Bea LarsenThis is part one of an 11-part series of blog excerpts written by Bea V. Larsen, JD, Center for Resolution of Disputes. These eleven blogs appeared in Care Management Journals, Volume 15, Number 1, 2014. Full sample downloads of this journal are available here.

The best gift I ever received was not my husband’s to give, but was gratefully accepted: Permission to change my life.

It was the summer of 1964. For 6 weeks, Len was exploring Scandinavia with a group of academic geologists, our longest separation in 15 years of marriage. As his return drew near, the three kids and I drove about the country visiting friends and family, ending our journey at LaGuardia Airport, peering through a wall of glass, eager to spot Len in the long line of weary travelers navigating customs.

Reunited, we headed for an airport hotel. All five of us tumbled onto the big bed, filing the air with our stories, the kids eventually settling down on rollaway cots. Len and I held each other close, wordless, as they drifted off to sleep.

The next morning we started home, the windows of our ’57 Chevy station wagon open to the warm wind of late summer. Taking a road trip with a geologist presents the challenge of drawing his interest away from the rock and land formations he finds ever fascinating. Perhaps Len’s divided attention gave me the courage to remark, my tone casual and tentative: I’m thinking about going to law school.

Leading up to this moment, there is a story to be told: I was 35 years old. Julia, our youngest, would soon enter kindergarten. Concentrating fully on raising children gave me a satisfying sense of purpose, but as they got older, motherhood as a career was no longer enough. Anticipating this, we’d talked about what I would do next. My teaching certification could be renewed, but I’d been living in a child-centered world for 12 years and yearned for something else, but what?

When on our travels while Len was away, one evening at dinner, the husband of a friend, she’s in the same quandary, surprised me by asking if I’d ever considered law school. I hadn’t, but the idea was born and took shape as I mulled it over during the days that followed. I spoke of it to no one. Len’s approval was the missing piece.

As I write on this day in 2011, I think back to that important moment on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1964, remembering who I was then, and wonder how my life might have played out differently had Len not responded: Law school? What a great idea. Perfect for you.

I was not without qualms when I presented my plan. Do many remember that just 40 years ago, it was assumed without question that there was some sound reason that law was an all-male profession? Would challenging that premise undermine my desirability as a woman, as Len’s wife? In 1949, the year we married, even college-educated women married young and welcomed home and hearth as their destiny. (To put things in perspective, we married 14 years before Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique and sparked the second wave of the woman’s movement.)

Today, when law school enrollment of women equals that of men, is my story but a faded relic of the past? Is attention any longer paid to maintaining the delicate balance of men’s expectations and women’s fulfillment? Do women still seek the approval of a loved partner before making a major identity shift? Do men? Or is it the essence of equality to no longer do so?

But do as many men as women interrupt or modify their careers when children arrive? Would they, if that was the gift that was sought? And when they do, or elect not to, how do those careers and marriages fare? Do both men and women relinquish some competitive edge professionally when they fully take on or even share the role of nurturer?

Do those members of our profession in positions of power, whose children are well launched, consider the dilemma of younger colleagues, female or male, facing these choices and ask themselves what accommodations might be made in the interest of better outcomes for all concerned? Is this the new arena for the gender wars?

But who is the adversary, one’s spouse or one’s employer? Do those making hiring decisions, or perhaps more importantly seeking to foster retention of valued staff, make their judgments with only their own past history in mind? If so, I suspect their choices may no longer be wise ones, even for the bottom line.