Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned an official event at the State Department focused on the importance of balancing work and family into a personal conversation, sharing her own experiences as a mother, wife, daughter lawyer and stateswoman.
Speaking to a packed crowd at the kick-off of the department’s 2012 National Work-Life and Family Month, Clinton seemed particularly proud of how she managed to get her old law firm in Arkansas to establish a maternity leave program.
“Many years ago when I was pregnant, I was in a law firm,” she said. “I was the only female partner. And they’d never had a female partner, and certainly not a pregnant female partner. And they literally just were not sure what to do with me. I would walk down the corridor, getting more and more pregnant, and the men in the firm would, like, look away. Shh. Never say a word. And I just kind of thought I’m just going to wait to see if anybody says anything to me about the fact that I’m going to have a baby. So nobody ever did. ”
An animated Clinton had to pause for audience laughter several times during her story.
“Eventually, Feb. 27, 1980, I gave birth to my daughter,” she added. “And I was in the hospital when one of my partners called to say congratulations, and then in the course of it asked, ‘Well, when are you coming back to work?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Maybe in four months.’ And that’s how I created the firm’s first-ever maternity leave policy.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
The former first lady and senator talked about how the State Department has implemented more programs, better day care, rooms for mothers to breast feed and more flexible hours to help accommodate working families. She also stressed that balancing time for life is not only about women.
“I think that this is an issue that is not a woman’s issue,” she said. “It is a human issue and a family issue. After all, there is little doubt that balancing work and family responsibilities is done in one way or another by people everywhere, every day.”
Clinton said that employer support should extend beyond parenting needs and also consider employees who are taking care of aging parents, which is a growing trend. She again used her own experience, having cared for her mother, who died last year.
“My mother lived with me until her death a year ago,” she said. “And it was wonderful that she was in good health, but it was also something I had to consciously think about to ensure that we were getting a step ahead of what her health needs were and her physical challenges. … And it took time, which I was happy to give, but it’s something that more and more of us are going to be having to do.”
Clinton stressed that these conversations, which have often been dubbed, “the mommy wars,” should be about acceptance and understanding, not judgment.
“Sometimes, conversations about balancing family and work lead to arguments instead of a search for agreement,” said Clinton. “And it is absolutely clear there is no right or wrong way to have a family, or even whether you do have a family. There is no right or wrong way to build a career, or even if you do have a career. Women and men need to find approaches that work for them, and that approach may change over the course of your life.”