I just finished listening to Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming” over the weekend as I flew to New Orleans to co-chair the inaugural Black alumni celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Black graduate (Michael Starks) from my alma mater, Tulane Law School. Our second Black graduate, a female lawyer, Janice Foster, like our 44th President, Barack Obama, was the first Black member of Tulane’s Law Review and graduated just two years later in 1970. Fast forward to 1994 where Tulane made history by graduating 55 Black students in my class, the highest number ever in the history of the law school, with more than half of them attending the reunion! It was an awesome sight to behold!
As I found myself surrounded by a sea of beautiful, smart, talented Black lawyers this weekend, particularly Ms. Foster and other black women lawyers, I was simply in awe. These are women who are making their marks all around the world in places as far flung as Paris, New York and Seattle, and in positions as diverse as judges, law firm partners, in-house counsel, and solo practitioners. In fact, I was moved to tears several times just walking into the rooms where we gathered. We shared our stories of overcoming, of navigating the predominant culture, of giving back to our communities, and increasing the pipeline of Black lawyers who are following behind us (Note: we raised over $150,000 to support the school’s diversity programming and pipeline scholarships for Black students), all the while raising our own children to be hardworking individuals who pursue excellence and also give back.
I was struck by the challenges these women faced as mothers and daughters too. One classmate had survived a malignant brain tumor only to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (a rare form of cancer that seems to target minority women) four years later. Another classmate lost her mother to medical malfeasance while another tragically lost her teenage son and yet another took on the daunting task of raising her young cousins in addition to her own blended family. Yet, we were all there together in spite of these challenges to celebrate triumphing while standing on the shoulders of those black women lawyers like Janice who preceded us. One thing I know for sure in listening to their stories, is that we are SURVIVORS, and we can do anything we put our minds to, including raising brilliant, focused, phenomenal children while having successful careers to boot.
In noting how she was able to balance her duties as FLOTUS with her self-titled “Mom-in-Chief” role during eight incredibly stressful years in the White House, Michelle Obama, also a Black female lawyer, said something that truly resonated with me, “We put everything we had into the development of our girls, working with purpose but parenting with care.”
I have always admired both Barack and Michelle because I have watched how they, like my husband (a federal judge appointed by President Obama) and I, have chosen to engage in conscious, deliberate parenting while having meaningful careers. Whereas they had two daughters, Sasha and Malia, we had three: Sydney (age 21), Gabrielle “Gabby” (age 19) and Saige (age 15) whose childhood journeys were also punctuated by the height of our career success.
When we were just starting our careers, Brian was a county prosecutor, and I was an associate at an AmLaw 100 firm where I utilized my Spanish language skills to practice international law. For a number of years, I traversed exotic locales like Brazil, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, and Mexico City to develop expert witnesses for trials in Latin America. Our two girls were just 26 months and four months old when I took that job. Eventually, after my third child was born, I left an equity partnership at a regional law firm and Brian left his state court judge position.
Almost eight years ago when Brian was undergoing the strenuous background check to become a federal judge, I transitioned to my current role to build my firm’s national diversity and professional development function from the ground up for 45 offices and 700+ lawyers. Our children at the time were in transition themselves, beginning high school and junior high while also navigating elementary school.
Our oldest, Sydney, is now a senior dance management major and history minor at Oklahoma City University, one of the top five dance programs in the country where she has been on a dance and academic scholarship for the past four years. She has been on the President’s Honor Roll entire college career. Frankly, I am amazed at how she has been able to balance rigorous dance training in ballet, jazz, and tap while also taking challenging courses like Business Law, Micro and Macro Economics in the business school for the management part of her degree, often during summers when she is also balancing internships and part-time jobs.
Gabby is a sophomore at Southern Illinois University where she is on an academic and volleyball scholarship. She continues to balance the rigors of training, relentless travel and playing volleyball in a division one collegiate program while maintaining a 4.0 cumulative G.P.A.. She is majoring in Global Studies with minors in African-American Studies, Criminal Justice and Spanish Language and Literature. A social activist, she aspires to become an international human rights lawyer.
Saige is a freshman in high school following behind her sisters at the illustrious St. Teresa’s Academy, an all girls Catholic High School in the heart of Kansas City where we reside and where I have served on the board for the last six years, two as Board President. Her sport of choice is soccer. Though she doesn’t know what she intends to major in while in college, one thing is for certain, she will be doing it while pursing a collegiate soccer career. She already has a full athletic scholarship to her dad’s alma mater and is being recruited by several national programs. She completed the first semester of high school with a 95.55 cumulative G.P.A. and aspires to one day play soccer in the Olympics and professionally.
While our daughters certainly have the accoutrements of external success, the most important thing to us has always been that they are also socially conscious, empathetic, self-reliant human beings who know their value and strive to live meaningful lives while giving back to their community.
Others often ask us the secret to raising confident, resilient young women. What I know to be true is that the very things that helped me be a successful black female lawyer and, quite frankly, took me years to learn, are the very things that my girls have internalized from watching me practice and hearing me preach. That is, to put in the hours and time needed to master their craft, to find their authentic voice and not be afraid to use it, to use their critical thinking skills to be problem solvers rather than problem creators, to set the bar high for themselves seeking excellence even when others dwell in mediocrity, to treat others respectfully and act inclusively while not judging others, to be grateful for the opportunities they have and express that gratitude to others, to admit when they are wrong and be willing to learn from their mistakes, to communicate effectively both verbally and in writing, and to know their worth.
All of these lessons have been imparted deliberately with care often as we sat through numerous volleyball tournaments, dance recitals and competitions, and soccer games and practices. We have consistently shown up during their extracurricular activities and been a vocal and physical presence volunteering at their educational institutions from pre-school through college, knowing their teachers, getting to know and sometimes coaching their peers. At the end of the day, our girls know that what’s important to them is also important to us. None of it has been easy, and all of it has been time consuming. At times in my career, I adjusted my schedule to work reduced hours to be able to have more freedom and control over my schedule.
What I know for sure is there is simply no formula for parenting or career success. You take every day as it comes and simply try to be as deliberate as possible in the decisions you make about how you spend your time and exert your energy because both are finite. Neither Barack nor Michelle Obama, Brian or Michelle Wimes have all the answers, but if you strive to work with purpose while parenting with care, you will certainly be ahead of the curve.
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Michelle Wimes is a 50 Black Women Over 50 honoree and the Chief Diversity and Professional Development Officer at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., one of the nation’s largest labor and employment law firms. She is fluent in Spanish, having spent significant time studying and working in Spain and Latin America. Michelle is married to Brian C. Wimes, a federal district court judge, and is the mother of three daughters, Sydney, Gabrielle, and Saige each of whom is pursuing her passions and is successful in her own right.