I’ve been making my way through Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and while I don’t agree with everything in the book, I think it contains a lot of messages women need to hear. Don’t sell yourself short. Actively take credit for your accomplishments. Look forward not backward. But there is one insight in her book that really resonated with me: that young women, even women who are unmarried or uncoupled, make career decisions based on families they don’t yet have.
Some years ago, a friend of mine left a corporate law firm where she was a top associate because she wanted to start paring back her workload in preparation for becoming a wife and mother. She had been dating her boyfriend for two years and at 31, she felt it was time to start re-prioritizing based on a husband and children she didn’t yet have. They broke up about a year later and she moved back to California to be the legal counsel for her family’s company. And while she did eventually marry and is now pregnant with her first child, it’s interesting that she made that decision long, long before her family became a reality.
Recently, I’ve found myself doing the same thing. I consider future career possibilities with an eye towards how long it would take me to get to my goal and where that would put me on the fertility calendar. “Well, if I pursue this career, I’ll be 35 before it takes off, 38 before I get to where I need to be, and almost out of child-bearing years…great.”
While my romantic life has been on a back burner, on a different stove, in another apartment, in a different time zone for the past few years, that doesn’t mean that I don’t eventually want a husband and a family. And as the ever-increasing number of grey hairs on my left temple can attest, I’m not getting any younger.
While I think it’s prudent for career-focused women of any age who want to have children to keep that goal in mind, I wonder how we rewire our brains so that we stop limiting our career options in preparation for families we don’t yet have. I think it would be better to pursue our careers vigorously and then, if and when family planning becomes an imminent reality, recalibrate our lives in light of shifting priorities. It’s not easy to do since, as Sandberg points out, women are predisposed to see themselves as the primary caregiver, but it might be best to keep our eyes on the road in front of us and only adjust when necessary.
What do you ladies think: Do you find yourself thinking about your career in terms of a future family? Sandberg mentions that men don’t typically think about redirecting their careers to accommodate imaginary families, so why do you think so many women do?
And if you’re a career woman with a family, I would deeply appreciate some insight here. Did you delay or divert your career track in advance or adopt a ‘come what may’ attitude? Also, if you don’t mind sharing, how old were you when you started your family? Where were you in your career then vs. now? And how are you re-evaluating your goals in the face of raising a family?
Got to disagree to a point. The Defining Decade is a great book for others interested in career/life balance, especially for those in their 20s, but I think those in their 30s could gain from it as well.
You can’t fight biology. There are so many women who put their career first without thinking about having a family, and end up unable to have children because they waited so long. Of course, no one wants to talk about this, and we rarely hear anything but success stories with IVF, etc.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about it. I’m wondering if you should plan your career and then integrate a family when the opportunity arises, instead of limiting your career years before you have a family in preparation for something that may or may not happen.
It took 4 times for my sister-in-law to get pregnant with IVF. They could only try that many times because they had insanely good insurance.
I read an article during that time that my sister-in-law was struggling getting pregnant about a career woman who had waited to have children. She was having a really difficult time having children with IVF as well. Her advice to women: have children when you are young and are more likely to have little difficulty getting pregnant. You always have time later to pursue all your career goals. It is only in our youth-obsessed culture that you have to achieve certain things by such and such an age.
I agree. The Defining Decade really changed my thinking about this. I always intended to “put it off” but now plan to start trying a few years sooner than planned.
I disagree with Ellie. I have no desire to have children. My husband and I are married and happily child-free. I think it’s small minded to pretend that we’re all the same. And that wasn’t Belle’s point – she’s talking about women who have yet to be in the position to discuss having children.
I’m also in the middle of Lean In and as we continue to have this conversation over the past few months I’m finding myself more and more unable to understand the conversation. I’m a 28 year old female in nonprofit and all I can think about is how far I can go as fast as possible. While my friends are having their first and second children, not only does the thought of putting my career on hold or even ending it for a child repulses me, I making plans to move to DC for a serious attempt at moving up in my field. I think I’m one of the strange ones that have every mothering instinct in the world, just with no desire to have children of my own. And I feel pretty heartless and selfish when I can’t relate to these stories and feelings in this book or in the op-eds floating around.
“I think Iâ€™m one of the strange ones that have every mothering instinct in the world, just with no desire to have children of my own.”
You are not alone hms!
I took this point to mean that you’ve made plans or thought about a future family you don’t have yet; not that it means you haven’t also been career focused. I think the most successful and happy women wear many hats and think of every senario. This is just one idea that really should be thought of until it happens.
Oh, you are SO not alone. I like kids, I have a lot of instincts that read as maternal—but I’d rather be an aunt, not a mother. I just don’t really care for kids of my own.
I’m also worried that at 30 or so my clock will start ticking and I’ll want to quit and be a stay at home mom. Though my mom had that experience, raised us well and probably wouldn’t have it any other way, I don’t want that life. Particularly because the second I graduated college and my brother high school she filed for divorce. I don’t want to look back at an ended career and be bitter.
You are far from alone, but I know that it can feel like it sometimes. I have been living with my (male) partner for almost 3 years and we remain childfree-by-choice. Not a day goes by that we don’t get asked when we’re getting married and having kids. I’m 28 and moving up quickly in my field (also a nonprofit in reproductive health rights). If a family comes, then a family come, but we have made the choice to live the fullest lives we can together, and enjoy every experience we have – children or not!
I had my daughter when I was 24 and working on the Hill. She’s the one who clued me in to your blog – she now works there. My son was born two days after my last final the second year of law school. I have to say I’m glad I started early, but it has affected my career significantly.
After law school I started out on the Big Law path after a prestigious clerkship. My marriage imploded at the same time. I ended up a single mom, although with a lot of support from my parents. Instead of moving up and onwards with a big firm, I found a federal clerkship that lasted for five years, while my children were in elementary school. When my judge had to retire, I ended up starting my own firm. For the last 7 years I’ve had various partnerships and now feel I’m fairly well situated. I still have no retirement savings to speak of, because those were used to support us in the first couple years, but I arguably still have 30 years of work ahead of me.
Here’s my advice — never think you can do this alone. Even with two parents available you will need help. There will always need to be someone who can take off at a moment’s notice to run to the emergency room or the school. That may be the other parent, family or a trusted nanny. If that’s not an option, think sidewise. Most career paths are not vertical. Think about where you can go that might mean less stress but still keeps you working in your field. For me it was a clerkship and private practice. For you it might be consulting.
My kids (other than a teen-aged stepdaughter) are out of the home. But now I’m already thinking about how I can redesign my career to take advantage of that fact and enjoy the next years with my husband, who is older than me. That may mean working like the devil most of the time but deliberately blocking out chunks of time for travel and adventure. Fortunately, being my own boss (as long as I meet my overhead) lets me do that.
So many spelling mistakes and errors in that statement. Must drink coffee prior to writing.
I think this is really important. When I was deciding on a summer internship out of grad school I weighed going after something more intense and prestigious with going after something nonprofit/slower pace, in light of the fact that I was serious with my then-boyfriend and thinking of starting a family.
I’m happy to say that I went for the more intense job. During the summer internship we ended up getting engaged, and now 2 years into the full-time job, I’m happily pregnant.
What I will say is an important and surprising consideration is the degree to which the more ambitious career paths can (sometimes) come with companies that have the resources to provide better benefits. My firm offers 3 months paid maternity leave, plus a generous amount of vacation, and I am paid highly enough that I can consider the option of taking some extra time unpaid if I want to, without hurting our budget. The other slower-paced jobs I had been considering cannot offer the same benefits.
Additionally, because my firm has had trouble retaining women with children the past, they have some nice unofficial policies that accommodate a slower-paced ramp down and ramp up surrounding maternity leave.
That said — returning to a demanding job where 70 hour weeks and travel is the norm is going to be challenging with a baby. But I am really glad that I at least get the chance to try it. And if it doesn’t work out I still have 3 years of experience at a well-known firm that will give me other opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I had started out somewhere small/easy/less intense.
That’s a good point. A big job at a more prestigious place might offer you better options than being the only person who does your job at a smaller office.
I think this is a great story and illustrates a good point – if you aim high and achieve high, and then have a kid and can’t make the balance work in that particular job, you are probably going to have MORE options at your disposal than if you had held back and taken a lesser job in anticipation of having to balance.
You’re lucky. A lot of fields never offer such generous options for women.
I’m 32, married, and my husband and I have wanted to start a family for a while. We’ve held off only because I’m at a miserable job, and I don’t want the stress and frustration of this job to affect the health of my future child (FYI, even if I stayed at this large, semi-prestigious, but not work intensive agency, I would still have to take unpaid maternity leave and could not cut back my hours upon my return (the only benefit is decently affordable child care, that’s not bad, but not particularly good…and I still have to put my name on a long wait list)). I could potentially get a fantastic, competitive job, but I don’t want to be working 70 hours per week and traveling constantly if I’m a new mom. If I didn’t want kids, I would go this route; after all, I want a rewarding and highly intellectual career. But since I want kids, I realize I have to make a compromise and go for the “easy,” less prestigious and less intellectually rewarding jobs (which have not been easy to come by surprisingly). Also, I don’t think any competitive/prestigious job will be receptive to me becoming pregnant within months of being hired (and I really don’t want to wait any longer). This acceptance of going for less than I know I can and ideally want to achieve has been really emotionally difficult, but my desire to have kids outweighs my desire to excel in my career.
As as follow up to my comment above, my husband is very supportive. He is willing to shoulder a good deal of responsibility, but he recognizes he cannot do that at his current job. He’s an associate at a top law firm, and he is considering quitting (probably to take a government job) so that he can have a better work/life balance – he wants to be around for his future children. But so do I! Even if he takes a position with better hours, children are a lot of work and he won’t be able to do it on his own. So we’re both hesitant but ultimately willing to “sacrifice” our careers for the sake of our family. Even without children, we want to see more of each other than our current jobs will allow.
I have found myself thinking about aligning my career with my future family. My current career is a highly demanding job that requires 70 – 85% travel, along with long hours, and the ability to accommodate the needs of clients at a moment’s notice. Read: no work-life balance.
In hopes of having a family some day, my job doesn’t even lend itself to dating, which I’ve come to realize will not get me to my ultimate goal of having a family. I’ve started to consider what needs to change, and how I do so, while having a fulfilling career and life outside of work.
I haven’t made any career decisions with a future family in mind since I actually started my professional life. However, there was a time when I planned to go to law school. The main reasons I changed course were: coming to the realization that the kind of analytical thinking necessary to be a good lawyer just doesn’t come easily to me, that going to law school would come along with a lot of debt and no guarantee of finding a job that pays enough to recoup the debt, and most significantly, I discovered during my first internship that I really enjoyed politics once I was outside the classroom. But I admit, it did occur to me that once I started down the law path, starting a family might be harder. And no, I wasn’t even in a serious relationship at the time.
At this point, I’m just taking things as they come. I’ve wanted to be a mom from as far back as I have memory, so I’m just going to have faith that when the time comes I’ll figure out a way to make it work
I read this book earlier this week (it’s a fast read!). I get where she’s coming from on this, but I also wonder if she has the whole picture. I’m a lawyer and spent the first several years of my career as a BigLaw associate. When I arrived at my firm, I was stunned at the number of attractive, bright, funny but very single female associates there were. There was a junior group of us and then there was a mid-level group. In my first couple of years, the mid-level group all found boyfriends…and then left the firm shortly after, married the boyfriends, and then started having those kids. I followed in their footsteps as a fifth year when I met my now-husband and shortly thereafter left the firm. Those from my single girl group who stayed (and are now on the verge of making partner) are the ones who are still single. I think it can be extremely challenging to date and then to develop the intimacy to establish the type of serious relationship that leads to marriage while working at a job that requires the kind of hours and dedication (i.e., lack of control over your schedule) that BigLaw (and BigConsulting and BigEverything) requires. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these young women step back not because of imaginary families, but to get the breathing space to create the family in the first place (starting with finding a partner). Once your relationship is more established, it can be easier to expand your working hours again, but it’s very tough to date if you can never make firm plans because work might get in the way. As for why men don’t seem to have this problem, I think she gets at that in her chapter on being nice vs being successful. The truth is (and I hope this changes one day) success in a man is sexy to women. A man is far more likely to find a woman who’s willing to play second fiddle to a man’s career than a woman is to find a man willing to do the same. The fact that the man has to cancel dinner plans because something came up at work makes him look successful and important (i.e., sexy) while a woman doing the same looks distracted and unable to provide emotional support to a (male) partner. These are all broad generalizations, and there are plenty of women who met and married their husbands all while leaning into their careers. But the young single women who step back might be making just the kind of rational choice that Sandberg made when she downplayed her own accomplishments as an MBA student.
I absolutely agree! I am looking at making a career transition right now for much the same reason. In my current career not many women in my position are married. Many of the women higher up in the career ladder do NOT have personal lives that I aspire to emulate. Most of the more senior women are single or divorced, or if married they have no children. I have definitely been planning for an imaginary family but its because as I look around me its evident that many women in similar positions have not even had an opportunity to meet someone and get married to start making family planning a career concern. BTW-most of the guys, they’re married to nurses and teachers, women who’s jobs are largely portable and have flexible work hours so they can pick up the slack that the men are leaving behind…
Also, Penelope Trunk had a very interesting discussion as well about this issue and the book that looks at the family planning piece from a different angle:
Stephanie Plum says:
Ok, but Penelope Trunk is not exactly mentally stable… However “interesting” her writing may be, I don’t think anyone ought to take her advice on work, parenting, or life skills in general…
Success and confidence are sexy on anyone, not just men. We women need to learn how to stand up for ourselves in the dating world as well as the office. Men are caring and family-oriented too. If not, they’re not worth dating.
My boyfriend is a teacher and a high school football coach. He devotes all of his time to kids, and that doesn’t make him any less sexy. We’ve been together 4 years, and both see marriage and children in our vague future – although that’s not our focus now. I work in politics and am way too career-focused to think about any of that for at least a few years. If/when children become a reality, we both expect some changes. I realize that we probably wouldn’t be able to keep our downtown apartment and that I may have to find a way to shift things around at work. We may both have to lean back a little bit when the time comes, and we get that. But we will always be a team – that’s the foundation of our relationship, and kids won’t change that.
I resent the assumption that it’s the woman’s job to make these hard choices. How much of this is us setting low expectations for our partners? How much of it is a lack of communication? I can’t imagine any of the men I know just expecting their partner to play second fiddle, I certainly wouldn’t date one who did. Not sexy.
Yes, workplaces need to be more accommodating of family life, and there are a lot of things in our culture that need reevaluating. I think part of that needs to be not selling ourselves short in our relationships. Before women unilaterally decide to “lean back,” we should work on honest communication. The whole point of a marriage is support and trust. Women do not need to do this alone!
Also, why do so many people laugh at the idea of paternity leave?
Melanie M. says:
They don’t in Canada 🙂 My husband has taken two paternity leaves and so have most of the men in my office. All of the men I’ve asked have been very grateful that they had the opportunity to do so.
I admit I have haven’t read the book, and that I am basing this off of a couple of Ms. Sandberg’s lectures, but I think that this is one of the very problems that she wants to call attention to. She doesn’t want the women of the professional world to feel like they HAVE to step back from a career in order to find a supportive partner, when a man in the same position has no problem doing so. I agree with you Erin, that taking an easier path to find love in the first place ends up being a rational choice for many individual women who want a family. However, the tacit agreement of a woman’s proper role in a relationship and in the workforce that this kind of behavior collectively implies gets me downright angry! What we need is a change in the culture you describe, and I think the point is that men don’t have the same motivations for making that change – its going to have to be the women in this very situation who demand to be put on a level playing field in their relationships, or it won’t happen at all.
I finished Lean In yesterday, and I am so excited we’re discussing it at CHS! I don’t agree with everything Sandberg has to say either (particularly her wish that she could ask about family planning when making new hires), but she is so spot on for most of the book.
I started my family at age 28, my first year in law school. I had my second baby while I was a practicing attorney. Then I left work when my husband relocated for his work and baby number 3 (surprise!) came around. I thought it would be relatively easy to get back to work. But I had my first freak-out moment when I realized I was a stay at home mom as long as I had practiced law. I’m now well beyond that point. I’m 38 now, and looking into unpaid internships because the job search has been so rough.
If there’s any lesson to learn from my story, it’s that you never know what is going to happen … when (if) you’ll get pregnant, how you’ll feel about work once a baby arrives, when your partner’s career will take a turn, how you decide to change or refocus your career, when the economy takes a nosedive, etc etc. It makes no sense to plan for events you can’t control — and as I learned, even when you think things are in your control, they’re not.
I have done “imaginary family planning” since I was 24; even though I didn’t meet my husband and get engaged until 27. Now at 32, I’m an attorney in DC and married with no children yet. You are so right: I need to stop this asap because it really IS a colossal waste of time and opportunities. Love your blog, your style, and your life advice!
My mom waited…and waited…and waited to have kids. She was a tenure-track professor at the time she had me, at 36, and my two sisters are younger than me. She had my youngest sister when she was 41 years old. Her advice? There’s no good time to have kids. Just do it, even if your career is demanding, then figure it out. She’s always had a career but says the best thing in her life is her children.
I’ve chosen to work at a university because I value my own work-life balance. If you want to have kids and a demanding career, there are trade-offs – what about your partner shouldering some of the responsibilities? Kids have dads, too.
Brittany M says:
I think people, men and women, have to prioritize what’s most important to them. As someone said above, biology is a factor, and nothing really changes that.
I am a new lawyer, and I have several friends (one recently married), who are also women, who don’t plan to have kids. Some of those have really high-pressure jobs and, well, some don’t (because they want to live a life where they don’t work insane hours).
I have others, however, who do plan on kids, and sure, maybe make choices to accommodate that.
But, I think, at least for me and a few of the people I know, a career is a great thing to pursue, but it’s not my number 1 priority. I guess, to me taking the lower-paid job with a higher likelihood that I’ll be around to help my kids with homework and put them to bed at night was and is more important than being really career driven. I still have goals, but I want a life, too. I guess I’m rambling, but I guess I’m saying it might not just be a “family I don’t yet have” plan so much as a “life I am happy to live” plan.
Brittany M says:
This might be a lawyer-specific problem, since the industry requires A LOT from those who want to be partner (talking like 100 hour weeks etc.).
Interesting. But even if you had kids this year it would be 2020 before you need to be around to help with the homework. Why are you in the lower paid job now? Why not pull down those big checks while you’re still child free? (Apologies if I’m reading this wrong and you already have young children)
Brittany M says:
I think what I mean was echoed by the commenter above who is also an attorney — a large part of the choice is not necessarily kids for me, or for a lot of people who go into law (or any other time-CONTROLLING job — it’s the desire to be able to make plans with a friend, or go out to a happy hour and not worry about returning to the office, to go on a vacation where you can turn off your cell phone, etc. Since I’m in my 20s now, these are things that I prioritize because I want happiness more than the big paycheck, when in my field, the big paycheck is usually inextricably tied to how much your job controls your life.
For what it’s worth, I am still child free, but I think this time is also lovely for traveling and being selfish. If I could find a super well paying job that also allowed for a life, it would be awesome! Unfortunately, law does not really lend itself to that 🙁
I agree that it is kind of nuts that women make long term plans to be LESS ambitious. I haven’t read Lean In yet but it reminds me of an article I read a couple years about by Jen Dziura: https://www.jenniferdziura.com/dev/2010/12/bullish-maybe-work-life-balance-means-you-should-work-more.html
Why don’t we hear women say they are going to spend their first several working years absolutely killing it? After reading Jen’s article (and other writings) I’ve raised my professional goals not lowered them. I love my job, but it does involve travel, the next level involves even more travel, but the level after that (Assistant Director-esque) has a ton of flexibility. I plan on getting there before kids, which will take a lot of long hours for at least 3-4 years. But I’d rather do that than transition out of the field I love.
The challenges of career and family are real, especially for women. But why do we slow down (way before we ever need to!) when we probably should put the petal to the metal?
Jenn L. says:
Despite our evolving roles in the workplace, and many women even as the breadwinner of their family, there is still an overwhelming cultural expectation that, as you said, the woman is the primary caregiver.
My fiance and I are not even particularly interested in becoming parents (in favor of our careers–I am still very early in mine) but I find my mind occasionally drifting that direction (to my surprise). I do not “actively” think about it or plan for it. In my opinion, that is like, “planning,” a wedding on Pinterest without having so much as a guy you bat eyelashes at occasionally.
Many women–including myself–take on, “traditional,” household responsibilities (ie – she cooks, he mows the lawn) without realizing or thinking about it. Perhaps the same things that lead us to doing things like that also cause some of us to think this way.
Jenn: I didn’t ever think about having kids until a couple of years ago. I liked kids, but was pretty sure I didn’t want to have them. Then, out of nowhere, I started thinking about being a Mom and raising children. Like you, I was surprised, but I think for some women it just happens that way.
While I’m not in a high-powered field like law or politics (technology), I have been on a steady upward trajectory at my company since I started here when I was 23 (now 31). My husband and I decided it was time to start a family last year, since we had reached a shared life goal of ours – home ownership. This precipitously coincided with a promotion I had been wanting for a long time, both a title and a salary I had been eyeing as my potential resting point before I return to that upward trajectory when my future kids are getting older and don’t need/want me around as much anymore. In my industry I could stay in some rendition of this job until I retired, or I could choose a management path down the road.
So while I didn’t have to change my desired career path, I did feel like I had to reach a certain target before saying to myself “ok, now I can have a family”.
Now I’m due in October and I hope the striving in my 20s, and planning in my 30s, has laid the foundation for a stable and successful continued career. I love my career, and I don’t feel like I have to choose between a family and success, as long as my expectations are in the right place. Will I be a VP by 40? No. Could I still be someday? Yes!
Congrats! That all sounds very clear-headed.
Thanks for bringing up this issue. It’s been on my mind a lot. I am seriously dating, considering marriage and a family. And, I am working full time and want to go further with my career.
At the end of the day, I agree and disagree with Sandberg. I’ve seen women never plan for families, even if they want them…and they end up not being able to have them. I’ve also seen women not try at all for their career and find it difficult to progress when they want to. There has to be a middle path where you plan for both and give your all to both. What I’ve taken from Lean In is that the time is now to go full throttle to make it easier to slow down when I want to. And to be clear, I want to slow down when I have kids. But when they are a bit older, I want to step up my career again. I think that it’ll be easy if I go all out now.
So glad this is coming up! Such a complicated topic. I’m a 32-year-old woman in a job I love, and my husband and I have just started trying to have a baby. I haven’t read Lean In, but am a big believer in the idea that the better you are at your job and the more indispensable/irreplaceable you are to the company, the more freedom you will have to adjust your schedule when the baby comes. Also, doing a job that you really enjoy makes it much easier to motivate to maintain a balance: I can see how women who are in jobs that they don’t like that much will have a much harder time being away from their child and might just step away, but someone who loves their job will make it a priority to create a balance. So, prioritizing the job and not “leaning back” before you actually have a child makes a lot of sense to me.
That said, I have no idea how it will work in reality, and I already find myself getting distracted at work even now, googling various pre-pregnancy topics. im sure that divided attention will only get worse.
Finally, I think having a job you love is actually a great thing while you are in the beginning stages of a relationship (actually, while you are in any stage). (of course, allowing for the fact that you aren’t working so much that you literally don’t have time to meet and fall in love with someone.) Both people working creates a good balance, and no one wants to feel the pressure of having to support another single person. I’ve seen that kind of pressure (women stepping back even before marriage or engagement) destroy many relationships. When the children come, that’s another story, but no need to create that pressure ahead of time.
Monica & Les – you took the words out of my mouth. My husband and I are busting our butts now so that when we’re ready to start a family (2015 or 2016), we’ll be at a place in our careers where we feel established enough to slow down a bit.
There has got to be a happy medium between being career-oriented and realizing that 15 or 16 hour days are not always going to be possible.
I think that one of the most important things that women in particular need to consider is how much debt they should take on to pursue their “dream” job/career. If you think that you may want to stay home with children some day or work part-time, then you need to acknowledge that will be very difficult to do if you have $100K+ of debt from law or grad school. That’s the reality. In my opinion, women would do well to really consider if it’s worth it.
I agree. When I was contemplating going to law school a couple of years ago, when my Dad’s cancer was bad and going home looked like a good plan, I couldn’t reconcile taking on 100k in debt with having a family one day. If I had been 22 or 25, I would have felt differently. But being almost-30, it didn’t feel right.
I’m currently home on maternity leave with my first LO and have been reading Lean In during 2AM feedings.
I started dating my husband during college so I can’t attest to the challenges of building a career and a meaningful relationship at the same time. While we married young, my husband and I decided to wait several years to become more established in our respective careers before deciding to expand our family (I am 31 and hubby is 32).
Personally, I decided now was the time because I had built enough credibility with my peers/clients and had obtained a senior enough role that I felt I could have kids without it negatively impacting my perceived commitment. But there is never a good time – there will always be some opportunity that comes up and I say go for it until you physically cannot (I traveled and worked just as normal until I was 35 weeks pregnant and needed to dial it down to keep from over-exerting myself).
I am now using this time to determine both how my husband and I will work together when I go back, as well as how I can redefine my role at work to continue to grow/contribute but in a way that isn’t always work first. As the only senior female with kids and only senior team member who also has a spouse who works full-time, I have my work cut out for me. But I agree with Sheryl that I should be using this as an opportunity to make my office a place where more women can succeed, so I found her story to be great motivation.
Melanie M. says:
I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I agree with you that everyone in business and govt should be working to make family planning an easier reality for everyone in the workplace. They say every $1 invested in early childhood development reaps $11 later in the economy so imagine if every parent was able to make the best choices about child rearing and childcare and had paid mat and pat leave. I’m Canadian, but I wonder what American opinions are about paid parental leave? Is that discussed in Lean In?
I was 35 when I had my one and only child. We waited because we were working hard and playing hard. We travelled everywhere, lived in different states etc. We also waited because we wanted to be in job positions that were stable, fulfilling and financially secure. I consider that being succesful.
I have not done any imaginary family planning and like hms above am trying to advance as far/fast as possible/is wise. (Maybe that in a sense is the imaginary planning part?) I am not sure if I want children but I want to make sure that I am poised to have built up a bank of credibility so that I might negotiate some flexibility in the future should I need it and without completely delaying or damaging my career.
The Advisory Board put out an interesting brief earlier this week “Is it rational to have kids?” and discusses whether preemptive evaluation of such a decision is even possible.
For reference I am in my early 30s, engaged at the beginning of this year and don’t have a relationship where we necessarily follow traditional gender roles (should we have a child, he would likely assume a lot of the traditional “business hour” childcare responsibilities b/c he telecommutes and has much more flexibility.)
I have to agree with the “you never know” camp. My husband and I wanted children, bought a larger house anticipating children, etc. Problem is due to issues on both sides of the bed- no children. We weren’t the best candidates for infertility issues becasue of the issues, adoption is either very in your business for foster adoption or very expensive for private. So we’ve decided to let go of having our own kids and be the best aunt and uncle that we can to our nieces and nephews.
If we’d started earlier we may or may not have been able to have kids. I say just live your life according to how it is today. If you end up meeting the best guy ever or getting pregnant you just readjust.
This is such an interesting conversation! I haven’t read Sandberg, but the topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I am 30 and married. I am at a fairly stagnant point at my current job, and am thinking about going back to school to pursue something totally different. But at the back of my mind is that I do want a family in the relatively near future, and I don’t want to incur debt for my husband and I, or take on something that won’t let me have flexibility for when I have young children. I should say that while I do not love my job, it is a good job, and is VERY flexible. Most people I know who have kids say to hold on to the flexibility, but part of me wonders why I should stay on a path I don’t love when perhaps I could create flexibility in a path I do love? Anyways, it is all very interesting, and I’m enjoying this conversation.
I did not delay or divert my career path before having a family. I was engaged and married at 23 and knew that we would want to start a family down the road, but I continued to climb the ladder earning two promotions in my five years out of undergrad. I worked full time and attended grad school at night to obtain my MBA at the age of 27.
My husband and I planned for years that we would begin trying for a family after my graduation. Luckily, I was able to become pregnant quickly and my first child was born when I was 28. I took 12 weeks maternity leave and then I was right back at it again. Within six months of returning from leave, I had taken on additional responsibilities and requested a promotion – it was promptly processed.
I gave birth to my second child ten months ago at 31 years old. Same process again – maternity leave and then right back at it. My husband and I are now considering a third child in the next year or so if I am lucky enough to become pregnant again.
I must admit, some opportunities have become available to me in the last few months and Iâ€™ve been holding back. Over the years I have negotiated a flexible work schedule. I am an early bird – in the office by 6:30am, but I’m gone by 3:30 so that I have the afternoon to spend with my children. I’m available after the kids go to bed at 7pm for emails/calls. I protect my time with my family. Not all of these new opportunities would allow me to continue with my flexible schedule. At this stage in my life, I am not willing to compromise regarding this issue. Instead, I have continued to learn and take on new responsibilities in my current role so that I can again approach leadership with the rationale for another promotion while keeping my flexible schedule.
I must give credit where it is due, though. My job doesnâ€™t require travel. My husbandâ€™s job requires very little travel. We also have the most amazing child care situation possible. My mother-in-law watches both of my children, so I donâ€™t have to leave work if one of them has a cold, or if the preschool closes for snow. If my day is running over and I need evening coverage, she is there. In addition, most of my family lives near us, so we have backup care if needed. Having a wonderful support system in place allows you to focus your energy and excel.
I think my viewpoint has changed drastically since becoming a parent. I used to be consumed with everything I wanted to accomplish professionally during my life. While I still care about that because I enjoy my work and it provides a comfortable income for my family, my number one job is being the best wife and mother possible – because that is what life is really about.
It is so great you have the support system in place! Do you think you could have got back into competing for promotions so quickly if you had required a flex scheduled that included not being in the office some days, or working 4 10s or 9 9s? I’m just curious because I would love to come back after 12 weeks at full steam ahead, but without a family member to provide full time care I think both my husband and I are going to have to request flex-time as well as telecommuting/flex-days.
Reading all these comments you really realize there is no one way that works for everyone!
Monica, you may have to ask for flexibility as you adjust to the first few weeks back. But you’ll be surprised at how quickly you adjust to your new routine. If you enjoy your job, youâ€™ll want to get right back into it ASAP.
My employer doesnâ€™t allow telecommuting, so that wasnâ€™t an option for me. Also, while I had the option to reduce my hours, I think that would have hindered my promotion track. If I had cut entire work days out of my schedule, then I would miss important meetings and be out of the loop. My schedule has worked well for me, as many of our leaders are also early birds, so I am able to have one-on-one time early in the day. Also, most of my group meetings are scheduled to end by 3pm, so I donâ€™t really need to be in the office beyond that time.
Best of luck with your pregnancy!
Thanks for the input! Flexibility and creativity seem to be the key!
Does it take family planning to make life outside of work a priority?
I’m 28, single, and a licensed attorney, but I left the law to pursue a career more aligned with my passions. I’m leaning in every day–and leaving the office by 6:00pm. Pursuing hobbies outside of work, maintaining relationships with friends over dinner, staying physically fit: these are all things I consider just as important as professional success.
Am I lucky that I can pursue this career and leave at 6:00pm without admonishment? Yes. But should we wait until family is on our minds to insist on work-life balance? I don’t think so. I bring more of myself to the office because I live a richer life outside of it.
Agreed! I have a job that I’m excited about and work very hard at it, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal life (even now, before I have children) on the altar of career success. I’m fortunate to work at an organization where work/life balance is a frequent, ongoing topic of conversation.
I grew up in a medium-sized city in the South and still have a lot of 20-something friends and relatives there. None of them talk about 100-hour workweeks or are unable to have a personal life – even the lawyers. I wonder how much of the kill-yourself-to-get-ahead culture is particular to DC.
anon atty says:
I didnt really think about it this way. I am now about 10 years out of law school. I clerked for three years and then moved into biglaw, where i am now a partner. my husband did the same thing, minus the clerking. We have two children, ages 6 and 2. I went about my career the same way i would have regardless of whether i was married or not and had children or not, with the one exception being that the cities i choose to do it in had to do solely with my family (menaing that if i was on my own, i probably would not have chosen the two cities we have lived in over the past ten years, though i grew to love both). When we had our second baby, I “scaled back” my work load to 80%, but am now full time again, though as a partner in a law firm, you can control your schedule to some extent.
I am engaged and in the three years I have been with my fiance, he has been very vocal at looking at the future and working hard at making sure that his job he is in will be a career so he can provide and take care of his future wife and children in the future. I didnt think guys thought of that until I met him! I am a little selfish and havent really thought about it until now, at 31, I have to make sure I am in a career I am happy with and will support me and my family dreams for the future.
Terrific conversation. I agree with Belle that there is a lot of “imaginary family planning” going on among young women. I work in a highly competitive field (journalism) and I do find myself thinking WAY too much about what I’ll do when I have children…even though my boyfriend and I aren’t even engaged. I know he’s focused on making as much money and saving as much as possible for a future family, which is really much wiser than looking for an EASIER job to accommodate kids later on.
An additional point to consider: what if you pursue a career that doesn’t seem conducive to having children as if it doesn’t matter, then you take the moment to have the children and realize you were right, that the job is totally not conducive to having children – BUT you still find it important to work, whether financially or to set the example for your children, or for personal fulfillment or whatever? I know several women in this position who ended up stepping out of those career paths and in most cases having to start over completely. They really regret that they didn’t plan better for the fact that they counted on having children, so that they could be deeper down a career path more in line with their own views of work-life-balance. But also, I really love what Anne-Marie Slaughter had to say about this last summer – it would be ideal if we could think of your career path as a set of stairs, with small plateaus of indeterminate length between each step up, rather than a steady hill to climb. And, she also points out, why do we have to propagate the notion that we have to hit the peak of career by age 40, especially as women are living longer?
Hmm. I definitely see the arguments for not holding yourself back. I don’t see why it would prevent you from having a family at any point, even if that point is tomorrow or five years down the road. If you move ahead, get promotions, do well, how does that mean you can’t scale back or even quit if you want to when you start a family? You might even be in a better situation to quit–i.e., more money in savings, more experience to rely on should you decide to re-enter the workforce later.
That being said, I am only ambitious to a point, and that has nothing to do with family planning. Work is a big part of my life, but it is not everything and I have no desire to move past a certain point, because I don’t want to give the hours. I would rather do something else (and I don’t mean hang out with my kids, although I like that too). I want to go pretty far, but not so far that my job is all I am.
Mrs Type A says:
This is a really timely post for me. I’m a 26 year old, married, new lawyer, who’s finishing up a clerkship and figuring out my next move. Even though my husband and I don’t plan to start trying for kids for 2-3 more years, or even longer, I have been considering this when looking at job opportunities…. and come to think of it, I should really STOP thinking about it so much. In 2-3 years a lot could happen with either of our jobs and who is going to be the primary caregiver is not set in stone, so why plan for it now?
Interesting. This topic totally boggles me since I’ve never done this (and figured it’s why I’m not married with a family yet), and don’t know anyone that has/does. And I work in Silicon Valley, where the culture is pretty much non-stop work. I have truly never heard of this in the Valley. Go figure. Seems bizarre and self-sabotaging.
I’m so so glad we are talking about this! Although I am in my early 20’s and am not looking to have a family soon, it is something I think all adult women naturally think about- the future. My mother was a single mother and had me at 26. She worked full time my entire life except a year she took off (on purpose) when I was a preteen to travel and enjoy time with me. She was able to work 40-50 hours a week when I was growing up not to mention time working from home. I spent time in daycare, with my grandparents and my friends and never felt as if I was missing out on anything- if anything, I felt that I had a role model to strive for when I grew up. Ideally in the future I would want a husband before having children but I think there is no perfect time. There is never a perfect age, perfect time in your career or a perfect salary that is going to make life exactly what you want. You just have to do the best you can- I think you really can have both worlds.
however… talk to me at age 30 and ask me if I still feel this way!
The real crux of the matter for me is how upsetting it is that women have to (or feel they have to) plan and worry about their career as the primary caregiver and men do not… parenting should be 50/50 or it should at least be a discussion of duties.
One of the things I’ve taken away from Sandberg’s book and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/) is that for most women, there’s no “good” time to have a child – it’s going to negatively impact your career no matter when you do it. Hopefully as more women write about these issues and advocate for changes to the workplace structure, we’ll start to see changes.
I find this very interesting, but from the totally opposite side. I went to college for Microbiology with zero thoughts towards a husband or kids. In fact, I didn’t even want them. Imagine my surprise when I met my husband my freshman year and was married by age 20! Our daughter came along (by surprise) my senior year in college. I took one week off and then went back to class and graduated that Spring- one month after she was born. 5 kids and 12 years later, no one is more surprised at how my life has turned out then me. While I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to cut back from a job anticipating what it would one day be like if you did have a husband and family, I do think it is important to consider if you want that. I didn’t feel that I had a particularly strong biological clock and yet, now at 32 with the realization that I am done with kids, even though I don’t want more, I am still mourning that my youngest child is the last. I think it would be very wise for women to consider their current job, or job hopeful, and look at all aspects. If you desperately want children and are a lawyer working extremely long hours, chances are that it won’t work out too well if in your mind you see yourself home with your child a lot. Does that mean you shouldn’t be a lawyer? No. It just means that you may have to reevaluate in the future if and when a family comes along. Probably the best advice I can give from my crazy experience, is that more than likely, your life won’t turn out the way you think it will, so be prepared to change some point of your thinking. Spend some serious time thinking about what you want and then go for it. If you really want to be married and have a family, chances are your future husband isn’t just going to walk into your work one day. You’ll have to put forth some effort to find him. If you don’t have the time because of your job, then maybe it is time to think about switching jobs or cutting back if you can. I wouldn’t trade the way my life turned out for anything, but I will admit that there are times where I think blissfully what it would be like to just be by myself and have no one to be responsible for! I think that no matter what we want and have in life, a part of us always thinks about what if something was different.
I will be turning 27 in a couple of months, and while I do want to be married and have a family, I don’t have a timeline or feel pressure to get it now, or to sidetrack my career to achieve it. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to be a mother, but I have never had the desire to have my own kids. When I envisioned my life, I saw myself as a successful career women who adopts 2-3 kids. My desire to adopt comes from the desire to provide a better life for kids who would not otherwise have access to the great benefits I was provided by having a stable family with supporting, loving parents. However, we all know that not only are kids expensive, but adopting is incredibly expensive. In order to achieve this life I envisioned for myself, I knew that I needed to progress up the chain quickly and start saving as much money as possible. While I have done some “family planning,” because I need to have some big times savings before I start a family, my path also encourages me to also pursue my own career goals. I think there are definitely ways to have your cake and eat it too–we just need to figure out what kind of cake we want and how we get it.
It all comes down to what we want out of life and how we want to get there. Women empowerment doesn’t just mean occupying more C-suites; it means getting what you want and taking control of your life to get it. And whether that means being a stay at home mom, having a job with consistent pay and consistent hours, or rocking it as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, do what you want, and don’t apologize for it. My personal belief is that if a man is going to take the best job opportunity he can get, and then figure it out. Why can’t I do the same? But that’s what works for me. “Lean in” to whatever life path you want to take.
We applaud women (and men) who live below their means in an effort to save for a long-term, monetary goal.
We make plans/accommodations/choices to increase our chances of meeting a suitable partner, if partnering up is part of our long-term goals.
Why should future family planning warrant any less forethought, consideration, or action?
While I haven’t read Sandberg’s book, what I hear of the discussion sounds as if the best plan is painted as one that puts you towards the top of the totem pole when you finally want to have kids, since this elevated status will afford you the benefits of 1) more control over your time and 2) increased income to support said family. In this view, balance seems to be most achievable when you’re in charge, and that more women need to be in such positions. I agree wholeheartedly that we need more women in leadership positions, but we can’t all be CEO/CFO/Sr. Partner/etc. There will always be more women (and men) lower on the totem pole simply because there’s more room there. It would be great if we could focus on making work-life balance achievable for both men and women, no matter what their job title is, or whether they work in a cube or a corner office. This, to me, is where the real work and progress lie.
Thank you for this comment. One of the biggest problems with feminism as a movement (in my view) is that it often ignores significant class issues. It’s easy for Sandberg to advise women to “lean in” but the class she’s talking to is highly educated, executive, and wealthy, who live in a culture where they are pressured to have only one or two children and in their 30’s.
This is not real life for most women. There are many other socioeconomic and cultural pressures that push women to make different decisions. There are even cultures who see a woman like Sandberg as a failure for her poor connections to family and home, as a traitor because of her cut-throat capitalism.
Accepting the premise that “success” can only be defined one way (becoming a billionaire COO) is damaging to many women and limits the conversation about feminism in a way that cripples the vast majority of working women.
Melanie M. says:
I agree, and I think this is especially true when your job pays less than the daycare you would have to pay to work it. My first job after having my son paid only $100/month over what I was paying for daycare to be there. I looked at it as an investment in my future career when I started to make more money.
Red, with all respect, have you read Lean In? Sandberg doesn’t ignore class issues, and, in fact, the reason she writes the book is to “lift the ceiling” so we can also “lift the floor.” She also emphasizes many times that she doesn’t expect all women to become COOs (the story of her mother comes to mind), and acknowledges that not all women want or should want to become leaders or captains of industry.
Otherwise, your points are really valid, and if you want a book about socioeconomic and cultural pressures faced by women, you should write that book. (I would buy it!)
I practice law in a mid-sized California legal market. I found myself ‘mommy tracked’ and (illegally) asked about my plans for marriage/kids in my interview for my first private firm job. I was an ambitious, single, 23-year old at the time. I quickly found that women in the firm didn’t advance as rapidly as their male counterparts because management (all male) expected they’d eventually opt out or request to go part time, which many did. Chicken/egg?
I moved to government practice, and my career has advanced rapidly. Everyone here has chosen more time over more money, which is equalizing. (I made this choice when I was single, and would have made this choice regardless of my future family plans.) I feel completely fulfilled in my career, and don’t feel that I’m sacrificing career for family or vice-versa.
I’ve been practicing 8 years and had my first child six months ago. My husband is a transactional partner in a private firm. We both have sufficient control over our practice and our schedules to take the time we need to parent. It helps that we’re not litigators. It also helps that I realized during my maternity leave that I’m not cut out to be a stay at home mom.
Interestingly, my husband sacrificed career aspirations for someday-family. Early in his career he was advancing rapidly in Big Law in LA. He chose to move to the mid-sized market I’m practicing in, taking a substantial cut in salary and prestige for the sake of work/life balance, knowing he didn’t want to eventually balance being a parent and the demands of Big Law.
Jess, thanks for your comment. Life is crazy! I’m glad you shared.
School + Babies is something I’ve wondered about when thinking about future plans. (Though as Jess said, plans only get you so far, I know!)
I’m currently working in a field (communications in DC) where it seems like an advanced degree is fairly optional. Lots of very experienced folks have just a Bachelors. Some diehards even dropped out of college for some campaign or other years ago and never went back. I myself have gotten nearly to 30 without needing a degree.
Yet, most fields slightly outside of mine probably would require me to go back to school. Down the line, I might want to dig into a specific policy area and need a Masters. I’d love to go to law school, and in another economic climate I probably would have already. I’m fine for now and glad I didn’t fall into the trap of going back to school on autopilot, but in the future, it looks like a distinct possibility.
So if at some point babies were coming AND school looked like a sensible step financially and professionally, would that be a good thing to combine? Has anyone else done the student + new mother thing? I could see it being pretty livable. As Jess said, it’s something you could go back to a week after giving birth.
Melanie M. says:
I did this with my first; took 10 months mat leave (in Canada) and took a few courses by distance learning during the same time. It worked out great, but I think it totally depends on how easy your baby is. I drafted papers in my head while walking my baby in a stoller around the park to keep him asleep. My sister-in-law finished her PhD while her baby slept in a bassinet beside her desk. I think if you want it you can usually make it happen.
Law school + babies is EASY after the first year. Absolutely do it – super smart family planning move. Do NOT under any circumstances have a newborn in your first year.
But the worthlessness of a law school degree is a whole other matter…I’m sure a smart poster on this site like yourself is familiar with the blog Above The Law? Read it and NYT law school articles before you even think about taking the LSAT and applying.
Thanks for the replies guys. I’m really encouraged that you had good experiences.
Anon, I hear you on the law degree. I’ve been very thoroughly counseled and bullied out of going right now by friends and mentors. Many of them sent that one famous NYT piece my way–that story’s probably saved thousands of 20-somethings from massive debt. Apparently, application rates are now dropping steeply. Maybe in the next ten years some sort of balance will emerge and it would make sense, but who knows. Thanks for the guidance.
Melanie, give my love to the Canada, land of lovely people and lovely leave policies. (Much of my family’s from there.)
Melanie M. says:
I totally agree that there are times in life when other goals might take priority over career, when it makes sense to prioritize work/life balance even if you don’t have kids. For example, I “coasted” in my career instead of taking on more responsability when I was training for a marathon, and I have a friend who had Olympic-level athletics aspirations and just worked jobs to pay the rent while training, and a friend who took time off from her career path to focus on her fertility issues.
I think it’s also important to say that not everyone’s pregnancy hopes end happily so it’s important to leave all your options open. Just because the plan calls for being a stay-at-home Mom with three kids doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen so don’t burn any bridges professionally.
Or, like me, you will have three lovely boys but still want to return to work when your mat leave is up. I love my job too 🙂
Agreed. My husband was diagnosied with cancer when he was in his early 30s. He had good fortune and is still with us, although he’s had many rounds of treatment. He had a very successful business and I could have not worked but the possibility that I might someday be responsible for our children on my own was enough to make me keep my job.
As a SAHM I want to chime in to say that the most important thing I have heard Cheryl talk about, and one that I do not hear mentioned suprisingly, is her point about men and the role that they play and how women must pick their mate wisely. I have to tell you I am shocked at the amount of women I know who ‘have it all’ all right…by that I mean all. All the housework, homework, chsuferring, and every other respnsonsibility around the hoouse in ADDITION to working full time jobs. It is no wonder women are not where they should be in their careers. I would personally never let my husband get away with this but more women than not actually do. When the man gets home from a hard day at the office he sits back and watchs TV-the woman’s 2nd shift is just beginning. This is not all men…some are great partners and do their equal share. These are who you look for ladies.
Melanie M. says:
I second that! I work full-time while my husband works nights part-time and takes on the lion-share of child care during the day. It’s easy to have a full-time job and three kids when your partner is a full and equal parent as well. We don’t always agree on the job division but when I come home the laundry is folded 🙂
“I have to tell you I am shocked at the amount of women I know who â€˜have it allâ€™ all rightâ€¦by that I mean all. All the housework, homework, chsuferring, and every other respnsonsibility around the hoouse in ADDITION to working full time jobs.”
I am always amazed at this too – the “working single moms” I know who do EVERYTHING while husband either works a gajillion hours or works full-time but then has plenty of time to pursue his solo “hobbies.” Women who are doing this, you are the suckers of all time. Make your man get off his duff! I feel really lucky in that I have a husband who is motivated in his job, but not to the point that he doesn’t understand that he needs to be home, helping, a good amount of the time. He does laundry, dishes, cooks, grocery shops, etc. One thing in Sheryl’s book that I really liked was her emphasis on finding the right partner who is a PARTNER, and not a dude who is looking for someone to do all the heavy lifting while he goes on his merry way. If nothing else, I hope Sheryl’s book and her ideas will help some of the married single moms out there wake up to the fact that they are third-class citizens in their own homes.
Melanie M. says:
I should also mention that my husband loves being the stay-at-home Dad and has taken a step back in his own career to make that happen. Maybe it is true that in a marriage partnership you may need to take turns focusing on your careers, at least while your children are small, or plan on paying a lot more for child-care.
Another timely article from the NYT – https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/opinion/sunday/is-there-life-after-work.html?_r=0
Maybe there is no such thing as work life balance? I’m pregnant with my first and work in Big Law as a 3rd year associate. Although my pregnancy met mixed reviews by the male partners (as one proclaim – “aren’t you too young to have children?” – mind you I am 28 and have been married for 4 years already…), the women have been very supportive and encourage me to take the full 6 months maternity leave. Similar to some other comments, I chose a demanding job, knowing that I wanted to start a family, and decided I would deal with it when the time came. I’ve been able to save a lot of money because I earn more (also working a lot more), which in the long run will benefit my family. My family always comes first and my job will always come second, and I don’t sacrifice my family for my job. I plan to keep doing what I am doing for as long as I can handle both family and career in a successful way. If one starts slipping, then I’ll decide to make a change, but not before.
Six months? or Six weeks? If it’s months, lucky girl.
Yes, it is 6 months. I am very lucky! However, the expectation when you return from leave is that you return to the gauntlet… I’m sure I will have to prove myself all over again (and then some because I chose to have children) – but that is another discussion entirely.
To the person who linked to Penelope Trunk, please be advised that a lot of the crazy stuff she spouts off is designed to drive traffic on her web site. She makes a living being out of the ordinary. I think she sometimes makes good points but other times is just plain out-of-her-mind/mental. Take her thoughts with several grains of salt.
I agree with the gals who put relationship before parenthood. If your career isn’t helping you find/exist/continue in a relationship (there is someone out there for everyone) that’s a signal you may want to change your life a bit. Don’t worry about the children you don’t have until you have a co-parent to share them with!
My father gave me good advice when I was starting out. He said, “your mother never worked, but it seems to me that you will need to work most of your life. If you need to work you might as well pick a field where they pay well.” It’s a lot easier being a parent if lack of money isn’t one of your problems. Again, don’t pass up opportunities – who know what orthodonture for your children will cost in 10-15 years.
Your post really hit home, since I’m currently considering whether or not my dream job is worth it for a husband and kids I may or may not ever have. I’m 30 and have never been in a serious relationship — but the fact that I’m a Foreign Service Officer who moves to a new (mainly third world) country every 2-3 years has left me with few possibilities. Of course plenty of female diplomats are married, but it’s hard to date people when the first thing you tell them is that you’re moving to [Bangladesh/Sierra Leone/Uruguay] in three months.
It isn’t crazy to give up this career if you already have a partner who wants to spend his life with you but isn’t willing to play second fiddle to your career (which, by its very nature, has to come before his). It *is* crazy to give up this career on the off chance that you’ll have better luck getting this future without job — but this is something I have to remind myself of every day. Wouldn’t I have a better shot at getting a first (or second, third, etc.) date if I didn’t have to tell men that in a few months, I’ll be living in Papua New Guinea? I’m glad men my age are finally looking for relationships and not just flings, but that also means they dismiss me as possible relationship material as soon as they find out what I do.
I was a career woman who is now a stay-at-home mom. I left my career for a long list of reasons (absolutely hating it was a huge factor) but I am really REALLY glad I delayed childbearing until my mid thirties. I am smarter. More stable emotionally. More financially secure. More patient. True, I likely can’t space my children how I might wish and there is a slight increased risk for someone of “advanced maternal age” but for me delayed childbearing was the right choice. Look: no situation is perfect and each woman needs to make decisions that work best for her. However, i generally agree with the premise that one ought not to make choices based on situations that do not yet and may never actually exist.
Eek! Advanced Maternal Age! Ladies, that is a real thing. I turned 35 while pregnant, and the doctor wrote “advanced maternal age” in my patient file, and she and the nurses made such a big deal about how ancient I was. ‘Twas quite a blow to my self esteem.
One thing that drives me absolutely bonkers is the idea that what men do should be the baseline. Sandburg may be right – men DON’T plan for families – but that doesn’t mean this is the best approach. I think that ideally, men and women who may think that they want a family some day should plan with this goal in mind. After all, we plan for things like when we want to retire, where we want to live, what hobbies we want to accommodate. Men and women alike don’t hesitate to choose geographical regions more conducive to their temperament or closer to their families or seek out jobs that bring them personal satisfaction. Why should women be encouraged to “do what men do” when it comes to thinking ahead for a family? I actually think men should be encouraged (and will soon begin, now that caretaker roles are beginning to equalize) to “do what women do” – think about where they want to be and talk about it with their partners. My husband and I have no children and have similar jobs (both attorneys). We have discussed things like job opportunities, switching practice areas, and so on, not under the presumption that I would be the primary caretaker of any as-yet-hypothetical children, but using the metric of what would be best for our family. We’ve discussed options for childcare, school districts when we bought our house, etc. Additionally, as many others have mentioned here, we should plan our future careers under the scope of what we want to do with our lives. Do you want time to travel, do you want to get home when it’s still light out, do you want a dog? Then you probably shouldn’t try to become a law partner by age 32. And that applies whether you’re a man or a woman and whether or not you want kids.
I haven’t read Sanberg’s book, but the one problem I can’t shake isn’t that women think of their future families way before they’re a possibility but that men don’t. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all men, but this wouldn’t be an issue if both genders placed an equal importance on the work/life/family balance. Right now, women are forced to play by the rules set by male-dominated leadership, so striving for something different is akin to failure or “settling.” I’m nowhere near marriage or kids, but I see all the successful people around me, and theirs are simply lives I don’t wish to have. Being successful in Capitol Hill involves, to an extent, working 24/7. On top of late nights in the office and being constantly on-call, you have to be constantly informed, make the rounds at evening events, live/breathe/dream politics. This past year I’ve had to start to come to terms with the idea that the job I dreamed of and am on track towards, may actually make me miserable, but what to do instead?
Here are a few random thoughts from a working mom who intentionally down-shifted her career when she had a kid.
1. I 100% agree with “don’t leave before you leave,” aka, don’t plan your career on whether or not you might, someday, have kids. I think, however, that once you are married and thinking about stopping birth control, or you are single and actively researching banks and donors, you need to start logistically planning out your options. Option 1: stay in current job and have baby; Option 2: quit job and stay home, Option 3: some middle compromise point between the two. Don’t assume you will want to quit and stay home and don’t assume you will want to stay in your job; work out your options on paper and keep an open mind. I only thought about one option when I had my son – going back, full-bore, all-go-no-quit, and it did not work for me.
2. There are compromise positions. After I figured out my life as a full-time executive working mom was eating me alive, I quit, then got a part-time job and then a couple of years later went back to school for a master’s, mostly online. So my “off-ramped time,” total of four years, was not just about diapers and playdates. Even if you just volunteer or consult/freelance or whatever, you don’t have to just go home and stay there.
3. So this year my son is in first grade and there really is no reason for me to be home two days a week when he’s in school, so I got a full-time job with flex hours. It’s a good job at a very decent salary, although with nowhere near the responsibility I had in the job I left when I had him – but I’m 100% OK with that. I am on the B-team, the JV, the reserve, whatever, and have no problem with that whatsoever. Interestingly enough, the women who are on the A-team are older women whose kids are grown and they themselves off-ramped when their kids were small. It has really opened my eyes to the things that might be possible for me later on.
Sheryl has some good things to say and some things that made me roll my eyes, but in general, remember that her plan worked FOR HER and it may not work for you. There is no one way to balance work and family that works for everyone. And it is about your priorities. If you think about the possibility of not ever having kids, and feel sadness or panic or depression, you probably need to consider making career choices so that having kids (and getting to spend time with them) is at least possible, if not easy. If you think about never having kids and your reaction is “meh” – then you definitely do not need to plan your life around the idea of maybe having kids someday. This is one situation where “your mileage may vary” is an integral concept. Make the decisions that feel right for YOU; don’t worry about “not achieving your full potential” or “letting women down” as a result of your choice, whatever it is.
You can’t delay what you have in front of you for what you may have in the future. My husband would have been happy to start a family the day we got married at 28 (probably even earlier if we’re being honest). I knew I’d never be able to commit the attention and time to my career that I wanted if we started a family so young. And that was selfish of me; but you know what, it’s okay to be selfish when it’s you.
I spent five years actively pursuing a career in California’s utility market and have achieved professional success beyond my expectations. I recently learned of an opportunity for expansion and leapt at the chance for my business, despite the fact that I’m 12 weeks pregnant (and soon to be 34, for the record). What I decided for me is this: I love my work and I’m sure I’ll love my child. There’s nothing that says I cannot actively plan for both.
I’m not stepping back, but I am planning for additional support on both sides–family and work– until I know what is right for me. I won’t know how having a baby will impact my work until I’m in it, and I see no reason to give up something that brings me so much joy because its an idea others have.
Pursue your career until that’s no longer what drives you. Perhaps having a husband and baby will bring a new sense of fulfillment, maybe it won’t. Being career focused does not preclude a woman from having both, I truly believe it’s a matter of how you make it work for you.
Jess K. says:
I would argue that this difference is largely a product of evolution. Women have a “ticking clock” so to speak, and therefore must actively think about and plan for a family if they want one in their future. Men, on the other hand, have no need to plan for a family beforehand. They are fertile forever.
I looked for a partner who would be happy as a stay-at-home dad. (And yes, I found one!)
Sara B. says:
I had my first daughter when I was 30 and my second when I was 32. I’m now 34 and a stay at home mom. I occasionally do some adjunct teaching and am involved with 3 different community volunteer groups. I have a PhD in psychology…which I just finished last year. I did all of the “in-person” coursework and internship requirements before I had my children. I wrote my dissertation while caring for them over the past few years. It was nice to have something career-oriented to focus on while raising young babies. That said, it was also a luxury because my husband has a well paying job and can support a family with his income.
I always thought I would like to stay home with my babies until they were about 1 then go back to work. Well my first daughter turned one and I visited daycares and there was NO WAY I was going to leave her at one. I considered a nanny. But No that wasn’t going to work for me either. I just have no interest in leaving my kids with someone else. My degree emphasized child development and psychology and learning…so how could I top that as far as finding someone more qualified than me to raise them? I couldn’t.
Another issue is that I am terrible at balancing work and home life even before kids. I let work consume me and am perfectionistic about it. I’ll spend as much time that is needed to finish a project or to make a presentation better. I also become very anxious if I need to miss work for any reason (e.g., even if I’m really sick). So our household definitely runs much, much smoother without me working.
Well, I do not need to worry: my bosses have already hired the person who will take my palce during my maternity leave. Problem is – I am not pregnant, nor I am thinking of getting pregnant. They just assumed since I got married I’d start immediately to try to have a baby. It’s actually a pretty irritating solution.
Anyway, back to me… I try not make any choices based on when I’ll have a baby. In this moment, I say I’ll take the shortest maternity leave which is legally allowed, but things may change. I think it’s very difficoult to make plans without actually having a baby and experimenting the changes it brings. A colleague told me after the babies she has so much energy, she manages to do everything anyway.
So, no planning right now for me.
Melanie M. says:
I think you’re very wise. Like so many things in life, it’s hard to know how you’re going to react until you’re in it. I was sure I’d want to stay home with my first, but after 7 months I was back to work. Being a SAHM just wasn’t for me, but my husband loves it.
Melanie M. says:
I think it’s also fair, as a feminist, to aknowledge that some people (men and women) don’t want to be primary caregivers of their children and would prefer that the other partner or nanny, etc, take on that role. For years there have been some men who never changed a single diaper or never did more than eat dinner together and catch the occassional little league game with their kids and that was considered “being a dad” in the old days. This isn’t just a stereotype, it’s the way I was raised, for good or ill 🙂 So I think we should recognize that not every woman wants to give up her career just because biology says that she carries the baby. Some women do want children but aren’t “maternal” in that they don’t feel strongly about needing to be the child’s caregiver in that way and that’s a valid choice.
I’m in my late 20s in a profession where having a child is career suicide. This is something we talk about ALL the time. Many of my friends are grappling with the “when to have kids” decision right now. I guess, thankfully?, I am still single, which puts kids off by several more years. That also puts me in Belle’s category of focusing on my career until I absolutely have to make that choice. But, I still AM giving up my career for this “fake future”. In about a year, I will be required to move to a different job within my field, and all of the “career enhancing” options are in small towns in TX or MS. The odds of me meeting an eligible bachelor there to even THINK about a family are so slim that I just can’t do it. So, my choices for my next job will all screw me over in the long run in order for me to stay in an area of the country where I think I have a shot at a guy.
And the other side to this is I will have NO issues throwing it all away as soon as I find the right guy – I’ve always wanted a family. My career was something cool to do, something to keep me busy until I found that guy – but I wonder if maybe putting so much effort into that career is what has kept me single until this point. Oh well – at least my 20s have been completely awesome and I’ve had a chance to travel the world and do things no one else can do!
Michelle B says:
I think it’s crazy to put yourself on the “mommy track” before you are a mom. If anything you need to work HARDER to give yourself more options later. 9 months is a long time. A long, seemingly interminable time. Tack maternity leave on top of that and you have eons to weigh your options.
I got married relatively young, for professional women anyway in major metro areas (I lived in DC at the time). I was 25. I continued to work my ass off as if we would never have kids, at a private equity firm and later an investment bank when we moved to the west coast. Even when I got pregnant I did not let up. I remember going to the office at 8am Friday morning…and not leaving until 6pm on Sunday. I was 8 months pregnant. I also took a Series 7 exam while in labor, worked out, and then went to deliver the baby.
When I had my 1st in 2004 I’d already made myself invaluable. So I was able to work a really sweet deal my company. I got a large salary and only had to go in 2 days/week. Now I forwent bonuses and promotions, which was fine at first but sucked when people below me leapfrogged ahead of me, but it was the deal I made and I wanted to be with my daughter (and eventually daughters). So I was at peace with it.
I maintained myself firmly in the mommy track from 2004-2008 (had a second child in there). In 2008 an awesome opportunity came along for me to be the turnaround CFO for a fledgling software company. (It was one I’d sold on the investment banking side years before). This opportunity was absolutely born of the hard work I put in leading up to becoming a mom – from an old colleague. Because he only wanted me to do the job I was able to 100% call the shots, name my price, and name my flexibility. It was a fun, engaging, and extremely lucrative deal. My first tentative step off the mommy track, but still on my terms.
Late 2011 to early 2012 I stepped firmly off the track and am now a finance executive at a publicly traded company. Even though this is a legit, intense job I still have a great deal of flexibility. I go in maybe 2 days a week and work from home the rest of the time. (Though I do travel a decent amount). I am 38, both girls are in elementary school now (ages 7 and 9), and I feel like I’ve achieved a great deal of success and am only going upward.
I don’t have a nanny or help of any kind (except when I travel my parents help here and there but they work too). I volunteer in their classrooms. I’m team mom for softball and treasurer of the PTA. I also work out every day, read and write, see friends, and spend time with my husband. Yet I’m still one of the top people at a very successful publicly traded company and make a fantastic living (I’m the primary breadwinner though my husband is no slouch – he’s the CFO of a pharmaceutical company).
I’ve been very lucky of course, and my husband is a HUGE help. It is a true partnership in every sense of the word and I can say after 17 years he is the most awesome guy to ever walk the face of the earth. But you do make your own luck to some degree. If I hadn’t positively busted my ass for all those years, I wouldn’t have proven myself to be someone they have to have. Even my current job can be traced back to things I did before having kids and certain things I’ve done since being there they think no one else can do.
I’ve had to become efficient of course, very efficient. If I have 3 minutes in between making lunches and taking the kids to school I will bust out 3 minutes of work. That is a lot of time. I’m constantly recalculating/calibrating my schedule. While working out I think about the calls I hav that day (I do a lot of investor relations so am on the phone a LOT). I also know when to half-ass something because that is the reality. Sometimes you can’t give it your all, you only give it what you can.
Lots of people have children. Most people. So saying you want a flexible schedule because you want to spend more time at home is very much a “who cares, doesn’t everyone?” proposition. You have to come at it from “you need me more than I need you” viewpoint, a “this is what you’re going to pay me and this is how it’s going to go down because if you don’t take this deal someone else will” position.
Of course you never now how you’re going to feel about working post-kids until you’re there. But I think the wisest thing is to act like you’ll never have kids and give yourself as many options as possible.
Belle, I’ve been reading your blog for awhile, but never felt bold enough to comment. Reading the comments on this topic struck a cord with me because I’ve been thinking a lot about where my career will take me and when I will be ready to settle.
Several years ago, I made the decision to travel half way across the country away from my family and my boyfriend of 9 years to study medicine at a place I knew I would love and that would get me to where I wanted to be in my career. I’m now 25, will be graduating soon, and my boyfriend and I are finally thinking about tying the knot. I know that I don’t have the experience that many other women here do, but I do not regret my decision to move away from home and my boyfriend to accomplish my dreams. I agree with what others have written, that I have to reach a certain “threshold” of success before I am ready to step back from my career to have kids and I am fortunate that my boyfriend has been understanding. He understands that I have a “bucket list” per se that I am working on so that when we do settle down and have kids, I have no regrets about what I didn’t do.
When the time comes, I will make time and step back from my career, but until I am in labor I will continue chasing after my dreams even if it means 80 hr work weeks.
I don’t think there are “right” or “wrong” answers to any of this. I was married at 30, called to the Bar at 31, and have worked as a lawyer in government ever since then. I had my first child at 33, the second at 35. The babies just came (i was lucky that way) without any significant planning. At the time I felt it may not have been “the right time.” I was early in my legal career, I worried that it would hold me back. (It didn’t). Now I smile, because I know the timing was perfect. They are 22 months apart, and had I waited longer I may not have had the courage to do it. I am Canadian so my mat leaves were generous (10 months for the first, a year off for the second) and I was even able to work part-time until my second child was four. I know things can be more difficult for women who work in big law firms who work crazy hours. They might have to make some decisions about hiring full time nanny help or having their partner do more of the “at home” stuff. Somebody has to do it. Kids get sick (quite a lot, actually). Sometimes it’s really difficult, but mostly it is a wonderful journey. I would never advise anybody to make career decisions based on a husband they have not yet met or babies they don’t yet have. Too many women I know were unable to have children or had marriages that fell apart for reasons unforeseen. This is a reality of our times, and one can never count on things. Take it from an “older gal” like me — just live your life and accept the blessings you are given graciously. Everything will somehow fall into place, I really believe that is true.
I almost didn’t read the comments to this post since I never think about children other than I DON’T plan to have any. However I’m happy I did since I’m starting biglaw in NYC soon. I’m 24 and finishing law school while my (serious) boyfriend is in his last year of medical school in DC. I really appreciated hearing different stories from the attorneys here. As I hinted at earlier, I don’t have a maternal bone in my body, but my bf and I just discussed how I’m thinking about getting a dog. He insisted I would have no time or energy to care for another living being after working to reach my firm’s 1,950 billable hours minimum. This eventually spiraled into a discussion about how we’ll never have time to start a family–let alone plan a wedding! (Long distance is a whole other beast.) It honestly does not bother me. But it really lit a fire in my boyfriend. I found this interesting and think it highlights the incredibly personal nature of this issue. Both my bf’s and my mother were/are the breadwinners of our families and traveled internationally for work. As a result, both of us were raised (in part) by nannies. But we both also learned to be independent and ambitious. However, my mother didn’t plan ahead while I think my bf’s mother did. My mother almost randomly decided to start our family at age 25 while she was co-founding a tech company. Slowing down work was not an option and she miraculously had 2 kids while expanding the company to 3 other continents. I think she was able to do this b/c of my father’s stable job and the handful of relatives who were closeby to help out. My bf’s mother, on the other hand, always planned to wait until her 30’s to have children, after she and her husband obtained their dream jobs (they did and she had my bf at age 36).
I think I’ll hold off on planning for anything–whether dog or child–until I have a real burning desire for it. All of my female mentors have told me to give biglaw all I’ve got while I’m young and resilient, and I intend to do just that. One of my mentors married a fellow biglaw associate and suddenly inherited a 6 year old step-son. She quit her firm and took a less demanding but still prestigious position. Like a few of you said above, if she hadn’t gone for the demanding career early on, she might not have been qualified for the less demanding one later. Also, the 250K she was making a year as a senior associate really helps to offset the <100K she's making now + additional child expenses.
PS: Someone mentioned Above the Law earlier. In case you haven't seen it yet, the blog posted a departure memo from a mother who decided she couldn't be a biglaw associate and a mother any longer: https://abovethelaw.com/2012/11/departure-memo-of-the-day-parenting-gets-the-best-of-one-biglaw-associate/. Interesting and somewhat depressing read.
Belle, I love your blog and felt totally compelled to post because I feel that you have really helped me develop my style knowledge… and since I am doctor, married to a lawyer, balancing that with two little babies I think I actually do have some advice for all of you smart young ladies out there considering these big questions! The most important thing to do is to start dating. There are lots of great books on the topic, I can include some that really helped me if anyone wants to hear them… but finding/picking a partner is BAR NONE the most important decision you make in life. When to have kids, whether to work, go part time or quit entirely will all follow. But finding a partner who you love respect and enjoy is the toughest part! Competition is fierce for the “good ones” and sometimes dating is uncomfortable. Of course you are tired, scared of rejection, and maybe a bit socially awkward (I sure was!) But it is a skill that MUST be developed. Kind of like how to put together a great outfit 🙂
This is a great thread.
FYI for all of you in DC, I just heard about a happy hour where women will be discussing issues considered in Lean In. The happy hour is the idea of several former think tank interns who are developing a curriculum to encourage more women to take on leadership roles. The happy hour will be at PhilanthroPub (1926 9th St NW) on Wednesday, March 29 at 6pm. Some of you might want to know that the crowd will likely be on the younger side.
Sorry I meant Wednesday, March 20 at 6pm!
Cynthia W says:
Yes, I think that it’s probably a good idea to have SOME idea about what you think you might want to do if/when you ever have a family, but I absolutely think that you shouldn’t “leave before you leave.”
A lot of people have talked about the perils of waiting too long to start a family, but there is no guarantee that you’ll EVER get pregnant, no matter when you start trying. I chose an entire career that would be conducive to staying home for the first five years and then going back to work on a good schedule for a family (teaching) and then was NEVER able to have children, even with years of trying and fertility treatments.
I enjoy my job, but I also would have enjoyed other things that paid better and the family work/life balance never became an issue. And she’s absolutely right about the fact that higher-powered women have more options when the time comes anyway – and my husband would have been perfectly happy being a stay-at-home dad, so it would have been a non-issue anyway.
Short answer is – you may never be able to have children, so you really shouldn’t sabotage yourself for them.