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Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the model we working moms needed

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, center, poses with her family at the court in Washington on Friday, Oct. 1, 1993. From left are: son-in-law George Spera, daughter Jane Ginsburg, husband Martin, son James Ginsburg. The justice's grandchildren Clara Spera and Paul Spera are in front. (Doug Mills/AP)

I’ve been interviewing women lately who are feeling an unbearable burden but are bearing it. They are, after all, mothers. But they are mothers in an unprecedented time, holding the weight of everything that is being thrown at them during a global pandemic.

“There is no way that I can have my two older kids do school from home and keep my toddler alive and work,” one said. She quit. But she mourned. “It was so great to have an existence outside of my home, and my purpose wasn’t wound up entirely with my children. It was important to me.”

So when the news came that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the iconic working mother, had died, I thought of this woman I’d spoken with just hours earlier. Of the ways in which Ginsburg found parenting not to be a blockade to her success, but a relief, an inspiration.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and legal pioneer for gender equality, dies at 87

“I attributed my success in law school largely to Jane,” Ginsburg told the Atlantic about starting law school when her daughter was 14 months old. “I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”

When my children were small, I somehow found Ginsburg’s philosophy on working and mothering in the crevices of various things I’d read about her. I read about how she worked, then parented. Parented, then worked.

“I went to class about 8:30 a.m., and I came home at 4 p.m., that was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day, and children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep,” she had said.

Speaking at the National Constitution Center on Feb.12, 2018, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared a story from her years at Cornell University. (Video: National Constitution Center)

And so on those evenings when my neck was tied in knots trying to finish one more thing at work so I could get home to my children, I sometimes found a balm in Ginsburg’s mothering. When I come home, I will be home, I would think. I would pull into my parking spot just as my neighbor pulled into hers. I would take comfort knowing we were all doing this thing — finding stimulation in one part of our lives to feed the other. And back around.

Each part of my life gave me respite from the other.

A lot of Ginsburg’s success was buried in the belief that she deserved this — to put her brain to use. To mother, to dissent. To accept that her husband, Martin, would cook. That she would be one of the nine. Of course she could go to law school. Of course she could do it as a mother. Of course her husband could be just as good a parent as she could so she could study.

Did she finally acquire that life working mothers have been seeking? Did she (gasp) have it all?

“You can’t have it all at once,” she told Katie Couric in 2014. But “over my life span, I think I have had it all.”

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at 87. She became the second woman on the high court in 1993 and was a legal pioneer for gender equality. (Video: The Washington Post)

It was okay that I wasn’t there in person for my sweet boys’ every waking moment. Because if I were, then I wouldn’t really be there. And it was okay if I left work early to help a struggling child, to be there for them if I sensed they needed more of me.

Each part of my life gave me respite from the other.

At bedtime, I used to read my boys “I Dissent” — the picture book about Ginsburg’s life — pausing for myself on the page that depicted her studying in her daughter’s nursery, as Martin looked on, cradling their daughter.

“This is okay, what I’m doing,” I would absurdly think, comforted by a children’s book, of all things.

But we mothers often look for guidance in every place. We love so hard and carry so much, we need to know we’re not alone in this, not sacrificing too much of one thing for another thing.

Of course I wanted more than these little walls contained. Of course I wanted to cradle that little boy in his fuzzy pajamas. Of course, of course.

I used to read the book “When Mama Comes Home Tonight” to my boys at bedtime. It was given to me by a manager who had read it to her own sons. It is a sweet, sing-songy book about mothers who go to work but always return to their loves. I read it to my sons until one night, my son closed the cover and said: “No, Mama, too sad.”

On those nights, I may have considered Ginsburg’s words — that she was better because she was a mother, not despite it.

When I was struggling at times with working and parenting, when the burden shifted to me for so much at home as my husband’s hours became more difficult to harness, when I thought maybe I’d give it up because I’d be better off spending my days advocating for my children, answering every teacher’s call about my “spirited” son, I thought of Ginsburg.

“This child has two parents,” Ginsburg told her son’s school when they called, yet again. “Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”

I couldn’t quit. My sons needed me to work for so many reasons. Just like I needed to work as well. Working for any mother isn’t easy, and Ginsburg knew that, battling for the things that impact every working mother: maternity leave rights, equal pay. She wanted other parents to have what she did: Each part of my life gave me respite from the other.

Even as I juggled babies and children and work and a sick mother and a wonderful (thank goodness he cooks!) husband, I needed this part of my life, so I could also enjoy that part.

And as a woman in a house full of boys, I needed to make sure they understood. When a handful of neighborhood friends and I took our children to see the movie, “On the Basis of Sex,” their girls all sat in a line in front of us, my son cuddled up right next to me in seats toward the back. He teared up during the finale. He got it.

When one didn’t understand why girls in his second grade class could wear shirts that said “Girl Power” and “Girls Rule the World,” I could explain that it was because it was like sitting on a seesaw, when one person was heavier than the other. He was the heavier one, and we needed to make sure it’s more balanced so everyone can have fun.

I could point them to Ginsburg. To the picture books about the Supreme Court justice and her arguments, simple enough for children to understand: Not equal is not okay.

And so my boys have grown up with Ginsburg’s voice in their heads, just like I had as I rocked them to sleep, learning that motherhood is strength as much as it is tenderness.

One part nourishing the other. One part providing respite from the other.

As I sit here and write on the night Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, one of my boys asks me to come tuck him in, as I do every night. “Be there in a minute,” I yell.

My husband stands up from his computer, his work. “I’ve got it. You work, too,” he says as he climbs the stairs. The boys laugh. I type. Once I finish my work, I’ll close my computer and take my turn, kissing my children good-night.

One part of my life giving respite from the other.