The Fig Tree

This essay is part of a student-led, first-person writing project called Bridges. Learn more about the program and read other essays in the series.

When I was 16, I read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar because I thought it could give me some answers—surely the story of the novel’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, would offer some hints on navigating ambition and personal fulfilment as a young woman. In the classroom and at home, I was encouraged to pursue my goals as far as they could go. But in the lunchroom, fellow teenage girls asked each other questions like whether being a doctor was really a good idea for women if they “couldn’t” have children until after all the medical training was done, and then they would be “too old.”

The contrast was frustrating. Someone described The Bell Jar as “feminist literature,” so I assumed it had solved this puzzle and I eagerly set aside a weekend to curl up with the book.

For all Plath’s literary genius, The Bell Jar brought me no answers and no comfort. In fact, I was horrified. In the book, Esther imagines a metaphorical fig tree. On the tree’s branches are beautiful fruits: a joyful family life, an accomplished career, adventure. But she can only choose one, and while she is agonizing over her decision, all the figs rot and crumble to the ground. I was not even done with the 11th grade and the idea of my future choices rotting on a tree, before I had even applied to college, was the last thing I wanted to hear. I ultimately decided The Bell Jar was more about icky features of the 1960s, and I returned to AP exams and Harry Potter books.

The “fig tree problem” has changed shape since the 1960s, but I think it lives in the periphery of every career-minded woman’s consciousness, and resurfaces with every book or think-piece on “having it all.” In recent years, there has been a strain of optimism:

The fig tree can be outsmarted.

If you marry the right person, have money to spend on nannies, work hard and are irreplaceable at your job, have a sponsor and a mentor and a personal board of directors advising you and rooting for you: then you have a shot. You could enjoy all the fruits of your labor, and none would be lost to you. Put another way: just lean into the fig tree and jump really high.

In the beginning of 1L, I learned of an unexpected way to outsmart the fig tree. In an appointment with Career Services, the career counselor asked how long I had been married. I detected a pause, some uncertainty about what came next. “If you don’t mind my saying, law school is not a bad time to have children.”

I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t offended. This type of advice was not foreign to me. I had turned 30 the summer before 1L: when friends (or friends of friends) learned I had gotten into the University of Chicago Law School, the first remark after their congratulations was something to the effect of, “Too bad this is going to delay having children.”

Having children before entering the workforce made sense. I was in law school to get a job, employers didn’t like paying for maternity leave, and pregnancy discrimination seemed unfair but also a fact of life. Later, I tried to imagine life as a young mother. I tried to imagine a crib next to my tiny desk or bottles stacked across the kitchen counter. I thought about the four exams I would take at the end of the year and laughed. Not this year.

Nevertheless, an invisible clock had started to tick.

The Timeline

After the first quarter of 1L, I thought about having children in law school again. It wouldn’t be easy or fun to be pregnant or a new mother during school, but it didn’t seem impossible. A few other women in the law school had done it, and the adorable Facebook photos of their families encouraged me.

But, to have both a baby and a job, I had to think about timing. I couldn’t risk being visibly pregnant during On-Campus Interviewing. I had already heard enough stories about sexism toward women who weren’t pregnant. And I couldn’t risk delivering around my bar exam or too close to the start of my post-grad job. That meant there was a limited number of months in which I could feasibly get pregnant.

I did the math. There were 15 months between 1L and the start of my post-grad job. I had 15 chances to skirt pregnancy discrimination by having a baby before I entered the legal workforce.

We tried, and tried, and tried. Twelve months went by. Twelve months is the medical definition of infertility, as we later learned from our infertility doctor. We had officially crossed the line.

I had done everything I could. I had married the right person. I had saved money. I had worked diligently. My hard work earned me good grades, recommendations, multiple job offers. I had leaned in and jumped as high I could. But in the end, I had tried to outsmart the fig tree and failed.

What now?

Looking back, I am shocked at my own hubris. How could I put that kind of pressure on myself? I had assumed that I could control my destiny—meaning, control when I had a baby, and thus control how much career disruption I would experience—by white-knuckling it as hard as I could. We know how babies are made, but I didn’t appreciate that much of the process is invisible. You can’t see the inner workings of tiny cells, much less control them. To ask or expect anyone to do this is ridiculous.

The doctors suspect that my infertility will be easy to treat, and there is no medical reason to rush getting pregnant. 

But pregnancy-related disruption will come eventually. It will be nearly impossible to avoid the awkwardness of telling a boss that I am expecting and navigating the career disruption of maternity leave. I realize that what I fear is not hard work or sleepless nights. What I fear is how others will respond to my pregnancy: being shut out from the best assignments, promotions delayed, being forced out.

But attempting to control the response of others by meticulously controlling my own life isn’t just difficult, but also ineffective. If people think less of me because I am pregnant, they might think less of me because I am a parent, or because I am a woman.

By interrogating my precise worries, I now understand what to do about them. My worries were not the physical difficulty of pregnancy or labor, or the challenges of parenting. Instead, I feared the reaction of other people: judgment, scorn, and prejudice.

I can’t control someone else’s prejudice against mothers, women, or parents. What I can control is for whom, and with whom, I choose to work. For me, the answer to the fig tree problem is not to lean in, white-knuckle, and jump as hard as you can. It’s being able to trust someone else (not just women) to hold down a branch, tell you where to climb, and help you gather the fruits of your hard work.

Editor's note: Kailin Liu wrote this essay during law school. After graduating, passing the bar exam, and starting a clerkship, she gave birth to a daughter on October 29, 2021.