It was never my intention to make Sara Moss cry — particularly not while she was wearing designer mascara. But asking her to describe the struggles of raising four children, while rising to the top of the legal profession, did just that. We all know it’s not easy, but we don’t often stop to think about just how hard it is. Taking her back through her journey seemed to stir up the sort of emotions and questions many of us feel when grappling with the same tough issues: How will I get through this? Am I making the right decision?
As Sara zigzagged through her career, I followed her through periods of working part-time, some years that were not satisfying professionally, and plenty of opportunities for guilt. Her young son called while she was on a business trip to say that if she didn’t come home right then, she’d no longer be his mommy. That sort of heartbreak is par for the course when you’re a working mom, but is it worth it? Sara has a few thoughts on that. Family life was often messy and complicated, but she’s a whole person. And yes, she’s glad she had a career.
In the end, maybe it’s about having the self-confidence to rise to the challenge — whatever it is. Sara wears that sort of confidence the way most women wear their Estée Lauder makeup. Sometimes you just have to put your face on and keep going.
This interview, conducted live in New York at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in honor of Women’s History Month, has been edited and condensed.
Sara Moss: I think seeing the opportunities out there, and questioning whether I could take them, started before my career did. I had done well in college and I was interested in legal issues, but I didn’t grow up envisioning myself as a lawyer. Roe v. Wade was decided the year after I became involved in the women’s movement, and I thought, “I could do this. I’d like to do this.”
I really didn’t have a clear expectation for my career. I took the courses in law school that were interesting to me. I was moved along by passion and my passions changed over time.
I think of the expression, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” I think having a plan is great if you know what you want and you go for it. I think it is important to base plans on your passions and on reality. I know one of the things we’ll talk about — and I feel deeply about — is work-life balance. I have four children. They’re grown up now, but it was really hard. I didn’t have a plan for that. I knew I wanted to have children, I loved the work I was doing, and I struggled and juggled the whole way through.
I think that goes back to not having a plan. Yes, I was doing well as a litigation associate at Davis Polk, but I wanted to try cases. Going to the U.S. Attorney’s office was a great opportunity to try cases and joining the first wave of women there was exciting. When my three-year commitment at the U.S. Attorney’s office ended, Davis Polk asked me to come back. I was pregnant with my first child, so we worked out a part-time arrangement. The biography that you hear is not a linear one. There were definitely some zigs and zags.
My daughter once said, “When did you form this club mom, how old were you?” Again, I feel very lucky. Bob Fiske, who had been a partner at Davis Polk, was the U.S. Attorney at the time. He didn’t bring me in, but he invited me to apply, and said, “If you get your application up to me, you have a good chance.” When I started, he said, “There’s a woman coming from Debevoise & Plimpton who I think you’re really going to like.” That was Mary Jo. We became good friends and joined the women’s basketball team. It was the shortest, most aggressive basketball team in the league and so much fun. There were few women at the U.S. Attorney’s office, and we wanted to have someplace to get to know each other. I used to sneak off and play tennis with Mary Jo and Barbara Jones (who was later a federal judge and recently the arbitrator in the Ray Rice case). It was very competitive, so we started calling each other “the Sids.” It was a special time. A really exciting time.
Oh, there’s always pushback. I went to NYU, rather than Columbia, because NYU’s class was 25 percent women. Columbia had less than 10 percent women. The whole top of our class was female. There was pushback all the way, but it was irrelevant to me. I was not fazed by it. I felt like I was just doing my job, and I had a very strong group of women friends, and we are still close. That was important to me.
Take the risk: What’s there to lose? Recently, I was at a spa with a friend. There was an advanced yoga class at sunrise, and I said, “I love to get up early, let’s take this class.” She replied, “But it says advanced yoga…and we’ve never done yoga.” And I responded, “How hard could it be?” Everybody who’s laughing knows how dumb my remark was. We were in downward dog, and I’ll tell you, the instructor was not happy. But I don’t think we were bothering anybody. At the end, he came up and said, “You know, I don’t think you ladies should be in advanced yoga.” So I responded, “I don’t think you should have that attitude when this is supposed to be yoga.” So, I think it’s about taking risks and jumping in. I really want women to feel that they can have families and a career — and know that every woman who does both struggles.
It wasn’t strategic; I remarried. I was single from the time I was 28 to 35. When I remarried, I didn’t have a plan to have four children, but I had a plan to get started. I’m one of two children, and my mother, who is very reserved, watched all this. When I was 42, I had three small children and was a partner in a law firm. My parents came to our place in the country, and we said, “We have news: We’re having another baby.” My mother said, “This is a joke, right?” And my father said, “People don’t usually joke about things like this; I don’t think it’s a joke.” I wanted more than two children. It’s also true that my second child was very ill when he was a baby. We almost lost him. He’s in graduate school now, so it all worked out.
Yes, it was very emotional. I haven’t thought about it that way for a very long time.
Sure. My mother didn’t work, so I had a lot of questions and guilt about it. I think I was afraid to stop working completely, because I didn’t know if I would be able to come back. With two small children, I wanted to work part-time. That didn’t work out very well for me, or the firm, frankly. After a few years, a group of young men I knew from Davis Polk and Sullivan and Cromwell were starting a law firm (Howard, Smith & Levin), and asked me to come in as a partner because I had litigation and white-collar experience. I was torn. Davis Polk was a great firm. The adventure sounded very exciting. It felt like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” This was like, “Hey kids, let’s start a law firm!” And we did. It was really fun and a lot of juggling. It kept me engaged and I grew professionally. To answer your question, when I was working part-time, yes, I thought about calling it quits. But I’m glad I didn’t.
Certainly. And not just uncommitted, but somehow less of a lawyer. As if being a mother means your brains were fried or something. I think that’s changed. I hope that’s changed.
I just put my head down and kept going. I don’t know, maybe I just had thick skin.
Don’t expect to find peace — that’s the first step. People talk about work-life balance. That’s a joke, right? It’s not a balance. Every day is unbalanced; every week is unbalanced. Ultimately, you’re juggling everything. It was hard. I didn’t sleep much; I didn’t do much of anything else — I was completely focused on my children and my work. Trust me, it was not perfect. I also had a lot of help. I had the resources. I think the real heroes are the women who can’t afford help, who take their kids to daycare, clock in at their job, then do laundry, make dinner, all of that. I didn’t have to do that. I felt very lucky. At one point, I had four children at four different schools, and it was crazy. I had a housekeeper who lived with us, plus two nannies, because the kids had to go to different places. When the kids started to have homework and the babysitters couldn’t really help them with it, I hired a nursery school teacher. She came from 3 to 7 o’clock, Monday through Thursday. She wasn’t a tutor, but she helped them get settled and started on their homework so I didn’t have an extra job when I got home. I would come home, have dinner, check them for quizzes, or whatever it was, but it wasn’t starting from scratch.
Oh, are you kidding? All the time. Some of the hardest times were when my son was very ill, but it was also hard when I was traveling a lot. It’s funny, my kids don’t remember it now. Somebody once asked my daughter if she wanted to be a lawyer and she said, “Absolutely not, it’s like having homework for the rest of your life.” I would come home with a litigation bag and finish my own work after they went to sleep. I could sort of manage that, but traveling was tough. I had a big international bank fraud case that took me to the Middle East a lot. I would work around the clock while I was there and come home as soon as I could. But it was Monday to Friday a few times. With the time difference, I’d stay up late so I could call the kids. And I remember one of my sons saying, “If you don’t come home right this minute, you’re not going to be my mommy anymore. The nanny’s going to be my mommy.” I was so tired that I burst into tears. He doesn’t remember that conversation at all.
I think there was judging on both sides. I try hard not to judge. I feel that every woman who works and likes to work and has children is torn. You just are. We should not judge each other. In fact, I think that was probably part of my guilt. I felt that it was hard to measure up to the stay-at-home mothers. In the early years, there was a demarcation between the kids who had nannies take them to play dates and the kids who went with their moms. As the kids got older, there were more mothers who were working and the line softened.
Well, my children would say I somehow managed to do both. I managed to drive them crazy while still having a full-time job. But it wasn’t a theory; it was just my life. When we started the law firm, I ended up with a really interesting practice. I liked it; it was fun. Not every minute, for sure, but I had professional satisfaction and growth. Did it make me be a better mother? I don’t know. In some ways it did and in some ways it didn’t. But I was a whole person. I am a whole person. Getting over that guilt is hard. I hope younger women don’t feel it as much.
I hope my sons are those men. And I think they’re turning out to be. I also think it was hard for me to give up that control and only do half because of the work that a mother generally does and because of the maternal instincts I had. It’s simply not that easy. I think there are good men, but it has to go both ways.
Sure. Pitney Bowes is in Stamford, Connecticut. I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In those days, I think there were only 12 female general counsel of Fortune 500 companies. This was in the 90’s. I’d been litigating for a very long time and I thought it was an interesting opportunity, so I took the job. I had somebody who drove me to Stamford from the Upper West Side. It was harder to have a commute, even though I had a driver, because I really liked being close to my children. I was in Stamford on 9/11, and I couldn’t get back, or I thought I couldn’t get back into the city. I couldn’t reach my children because all the phone lines were down. I was in a panic. One of the schools wouldn’t let the kids out until they reached their parents and they couldn’t reach me, I couldn’t reach them. It was just awful. That solidified for me that I wanted to work closer to my children. At that point, my daughter was in college, I had a son in high school, a son in middle school, and a son in lower school. By the end of the day, I learned that there were subways running from the Bronx, so I had my driver take me there and I came back on the subway. That experience was very powerful for me and I knew that I wanted to be back in the city.
No, I took the job because it was a new challenge. There’s a lot of challenge being general counsel of a public company. The general counsel job at Pitney Bowes is in many ways the same as the job I have now at The Estée Lauder Companies. A partner of a major law firm called and said, “Sara, how do you know how to do this new job?” I said, “Well, I figure I can just pick up the phone and call a lawyer when I need one, right?” It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it, although it occurred to a lot of other people. I had a white-collar-criminal practice, and I became general counsel of a company that makes postage meters. Probably, the biggest risk I took was telling the Pitney Bowes CEO that I was ready to leave. I was very committed to him, and I wanted to do the right thing, so I said I would stay until we found a new general counsel. It took about a year. I didn’t have a job lined up. I explored lots of different things: pro-bono work, Court TV and other options. Then Estée Lauder came along. Obviously, it was a great opportunity. I wanted another challenge and another exciting chapter.
I say that I’m a litigator in remission. I miss the ecstasy, but I don’t miss the agony. For every great moment on cross-examination, there are hundreds of hours in a basement going through documents. I certainly miss being in court. But overall, I don’t miss it. I have a great job, mostly because it’s a terrific company and it’s fun. The range of issues that I see as general counsel makes it incredibly interesting and challenging. For example, our issues now involve emerging markets, which I really didn’t know much about. I am learning all the time.
Yes and no. Mostly no. I have a great, world-class team now and we work closely together. Also, I certainly don’t miss billing my hours, even though I’m still working incredibly hard. My first week at Pitney Bowes, I had this sort of underlying anxiety and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I realized, “Wow, I’m not writing my time down.” It was very liberating.
One of my former partners came to see me soon after I began to work at Estée Lauder, and he said, “I thought you’d be a lot more glamorous by now.” And I said, “Well, I’m just working.” So, it’s not glamorous in that way, but there are lots of glamorous businesswomen here. And it is more fun, frankly!
She was such a hero. I think the lessons I learned are: Courage is important — I certainly learned that from her — and you can’t be perfect. Those Christmas cards with photos of perfect families, the ones that make you feel like you’re never going to measure up? Throw them away. I used to send those cards. And trust me, don’t measure yourself against an impossible standard. Also, follow your heart. I could not have worked full-time and traveled when my children were little. I just didn’t want to do it. You have a very long career — I graduated from law school in 1974. If you miss a few years, that’s fine. Follow your heart and do what feels right for you and your family at that time, because it will work out. Don’t be deterred, and don’t be afraid.