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Robina M. Gumbs, Esq. Headshot

The Price of Gladiating

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"Your daughter has stopped eating." With those five words, I felt as though my mother had plunged a knife into my heart.

Alarmed, I demanded to know what happened. Mom continued, "Well, I gave her dinner tonight and she pushed it away. I asked her why she refused to eat. She said, 'Grandma, I just want to know one thing: Where is my Mommy?!' Then she pushed her food away and started sobbing. I can't get her to eat anything." I heard about my daughter's crisis on the phone, because it was 10:30 p.m. and I was at work, where I had been every day, including weekends, for three months. I am the real "Gladiator in a Suit."

I was meeting the final court-imposed deadline in a complex construction litigation matter. Mom had been called in to babysit. My husband was traveling for work, daycare ended at 6:30, and there were too many documents to be reviewed for me to be able to work from home. Now, to get our attention, our 3-year-old was staging a hunger strike.

Alone in my office, I came to a watershed moment. I asked myself, "Is this the best way to live?"

At the time of my daughter's meltdown, I had been a commercial litigator for a decade. I loved the thrill of winning for my clients. Lawyers are trained to do whatever it takes to meet a court deadline; I took pride in doing just that. As the character Harrison on ABC's "Scandal" so aptly described lawyers:

We don't have feelings, that's the job. Gladiators don't have feelings. We rush into battle, we're soldiers. We get hurt in the fight, we suck it up and we hold it down. We don't question.

If you are a "Scandal" fan, you will note that the Gladiators in Suits never leave the office and do not have families.

Gladiating describes a particularly male paradigm that operates in my profession and in the lives of professional women, generally. Historically, professional success was defined by standards that were designed by men who had wives to deal with the children and the household and female assistants to manage everything else. Male professionals were free to pursue their professional ambitions unencumbered by the cultural and societal obligations that are still nearly the exclusive domain of women. With the advent of women in traditionally male professions, we do everything our male colleagues do, in addition to managing the household, the kids' schedules and our professional schedules. This is true even if we have egalitarian spouses and can afford outside help.

Nearly every professional woman I know is talking about balancing all of our obligations; we are talking about it on the train, at ballet practice and at work-life balance panels. We've read the Anne-Marie Slaughter article and we think she is a visionary. We look on with amusement at self-congratulatory hedge-fund CEOs who pride themselves on being masters of the universe; they denigrate women who want to bond with their newborns as being unable to "focus." If all a woman had to do was her paid employment, she could be as self-congratulatory as some CEOs. The larger issue is this: could the CEO run a company, a family and a household and still do his job?

Before my daughter's crisis, I tried to do it all. My father had a stroke; as soon as he was stable and out of intensive care, I was back at the office, taking a deposition. Suddenly, I began to receive phone calls and emails about law school contemporaries who were dying of stress-related illnesses. I was exhausted. Every winter, my doctor would wait for me to show up with increasingly longer bouts of bronchitis. My mom and my aunts were extremely concerned. I brushed off their concerns. "That's what lawyers do," I told them. I thought that I was alone in working to exhaustion, until I attended the recent National Association of Professional Women's conference. In her interview with Star Jones, Arianna Huffington shared a story about working herself to exhaustion that was remarkably similar to my own. A lightbulb went off for me. The same male paradigm operates on women who are anonymous professionals and women who are in the C-Suite.

We need a new definition of success that does not solely rely on traditional markers. While you are billing 2200 hours, are you also giving time to the most meaningful elements of living that will, when you depart this life, give someone a reason to mourn your passing? Until we succeed in changing the cultural understanding of success to include time with family, time with self and service to the larger community, women will have to answer those questions based on what is right for each of us individually.

I decided that all of the signs pointed to me not being around to see my daughter grow up if I continued to drive myself to exhaustion. Fortunately, my organization has a liberal transfer policy, so I chose another practice area. Recently, at a work-life balance event, another lawyer asked me if I felt that I had sacrificed something professionally meaningful to me in order to achieve a better work-life balance. Try as I might, I cannot remember my reply. Her question, however, haunted me. Was my new direction a sacrifice, or a choice? The answer revealed itself one day a few weeks ago. On a summer Sunday, my now 8-year-old daughter and I attended the Girl Scouts 100th Anniversary Bridge Crossing on Randall's Island. She and her fellow Scouts decided that it would be great fun to roll down a hill dozens of times. As I sat under a maple tree in the afternoon sun, I listened to the girls squeal with laughter. "Ah," I thought, "I made the right choice."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.