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Martha C. Perrin has never taken a lap around the mommy track. She’s executive partner of Atlanta labor and employment boutique Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, and one of a scant handful of women in top law firm management positions in the city. She’s also the mother of two boys: Catesby, 18, and David, 13. As a lawyer, she honed her skills, put in long hours, brought in business and proved her loyalty to the firm, often by putting the firm first. She waited until after she’d made partner to have children, and stayed out of the office for just two weeks following each birth. As a mother, she went to her kids’ football games, volunteered at school, says she spent “tons of money” to hire the best childcare available and got help from her parents, who moved nearby to help. Having great childcare providers “takes a lot of the guilt away, particularly when they’re better at it than you are,” she says. NOT GUILTY Guilt is pretty much a given for working mothers, and society may impose more of it on those well-heeled enough to make work an option rather than an economic necessity. For working moms, it’s a choice that often means spending more time at the office than with their offspring. Face it. If you spend 60 hours at work and another five hours commuting, there’s not a lot of time left. Small children are in bed before 9 p.m. at most homes, further limiting time with them. This is not about balance. It’s about choices. Some women don’t feel the need to apologize for making partner, avoiding the mommy track and hiring great nannies who may spend more time with kids than do their parents. Not that they don’t love their kids, such women would add. But they love the law, too. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours for both. “I don’t feel guilty anymore,” says Perrin of her focus on work. “I certainly had moments.” Those moments, she says, were self-inflicted and spurred by conflicting societal messages that criticized educated women who stayed home for wasting their lives, while simultaneously accusing working women of being bad mothers. Her decision not to go on the mommy track was personal, not economic. Her husband, senior vice president for marketing at McKessonHBOC, is very supportive, she says. Hers was the decision of a woman who loves her job, who gets to the office at 7:30 a.m. and generally leaves by 6 p.m. Though she calls her kids “a joy,” she says, “I’d rather practice law than iron.” SUDBURY FACES CHOICES Deborah A. Sudbury is another partner with kids who knows about choices. As a litigator and leader of the labor and employment section at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in Atlanta, she says she generally works 50 to 60 hours a week. That means her sons, Benjamin, 11, and Willem, 8, always have had a live-in nanny. Her husband, head of the astronomy and physics department at the University of Georgia, handles about half the childcare duties and is very supportive, she says. The family started in Athens, Ga., moved to Gwinnett, Ga., and has moved again to North Fulton, Ga. Despite careful orchestration, when things go awry, Sudbury has to choose. She recalls one time when a crisis came up at work. It happened on a day when she was to give a report at an important board meeting, the nanny was off, her husband was out of town and her sons needed care. Where did she go? The firm. She didn’t make the board meeting, and took her sons to the office where they read books until 9 p.m. while she worked. She says she remembers looking at them and thinking, “This is really crummy. … You feel like that for a day or two, and then rationalization takes over.” Practicing law, she says, is something she chooses to do because she likes it. She has a lot of energy, she explains, laughing. “I think that if I didn’t work, I’d have to channel all that energy into my poor, unsuspecting children.” PAINFUL MOMENTS Working a lot means there are moments when a working mom has to look her child in the eyes and explain why she has to work instead of helping with algebra or sitting down at the piano to pound out the bass line of Chopsticks. Sudbury says she’s had to tell her kids, “It’s not that they’re less important, but I do have responsibilities to other people.” They are very understanding, she says. And she tries to make it up to them by what might be described as condensed parenting. Last summer, for example, she was out of town about three days each week working on a class action in Aiken, S.C. Her boys spent part of the summer with their grandparents, but when they were home, Sudbury was hosting a sleepover or heading off for a camping trip with them virtually every weekend. Perrin says her sons have told her they want to spend more time with her, that she works too much. So she gives them a choice. “I’ll quit,” she tells them. “And every minute of every day, I’ll say, ‘Tell me what you’re doing. I want to hear everything anybody said to you.’ And they say, ‘No, go to work.’” Despite the demands of work, Perrin and Sudbury say they’re involved in their kids’ lives and have made some accommodations at work to achieve that. Perrin leaves in the middle of the day to go to ballgames or school events and makes up the time later. Sudbury says she goes to work early and stays late Monday through Friday, rarely working weekends. SEPARATING OFFICE, HOME And Sudbury doesn’t bring the office home. “I’m not practicing law at home; I’m being their mother,” she says. But for some, there is no doubt that parenting lags behind partnering. One mommy-track veteran of big-firm life tells of working with a lawyer who liked to brag that she worked so hard to make it, she didn’t know her kids’ middle names until after she’d made partner. On another occasion, the mommy track lawyer recalls being scheduled to travel out of town on law firm business, but canceling the trip when she learned her child had broken an arm. The female partner in charge didn’t reprimand her, exactly, but said, “We typically don’t cancel things unless it’s a life or death situation.” Working mothers who have tried to give the firm, themselves and their kids their due know there’s always a price. The question is who pays it. It hasn’t been the firm, says Perrin. By choosing work and kids as her priorities, she hasn’t taken time to develop deep female friendships or get involved in sports groups such as tennis associations. “If I missed something — and maybe it’s overrated — it’s the afternoon conversations with my children,” she says. Sudbury says she knows she’s missed a lot of the little events in her kids’ growing-up years because she’s just not around enough. One year, she missed a birthday. Another time, she says, “My younger son started walking while I was trying a case.” Looking back, Perrin sees that perhaps the price didn’t have to be so high, that she’d be where she is today even if she’d taken time off to be a mom. She says maybe she and others of her generation showed too much loyalty to their firms, attempting to prove they weren’t exceptions in a male-dominated profession and that “women aren’t slackers.” She doesn’t claim to be a role model, saying with a laugh, “I’m a terrible example.” Still, she’s very clear about what working mothers owe their employers. Firms offer more flexibility to working moms now than they did 20 years ago, but Perrin says that’s no excuse not to give back to the firm what it is investing, not to give top performance on the job. For herself, she says, “I have done what I enjoyed. I don’t think I’ve shortchanged the firm.”

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