I come from a long line of working class folk. High school graduation wasn’t expected until my parents came along, and college was certainly never in the equation for anyone. My grandmothers had worked during the War, but mostly stayed at home. My dad worked a firmly blue-collar union job until his retirement, and my mother worked in telephone customer service until she passed away unexpectedly at 47 years of age. However, my parents and grandparents were influenced by the second wave feminism in the 60′s and 70′s and the messages I received as a young girl all reflected that. I was never told there was anything I couldn’t do. I could go to college, become a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist or the President and get married and have a family and be a shining beacon of success. I would be a modern woman and balance it all.
Then, there I was at 28. MBA, married, career-tracked at a Fortune 100 company, one promotion under my belt, and I was pregnant. I had it all, just like they said I could!
The women I knew who had careers like me and had kids had all resumed their careers. Colleagues kept telling me how bored I would be at home, that they couldn’t wait until their maternity leaves were over because they’d felt so restless. It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t want to do anything but keep right on working. ‘Staying at home’ seemed so … pedestrian. But I knew I wanted to breastfeed, and with my husband in a career that often requires very long hours, we agreed that it made sense to live closer to my job, so I could be the ‘primary parent’ on workdays. I would do most of the dropping-off and picking-up, but at least I’d only have a five minute commute, whereas his was 45 minutes.
Then my daughter was born, and our reality got a shake-down.
I loved being home with her. We breastfed and co-slept and hung out and played and I was having the time of my life. I wasn’t restless or bored. My daughter got bigger, and as the time of my leave drew to an end, I really hated the idea of going back to work. I started to question why. Why did I want to go back, again? Why was I shopping for someone else to care for my daughter for me? Why was it bothering me so much? What would Gloria Steinem say!? But… this is what modern women do, right? So, I went back, but begrudgingly. I dealt with pumping at work and day care and balanced it all pretty well. Though, I felt like I always left a piece of me at home when I went to work and a piece of me at work when I went home. I continued my success at work and ended up being close to another promotion when I got pregnant with my son a couple years later. I again thoroughly enjoyed my leave, and then went back to work part-time, because maybe that would be better. But my heart wasn’t in it, I was actually tandem nursing at that point, and pumping for my son at work, and co-sleeping, and the incredible hassle of getting two kids to and from day care all wore on me. My husband happened to get a pretty good promotion while I was on leave, and with a little extra help from family to make it happen, I left my job to become a stay at home mom.
The truth of the matter is that the many successful career women – the ones that hold political office or become CEOs – aren’t generally women with career husbands and a bunch of kids at home. They stay single, like Janet Napolitano. Or they get married, but don’t have kids, like Angela Merkel. Or they have a kid or two, but their husbands stay home, like Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. Or they make enough money to hire a really great nanny and a housekeeper and they either don’t have the hangups and emotional conflict about such a situation that I did (and I certainly don’t judge a woman who can easily compartmentalize such things; in fact I can safely say I am quite jealous of it.) Or they resign themselves to live with those emotions. Tina Fey, in her autobiography Bossypants, describes in detail how she struggles with these very emotions regarding her own family and her thoughts of having a second child. She mentions how she keeps working because she has her dream job and that about 200 people would lose their jobs if she quit working, but that she would love to be at home with her daughter.
My struggle now comes with how I will adapt the messaging I received for my children. Looking back, I know my family meant well, and I love them for embracing the idea that I could be successful and encouraging me to live up to my real potential. I think what their message lacked was any realistic advice about how to make it happen, including the idea of sacrifice and finding balance. Will this shape the college and career advice I give to my daughters? Almost certainly. If they express a real interest in having children, I will encourage them to consider careers that lend themselves better to the flexibility that makes finding that life balance a little easier. If they have incredibly lofty career aspirations, I will make sure they know what personal sacrifices those choices might entail. Additionally, I will tell them that a major consideration in selecting a life partner is one who will truly be a partner in finding that balance. There are women, after all, such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook. Her husband is a CEO, and she has also obviously been very successful, and they have kids. But she has said in no uncertain terms that the biggest factor in ‘having it all’ is who she chose to marry. It will also impact how I talk to my son about what his expectations should be and how he should handle his own roles of husband and father.
Above all, I want them to understand the reality of how difficult these decisions can be, and that they might never figure out that right, perfect balance. Opting out of a career is very scary, but a brave choice for a career woman; we take comfort, create identity, and feel safety in our position, in our success, in our financial security. And while staying home may not be within the feminist messages of our youth, it is an empowering choice for a woman when it is truly a choice and not a prescribed role by her husband or society. And, it turns out, Gloria Steinem agrees.