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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    December 06, 2019

    Reflections: How Do You Identify?

    There's no wrong answer to the question of which of your life's roles you primarily identify with, as long as the response feels right for you.

    Deanne M. Koll

    At one of my firm’s retreats, after too much wine, I got into a discussion with another lawyer about how I “identify.” One of my firm’s lawyers had recently gone through a scary cancer diagnosis and surgery, but now had a good prognosis. He was professing that he did not identify as a “cancer survivor.” This began his probing of others at the table: How do you identify?

    Deanne M. KollDeanne M. Koll, William Mitchell 2006, is an attorney and shareholder with Bakke Norman S.C., with offices in Menomonie and New Richmond, Wis.

    Very quickly, I said that I identify as a lawyer. That was easy; I mean, duh, right?

    Then, I quickly threw my hand over my mouth. Did I just say that my primary identity was as a lawyer? Did my self-identification as a lawyer work as an exclusion of my many other identities? Did that mean that I didn’t self-identify as a wife? As a daughter? Or worse, that I didn’t self-identify as a mother? (Insert *gasp*).

    Aaaaaaaand, cue the guilt. Guilt about ordering another bottle of wine for our table, but also guilt for not primarily identifying as a mother. Contemporaneously with the rising guilt, so rose my swirling feminist disposition. I thought, is this guilt of not identifying “as a mother” a result of the social indoctrination that women must identify primarily with being a mom? Why can’t I identify primarily as a lawyer? I mean, I’m a better lawyer than I am a mother, right?

    I suspect there’s a psychoanalysis pyramid for this, but after the guilt, I began the rationalization process. My brain spun. I thought, I immediately identify as a lawyer, because I’m always a lawyer – it never shuts off. I’m either 1) at work, 2) worrying about work, or 3) making a mental list for what I have to do when I’m next at work. The other hours of the day, I’m either sleeping, yelling at my kids, or participating in a wine-and-whine, after my kids are in bed. I really am just a high functioning mess of a mom, but I’m a pretty okay lawyer. This conclusion – of never being able to “turn off” being a lawyer, together with my conclusion on my respective abilities at each – made for a smooth rationalization as to why I so quickly identified primarily as a lawyer.   

    For some context, I’ll tell you I was raised by a matriarch. Everyone in my family knew who was in charge. (Sorry dad, but even he would agree.) And, my mother worked outside the home my entire childhood – she had an identity outside of our family and never apologized for that. My dad never gave her money and was never allowed to ask where she spent hers. (To this day she maintains her own bank accounts; Nordstrom thanks her). She was the final say on what we were allowed to do, and there was no negotiation if we didn’t like the response.  She was firm, fair, and had a life (and career) of her own, outside of her kids.   

    All the same, she was a good mom – a great mom, in fact. She made us ask to be excused from the dinner table, she always made us use our manners, and we never got a gift for which we were not required to write a handwritten thank-you note. If there was a reality TV show competition for moms, she’d certainly win.

    I’m sure that if I asked my mother how she identified, she would say “as a school teacher.” And, I think that’s okay. She taught me (and my sister) that we needed to be independent, we needed to be educated, and we needed to have our own money. But, most importantly, my mother taught me that you can be a mom and identify as something outside of motherhood. For me, that’s being a lawyer. So, why all of my angst about not primarily identifying as a mother? What I’m telling you other lawyer-moms is this: let’s stop apologizing for this! We can primarily identify as a lawyer, because we’re good at it. As for the motherhood aspect, it’s like folding a fitted sheet – no one really knows how to do it.

    I’ve traversed the internal path of rationalization. Have you?

    Is this guilt of not identifying “as a mother” a result of the social indoctrination that women should identify primarily with being a mom?

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