June 19, 2024

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Andrew Zinn

For this special edition of “How I Get It Done,” we’re asking successful women about how they’re making their return to the “office” as new moms work for them.

I’m a killer — I’ll always be a killer,” says L. Ashley Aull, who goes by Ashley, upon her return to him law firm after the birth of her second child. “And it’s time for me to get back on the battlefield.” The trial attorney in the Los Angeles office of Munger, Tolles & Olson has been repeating this mantra to herself as she drops her daughter off at day care and goes to work, all the while reeling from the “animal sense of mourning” of being away from her 3-month-old for the first time.

Aull represents businesses — often technology companies — in high-stakes trials involving disputes over matters such as intellectual property and patents. Recent clients include Snap, Activision Blizzard, and Google. Before becoming a litigation partner at her current firm, she spent nearly a decade as a federal prosecutor in the Los Angeles US Attorney’s office, where she received the Department of Justice’s highest award for prosecutors for her work coordinating the national response to the COVID-19crisis. With two children and a demanding and unpredictable job, Aull is figuring out how to harmonize her life at home with her unbridled professional ambition.

On her typical morning:
The first time I wake up is 3 am, when I have to feed my 3-month-old, Lex, and honestly, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day. It’s a bleary-eyed but beautiful moment. It lasts for 15 minutes, until I go back to sleep and hopefully she does, too. Of course, there are times where I end up awake for much longer. The other day, I pumped extra milk and emptied the dishwasher before going back to bed.

The second time I get up is 5:15 am I get myself coffee and I get myself fed, then I get the kids up and get them fed. Before I had children, I would wake up around the same time because it made the morning feel long. There was a sense of space. That feeling has completely evaporated.

Around 8 am, I take my kids to a wonderful day care that is across the street from, and subsidized by, my law firm. By the time I get coffee again and make instant oatmeal in the commissary, it’s 8:30 and I start work. It’s remarkable how little you can get done between 5:15 and 8:30 when you have two children.

On the moment she felt she’d “made it” in her career:
I’m an expert at moving the goal post, so I never feel like I’ve really “made it.” The closest I’ve ever gotten is when I was a federal prosecutor and I got a parking spot in the US Attorney’s office building. In LA, the government does not pay for your parking at all when you’re new, and to go from there to having a spot that’s in your building and not blocks and blocks away … it was the highest point in my career. I am never going to feel richer. It was like getting the Nobel Prize.

On maternity leave:
I had maternity leave for both my pregnancies, and in both cases I took less time than I could’ve because I felt pressure from my own ambition to return to work. I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to leave and embarrassed that I didn’t use more of it. At first, you’re completely intoxicated on baby hormones and pain and fatigue, but after the first few weeks, I worried about what was happening to my career while I was away from it. it was stressful.

On the early days of going back to work:
The highs were very high, and the lows were very low. The highs were feeling like an adult again, using my frontal cortex and having interesting conversations about the news or literature or whatever was going on in the office. The lows were feeling this animal sense of mourning and loss at being far away from a little baby that I love more than anything in the world. And there’s this absurdist middle where I’ll have to be on a conference call and turn off my camera to give legal advice while trying to pump, where I’m very much a lawyer and a hormone-saturated new mother. It’s completely absurd.

On ambition and parenting:
I am just as ambitious. I am extremely, extremely ambitious. But becoming a parent has made me have to be ambitious about structuring support for my family because there aren’t obvious solutions. Having kids really makes you realize that most of the corporate world was built by people who had single-income families, which is a polite way of saying that most people had stay-at-home wives. The world really hasn’t caught up to the reality of dual-income families. There aren’t obvious resources that make it easy to be a dual-income parent — period. Yes, there’s day care, but it’s not quite enough. Yes, there are nannies, but they’re not quite enough. Nothing is the same as having a full-time person who lives at your home who loves your children the way you do. Realizing that has been kind of sad because it makes you realize how slowly change happens.

On good parenting advice:
People want you to keep succeeding in your career after you’ve had children, but you have to be the person who figures out how to do that. This was told to me by a colleague who had gone to trial when she had a 6-month-old. She brought the baby with her to trial along with her mom, got an adjoining hotel room, and would go back to the hotel during evening meetings to be with her child. Trial is bananas. You don’t sleep. It’s the most intense professional experience I’ve ever had. The firm did everything to make it work for her, but they would’ve never suggested it. She had to come up with the clever solution and then ask the powers that be to help her make it happen.

On child care:
Both of my children are in the same day care, which is managed by KinderCare. It’s been such a benefit — better than I ever could have imagined. They have a curriculum for my 2-year-old that teaches him things I never would have thought to teach him. That day care covers the normal workday just fine, but because I have a job that’s not nine to five, we also have a nanny–slash–personal assistant. We pay her full time to work part time and be available at short notice if we need her for weekends, evenings, or errands, which are hard to do with my schedule. Early on, with both my children, my mother-in-law also came and lived with us.

On women’s invisible labor:
In my experience, there is only one solution to the asymmetry that probably existed in your relationship before you had a kid and definitely hits harder after: your wallet. The degree to which men and women of our generation have been differently socialized about tasks and labor is not something you can really resolve when you’re 40. My husband was raised to spend money on things that he didn’t want to do himself. I was raised to DIY everything I possibly could while saving money, and that approach to household tasks is devastating when you have kids. Because of my husband, I’m much more comfortable paying for things that save my time and reduce domestic friction because then it doesn’t fall on me to do those tasks.

On not getting it done:
I worked with an executive coach a few years ago who gave me some great advice. On days where you feel extremely stressed, make a “not to do” list. It frees you to stop thinking about those things until you can address them in a week, in a month — whenever. When I’m stressed out, that’s what I do.

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