Written by Maryam D’Hellencourt
My first step as a newly-admitted McGill student was to have my student ID made. It was August in Montreal, the excitement of a new adventure upon me. I put on casual yet tasteful attire, proudly achieved a picture-perfect hairdo and headed downtown. My baby safely strapped in his stroller, I queued at Service Point to make the great news official: I was now a McGill law student! I was almost through the line, with just two people standing before me, when the person supervising the queue politely asked me to leave. I was a little bit puzzled and at a loss for words for a moment. He said, “This area is for students only, parents need to wait in the lobby.”
There is a fact seldom mentioned about law students: some of us – actually, a bunch of us – have children. We are taught the merits of shielding our personal lives from our professional personas and many of us believe in this. So we are parents at home and students at the faculty, and each role is of no consequence to the other. Some of us switch from parent to student during the metro ride to campus; others just have the time it takes for the light to turn green as they cross Peel on their way from the McGill day-care building.
Once we are in the classroom, does it even matter that some of us have children? Maybe having a child is just an irrelevant piece of information. As legal scholars, aren’t we trained precisely to pick out the relevant facts from a case? After all, the quality of a legal opinion or the brilliance of analytical reasoning are in no way linked to parental status.
Maybe being a parent is relevant only as a hindrance, an unfortunate circumstance that compromises a student’s chances of success. Indeed, spending restless nights pondering over remedies for odontogenesis might sound very scholarly, but believe me (or Google) it is not the best way to prepare oneself for the intellectual challenges of legal education. On the other hand, typical student nightlife can be just as restless: hitting the bars on Crescent Street, dancing the night away, arguing with a soon-to-be ex? Maybe even doing all of that at once?
There is this idea that law students with children are accomplishing a feat, like we are unsung heroes, doing what so many thought impossible. In fact, “I don’t know how you do this” is the most common statement I hear when I first mention my child. I have even been told on occasion that I was “a hero.”
Being a parent and a law student is not heroic. It is, or maybe should be, simply ordinary. If you ask law students who are parents, you might be surprised to hear that they don’t necessarily struggle; some of them even find that having children while studying is an asset. I don’t mean to minimize the challenges, because there are important difficulties that students with children face, and not all are equal. You might find that experiences differ depending on the student’s gender, living situation, financial means, the age or (dis)ability of their children, how many children they have, or their citizenship status. Dealing with the routine tasks of parenting, like daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, bath time, mealtime, story time — all in the middle of a 48-hour take-home exam — is certainly a challenge; it is even more so for a single parent or for a family that has just arrived in Canada with no support network.
However, the biggest difficulty in being both a law student and a parent is this concept that law students are not parents; this idea is based on an abstract and purely fictional idea of who the typical law student is or should be. While law is often conceived of in the abstract, and often resorts to fictions, this approach doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, apply to legal education. Instead of shaping law school around the needs and aspirations of an imaginary student, one who is notably a relic from a relentless past of shameless privilege and discrimination, we should allow law school to reflect the changes in its own student population. Both the staff and students of the faculty should be aware that parenthood exists and belongs on both sides of the classroom — in clubs, at coffeehouses, on exchange and even on an internship. We pride ourselves on the relative diversity of our student body, but this also means allowing norms to shift accordingly, or even better, to push for change. Part of that change is in recognizing that there are students at our faculty who are parents, or intend to become parents, without watering down their ambitions or making heartbreaking compromises.
Most parents or parents-to-be within our ranks, while striving for meaningful careers, also actually want to be involved in raising their kids, and not just act as providers. These are concerns that directly affect legal education, academia and legal practice. And let’s be honest, students with children might more readily embrace the work/ life balance credo, but a lot of students who are not concerned with having children also contemplate a kind of life that won’t keep feeding the statistics about alcoholism and depression in the legal profession. All students would likely benefit from a law school more mindful of parenthood within its ranks.
Keeping the issue of parenthood quiet and out of sight is simply reinforcing the status quo, which in turn reinforces gender disparities in our faculty and in the workforce. While the fathers in law school can put their stability and maturity forward to potential employers, it is likely to be very different for mothers. There are still prejudices in the professional world that women who have (or want) children need to fight in order to reach their career goals. Law school can and should be a space of empowerment, a jumpstart towards resisting such systemic discrimination. The first step is to openly acknowledge parenthood within the law faculty.
I for one won’t be switching from parent to student at the door because I know my faculty is open to change, and that as students we have a role to play in fostering that change. At McGill Law, our children are welcome in class, breast-feeding is allowed everywhere, and parents don’t have to “wait in the lobby.” We have the opportunity to change the idea of the typical law student and I am seizing it.