A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about how many women are starting businesses after the age of 50. I heard from many entrepreneurs that the article resonated with them.
Then, almost coincidentally, I had lunch with Kriti Sapra. In her late 20s, Sapra will graduate in 2020 with a master’s degree in the foreign service program at Georgetown University, where I am a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.
She asked me how I managed having a career and being a mother, especially in America, which is so behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to laws and policies that support mothers.
(American mothers get ZERO guaranteed leave after giving birth and no support for early child care. Mothers face stereotyping and discrimination at work, which costs them an estimated $16,000 a year in lesser wages.)
The women I’m interviewing now, the successful CEOs and entrepreneurs, muddled through those early mothering years with their dreams. So the question comes to be not whether you keep a specific job, or whether you take six months or a year off, but how you keep your view of yourself as a leader, or an innovator, or an artist — or whatever you want to be (more than one of those probably!) — intact.
When I thought back to the advice that I’d heard over the years, I thought of four pieces of wisdom that helped me:
Don’t fall for the trap of seeing your life as a series of compromises.
Recognize that breadwinning is part of caregiving.
Create your own space.
Avoid the trap
When I was a managing editor in New York, about to have my first child, I interviewed Mary Anne Tighe, now the CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm.
(On a side note, I nominated Tighe once for an award for business leaders. The man in the room, who was in charge — dismissed her and me, saying “she just a f—- broker.” She was promoted a year later to be CEO; I think he couldn’t recognize her potential because she was a woman.)
When I was pregnant, Tighe gave me this nugget: “Keep your toe in.” And she shared a story of taking her son to a class she was teaching when he was under the weather — only to have him throw up in front of the room.
I got the message: This was going to be messy.
One of the traps of the patriarchy is to frame the world in black and white, to present women with two alternatives, and a situation in which they must compromise. From our earliest moments, women are taught that life is about compromise. Give up one thing, so you can be the perfect otherthing.
Women of privilege are at the greatest risk here, because you have the choice to physically leave a job. Among the rest of us, the risk is that we mentally check out of our dreams because we believe we have to compromise.
But in my experience, women are equipped, with their deeper sense of time and their more complex emotional awareness of their world, to make intricate judgements, like stitches on the quilts that make a pattern.
You can adjust as you go along. Sometimes you have to rip out a whole seam — like when I quit business partnership after my partner got angry that I took my daughter to the doctor instead of meeting a deadline. (Sorry, bud. I made the right call there.)
But most of my days simply include a thousand judgements, like whether to spend an hour working on a story, or an hour reading my daughter a book so she can grow up to write stories. (
We’d make great strides as a society if we supported parents in making these decisions without so many economic pressures in the first couple of years.)
You’ll do this, not perfectly, but pretty well. Men have been allowed to be imperfect for a long time. So it’s probably time we allowed women to be imperfect, too.
Women don’t walk linear paths. There are few escalators, ladders or staircases for us, with clear steps or help upward. These are metaphors born out of the culture of competition, economic scarcity and hierarchy. I hope men are moving away from them, too. Women’s lives are quilts, not trajectories.
For me, Mary Anne Tighe’s “toe” turned into a full body dip, sooner rather than later — within months after my first daughter arrived. I left work for part-time freelancing; then, a freelance writer role turned into a freelance editor role turned into a consulting and writing business. Years later, divorced, I was very glad I’d followed her advice.
See breadwinning as part of caregiving
It took me a long time to banish the Cinderella from wherever she was residing, deep within my heart. Maybe she finally died when I talked to the women who lost their houses after a divorce, or the women stuck in a bad-to-abusive marriages, or the women who lost husbands too early. I wanted a career.
But I also judged the risk of not being able to win my own bread to be too high. Your job as a parent is to nurture and protect your children — and you need your own financial wherewithal to do that.
The venture capitalist Juliet de Baubigny, who recently became general partner of Bond, the new fund also formed by Mary Meeker, advised a few years ago that women should set a simple goal: Just try to make it work for a few months.
The hardest part of your day will be walking out the door. But women, exhausted, make choices under pressure that cost them (and our society) dearly in terms of their ability to earn and chart their careers.
Take, for instance, STEM wages: In 2016, the national median wage in STEM jobs was $86,563 for men compared to $66,825 for women, a 23% wage gap. Women step out and step back because the workplace is unfriendly and because they have another role to fall back on: mother.
But in many families and jobs, the hardest parts come and go. The endless runny noses will dry up; the worst bosses often do depart. And most important: You are stronger than you know — and the price for stepping away is higher than you think.
Alicia Munnell is director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. She said the one message she’d give to women in the vulnerable years of careers: “Hang on.” In an interview with her for a former client of mine, Guideline, she told us, “it seems like the only real choice for many women is to do too much and go a little crazy when they have young children.”
A two- or three-year hole on your resume matters when you’re going for the top jobs, and whether you stay as engaged as you can at work matters — a lot — for your retirement security. One study found women over 65 were 80% more like to be impoverished than men.
I’ll also add one other bonus piece of advice here: Be practical. Whatever it is you need to do to get through the crazy days, be OK with it. Put ketchup on fish (that was the line of the sand one mother I knew drew; of course, she crossed it).
My best piece of practical advice is: keep a hairbrush in the car, because there will be days you make it out of the house, pack everyone in, start down the road, and realize that your child’s head looks like a haystack.
Create your own space
The rewards of going forward, really pushing it, are great. Those multi-tasking skills, your sense of humor (you can’t be a working parent or mother without one) will stand you in good stead.
The arena in which you choose to engage and rise may not be a corporate one. I know a lot of women who became entrepreneurs in part so they could do everything better, their jobs, their parenting.
One of the chief reasons for women’s problems in the traditional workforce is so simple it almost takes your breath away — it’s the lack of flexibility and the emotional degradation that comes along with it. On the day I returned to the workforce after I had my first daughter, I had to work at 12-hour plus day, steadily grayer the entire time, because I was nursing. It was on that day I decided to quit.
Truthfully, I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t. I had a lunch with an editor for The New York Times around that time; would my career in New York have taken off?
I don’t know. But I know that I didn’t give up on my dream of being a writer, a journalist and a mother — I found another arena in which to make them happen. Being self-employed was probably harder in some respects, easier in others.
Whatever time you chose to become an entrepreneur, and whatever form that decision takes — whether it’s starting a company, establishing a side gig, or becoming more entrepreneurial at work — it’s essential.
In a world inhospitable to feminine people, including and especially mothers, you have to create your own space to survive and be happy. If you didn’t check out during the years of your early mothering, you’ll be in that much better of a position to be who you want to be as you age.
And I was reminded of that when I walked into a quilt shop in Staunton, Va.
I ducked into Rachel’s Quilt Shop, seeking relief from the heat in Staunton, a 19th-century railroad town in southwest Virginia that has seen a small tourism boom in the last decade. The farmer’s market bustled outside and up the road the American Shakespeare Centerwas preparing the evening’s production of Antony & Cleopatra.
“It feels good in here,” I said, almost involuntarily. It wasn’t only the air-conditioning. There were nooks to explore, and tables where bright patterned material was spread, and a friendly woman behind the counter chatted with two other shoppers.
Over our heads were quilts that I knew on a closer look would be magnificent. One of them showed a woman in different scenes, as a girl, cradling a baby, and hard at work.
Rachel Brown had opened the shop a decade ago, hoping to parlay her talent — immense, judging from the quilts up high — in to a business. I
nternet competition kept her from scaling, but the shop was her livelihood and thesedays, after the death of her husband, part of her raison d’être. She was wearing a safety pin, which is, she explained, an underground sign to people that they are safe to be whomever they are in her presence.
“I like to create a space where people feel comfortable,” she said.
The rewards of keeping a toe in, breadwinning, hanging on — the reward and the next step is that you can create your own space.
This is tough advice for my young colleague — and I realize that. We can all wish the world wasn’t this way, that leave was guaranteed and paid. We all know cases where mothering and working really isn’t compatible, and we know, too, that only privileged women get to make a conscious decision, though I believe many others make an unconscious decision, faced with the unfair world, to not fully engage.
But that’s my advice, culled from interviews with many hundreds of brilliant and wise women, and my own experience. Engage as much as you can, on all of your goals, sometimes at the same time, and then go one step further, because it will pay off. When you’re tired, rest. When you’re at the end of your rope, other people will be there to help. You are stronger than you know.