature. Pretty much right away, I started to have suspicions that this career choice was not for me. But I thought it was normal 1L jitters. By the time my first year ended, I was almost 100% certain I'd made a mistake. I stood at the crossroads of my law school career and peered down each path, as far as I could. On the one hand, I didn't want to be a lawyer. On the other, I was $50,000 in debt already. Did I really want to drop out, to have a pile of debt that like that and nothing to show for it? Besides, having a law degree didn't mean that I had to be a lawyer. You can do anything with a law degree. That's what people said to me, over and over.

I decided to press on, and finish. But I dreaded going to school. Every morning, I woke up with the taste of metal in my mouth, with adrenaline spiking my blood. One day, I had a panic attack in class. What are you doing, what are you doing, why are you doing this? A few days later, I had a panic attack in the grocery store. I left my cart parked in the produce section, a lone green pepper rolling miserably around in the back. And I ran to my car, where I burst into tears. I panicked all the way home, and I panicked the next day in class. I started panicking in every class. My hands would go cold and clammy, my throat closed up, I shook and trembled and felt like I was going to die. I lived in fear of more panic attacks, and since going to class brought them on, I stopped going to class. I took a semester's leave of absence from the school. And then another.

But my panic didn't go away when I wasn't at school. I started having panic attacks in the car. In the video store. In church. Eventually, I stopped leaving the house, too. I sat at the window of my apartment, smoking cigarettes and looking down at all the people rushing to the Metro, to their jobs. I withdrew from the world, from my friends. I wondered how I could have messed everything up so badly. I thought of myself as a modern-day Rapunzel, with bad hair and more cynicism. Only, unlike Rapunzel, I liked being locked in my tower. The tower was safe. It was the real world that was scary, unpredictable, full of danger.

The next paragraph sums up about three years' worth of cognitive behavioral therapy: I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder, with agoraphobia, with depression. I slowly got better. I started going places again: small jaunts at first, then larger ones. Soon I was able to go to the store without wanting to throw up. I started driving again, riding the Metro, when once I hadn't been able to. One day, three years after the first rush of panic, I went to my husband J.D. and told him that I thought I might want to go back to school.

"You want to be a lawyer again?" he asked, dubiously.

"No," I said. Because I didn't. But I felt it was important to finish what I started. Once I thought I wouldn't be able to. Now I knew I could, and I wanted prove that I could do it.

And because I was only proving something to myself, the last semesters were easier. I read cases for fun. I took classes I thought were interesting. Space Law. Law and Sexuality. I didn't fit my academic career around a template that would get me into a big firm job because I didn't want one. I watched my classmates scuttle around, mainlining espresso, crying in the bathroom before exams, and I thought, this is why not.

I graduated from law school, cum laude, in 2010, five years after I started. And then I took a job working at home, editing for a scientific journal. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the law, and I like it that way.

But people were confused. "Don't you want to make money?" my family members asked. "Why finish at all?" asked my friends. And then, one day, riding the Blue Line home from seeing a friend's band play, I saw a guy with a sticker on his bag, showing that he was an alumni of the same school I'd graduated from. "I went there," I told him proudly. Then he asked what I did, where I worked. I told him, and he dismissed me with a glance, with three words: "What a waste."

I should have called him an asshole, because he was. But I didn't. I was stricken. A frisson of shame crawled through me. I realized then that my family and friends had been saying the same thing--hadn't they? All that work, all that suffering, all those loans. For nothing? What a waste. I wished, suddenly, that I could erase the past five years of my life, that I could wave a magic wand and make people forget I had a law degree at all. Then they wouldn't be disappointed in me for what I had--or hadn't--achieved.

It was Lulu's birth that brought me some peace with the whole matter. Because I don't have a job at a firm, because I work at home, part time, I can see her all day, every day. I can breastfeed for a year or more if I want. We can go to the park on a whim. I can save the article I'm working on for later, after she's gone to bed, and I can scoop her up out of her swing and love on her for a while whenever I want. Yes, I'll be making the minimum payments on my loans until I die. Yes, we live in a condo in a "underdeveloped" neighborhood in the burbs instead of a row house on Capitol Hill. Yes, we go without some things. We are rich in time together, though, and that feels good.

And there are things I gained from going to law school besides a knowledge of the law. I learned a lot about myself, my limits, my priorities. I tested my mettle, and learned how strong I was. I read a study once: it turns out the more educated parents are, the more graduate degrees they have, the longer their children live, the more educated they themselves will be. My law degree will help my daughter, even if I never use it to make money a day in my life. It's not entirely a waste.

Maybe one day Lulu will resent me because we're not as well-to-do as the kids she goes to school with. Maybe she'll look down on me, because my job isn't high-powered or important. DC is a place that values power, and I don't have it. Maybe she won't be proud of me that way.

But I think Lulu will be happier, overall, because I went to law school. In order to get better, to go back and finish, I had to learn that it's important to listen to your heart, to consider what you want, that if you don't, your body will just simply give in to stress. I had to redefine my definition of success, and in doing that, I found out that there are so many ways to measure success. I learned to be confident in my choices, that being happy is the greatest success I can attain. I learned not to worry about how other people look at me, how to live with setbacks, how to overcome them in the way that feels right in the context of my own life.

I learned these lessons in law school. I'll pass them on to my daughter. And it was worth every penny, all the blood, sweat and tears, to be able to do that.


  1. First of all, thank you SO much for the shout out! I am so glad you like the blog.
    Second, I LOVE this post. It was so honest. I totally relate to you on a lot of levels. I definitely didn't have the aversion to law school that you did, but it never felt quite right to me. And that unsettling feeling followed me for five (!) years working in law firms. But I can't say I regret it either. It was a great experience, I met my husband (looks like you did too!), I made some money, and who knows, maybe I'll become a practicing lawyer again someday.
    I also have dealt with panic/anxiety throughout my life, the most striking after I had my second son. Not fun at all. But, like you, it made me reassess my priorities and redefine what success means to me - which right now, is being the best mom I can be.
    You are in the DC suburbs, right? So am I! We should meet up for a drink sometime. :)

  2. Oh, and one more thing - my blog isn't necessarily titled "But I Do Have a Law Degree" so everyone knows I have one. It was more of a catchy title, inspired by my son's statement once that "Daddy is a lawyer, Mommy does laundry." :)

  3. I think it is wonderful that you finished, even knowing you didn't want it. I still have two years left on my Bachelor's - the downfall of waiting two years to go to college after high school, and marrying someone the same age, is that they graduate at the end of your sophomore year, and if you marry immediately and move away, it can be tricky to finish up your degree. Especially if you get pregnant the month after you are accepted into school, and find out you'll be giving birth the middle of your first semester. Suddenly, school is less of an option.

    I made myself, my parents, my husband, and my college advisor all the same promise, though - I WILL finish my degree someday. Even if I don't use it. Because I started it, and I want my girls to know that no matter how many bumps there are in the road, no matter how long or how difficult it is, it is good to finish what you start.

    So I will. Someday.

  4. Shan: I would absolutely love that. Let's keep in touch and try to find a good time! My email is

    Louise: I KNOW you will finish, and think about this: even if you can't do it right now, it packs even more of a punch to do it when the girls are older. That way it's more of a teachable moment, and they can see the example you set in accomplishing your goals.