Every day, moms-to-be scour the blogosphere for confirmation that when they someday choose to become pregnant, have their babies, and go about the task of raising them while working in a professional career, they will go on to be fabulous parents and fabulous career women, and that although things may be a bit different, for the most part life will go on as usual. So if you are one of those women and you have just stumbled upon this post, I am telling you right now that, in all likelihood, your career will suffer to some extent, on some level, due to your choice to have children. Sorry.
There has been a lot of feminist and post-feminist discourse on this already, so I’ll give you the skinny version if you’re not already familiar with it. The old-school feminists were the trailblazers who got us the tip of the iceberg — for example, laws protecting us from sex discrimination in the workplace and giving us job-protected maternity leave — and then told us we could go out and have our fabulous careers as well as our happy, thriving families. We of Generation X were told by our parents that we could have it all. Then we got to the workplace, had our own kids, and realized that it was not that simple. Without engaging in a tired debate over the relative rights and privileges of Americans versus those of families in other parts of the world, suffice to say that our nation’s maternity/sick leave laws are pathetic, that the issue of women’s equality in the workplace runs deeper and with more complexity than a few pieces of legislation can adequately address, that parents are left to “figure it out” when it comes to balancing work and family needs, and that women are constantly held up to a double standard expecting them to be glowing, perfect mothers while simultaneously working long hours and making impossible sacrifices to climb to the top of their professional careers.
I got married when I was 29, and one year later, I had just bought a house and become pregnant. Career-wise, I was in my third job since graduating law school at 25, partly due to trial and error, and partly due to lifestyle decisions I had made. That moving around hurt me, because although I was gaining knowledge and experience, I was also hitting the reset button every time I made a move. Consider that I’m a 2004 graduate, so in 2012 I am entering my ninth year of practice, and should be at the point where I’m either being considered for partner at a law firm, or making great strides in government or nonprofit work, or at least taking on something closer to management-level responsibilities. I see trickles of that happening, and I do have moments of personal satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment. But I’m also certain that my frequent job changes and two pregnancies — resulting in two births in less than two years and a combined 28 weeks of leave — have set me back in my workplace and in my career generally. I simply don’t have the time to bill enough hours or pound the pavement for clients, two important factors in the partnership decision. And a 4/5 schedule means I’m seen as doing 4/5 of the work I should be doing, rather than being seen as committed to my firm and choosing to stay there and contribute as best I can, rather than just quitting, which would require them to waste resources hiring and training a replacement. When parents are supported, businesses are supported, at least in the long term, and as fiscally conservative as I can be from time to time, even I realize the inherent truth of that statement.
I guess I’m left with the next issue: do I care? Should I be upset about my situation, or should I just be thankful that I do challenging, interesting work, enjoy some level of professional respect, and have kids who are thriving in daycare and with whom I get to spend some nice quality time? Is this the time to suck it up and accept that more money and prestige needs to be shelved while I run around after two little kids who need mommy to just be there for them sometimes, and not responding to emails or catching up on files from home?
A while ago, there was much buzz about Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! who also happens to be pregnant with her first child. According to varying reports, Mayer has stated that she will either shorten her maternity leave to two weeks, or continue to work when her baby is born. This statement ignited a firestorm over whether Mayer is a dedicated businesswoman or a naive mom-to-be, whether Yahoo! should be celebrated or criticized for its controversial choice, and whether this particular woman should be considered a role model for working moms everywhere or an example of exactly what not to do. I don’t know that this debate is particularly relevant, because most of us are not CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. Most of us are middle class, mid-level professionals, who have the capability to go quite far in our careers, or be entrepreneurs, or make waves in the nonprofit world, but will never lead giant corporations along with our teams of nannies, chefs and personal trainers to head up the homefront. I’m not saying the debate is completely worthless, but I don’t think we should look to women like Mayer for guidance one way or the other.
I love my kids and I don’t resent them for making it difficult to bring my A-game at this particular moment in my career. They have opened me up to a way of viewing the world that I most likely would never have developed in their absence. And if I had an amazing career but no kids, I would walk around for the rest of my life with an enormous hole in my heart. So don’t read this to mean that I’m bitter or losing sleep over where I could be right now and what I could have accomplished by now, without kids.
But to those “have-it-all” feminists … sorry ladies, you were so, so wrong. But it’s ok. I forgive you, and I’m looking ahead to a bright future, instead of dwelling on the misunderstandings of the past.