“Having Jane gave me a better sense of what life is,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg told The Atlantic in 2017 of her firstborn child. The year before, the beloved Supreme Court Justice shared with us her “Advice for Living,” writing for The New York Times that “work-life balance was a term not yet coined in the years my children were young; it is aptly descriptive of the time distribution I experienced.” It's not possible to even begin, at this moment, just the morning after learning of her loss, to sum up everything this woman gave to us, to the world. But as I scroll through the expressions of devastation, heartbreak, and deep, unsettled fear in my social media feeds and the texts on my phone, I find myself coming back to the insight she shared in that piece. It’s something that every mother needs to hear, again, right now.
“My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane,” Ginsberg wrote. “I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”
Born in 1933, Ginsberg was one of only nine women in her Harvard law school class of 400. And she started those classes, among all those men, with a toddler at home. In 2020, that sounds daunting and yet, in 1956, there she was, and there she thrived, against so many odds. Years later, she looked back at that time not with memories of suffocating overwhelm, but with a cleareyed understanding of how her children helped her to become the force for equality under the law, the intellectual giant (though she was that all along), the unlikely pop culture icon we know and love and mourn today.
But in that daily juggling act, despite the anxiety and the overburdening, RBG’s words remind us to look also for the delight, for the strength that motherhood gives us.
Things are hard right now. They are really, really hard. The challenges we face as mothers, unprecedented. Many of us go about our daily lives with a soul-clenching fear about the future our children face. We are trying to keep our jobs (if we still have them) while schooling our kids; we miss our families, our friends, our lives; we see no end in sight. Since it was coined, “work life balance,” has eluded mothers a little more each year, and never more than in 2020. There is only doing what we can, when we can, however we can.
But in that daily juggling act, despite the anxiety and the overburdening, RBG’s words remind us to look also for the delight, for the strength that motherhood gives us. Our children are our joy, our source of happiness and fun (when they are not driving us bananas). They are our motivation, and they make us better, stronger, more fierce humans. We do what we do because — not in spite — of them.
We need more help, urgently, and Ginsburg knew this. In 2001, she told the New York Bar Association, “Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”
But she also knew, and proceeded to live out, the fact that we can accomplish a lot while true equality is still ahead of us. We can raise our children to be better than our own generation, we can take part in our democracy with small, tangible actions, we can give each other grace and encouragement. We can sing and read and bathe and feed and use that — our responsibility and our right — to approach the next 45 days with the renewed will and sense of proportion that those in the way of equality are in total ignorance about, and that our children offer us. On top of all of the ways RBG armed us for the fight, she gave us this, too.