There is much talk these days about whether women can “have it all” or should want to “have it all” or are given the right resources by society to “have it all” or are forced to accept certain career compromises in order to “have it all.”
For 14 years, I have felt like I “have it all” — maintaining a career I love, a great marriage and hands-on supervision of my kids. I see other women doing it too, and I describe them as Overachieving Moms. I arrived at that place with a combination of hopeful planning and never being afraid to ask for what I wanted — AND not feeling that I’ve cheated myself out of a better career, or cheated society and women’s rights of my contributions.
Based on the experiences of myself and my friends, I do believe it is far easier for a working married mother to “have it all” when she has flexibility at work and at home (as I have for the vast majority of my parenting years). While I generally agree with Mary Matalin that “having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work,” I don’t think that following that path precludes women from achieving 50% of the top positions of power in our lifetime — as Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, Dee Dee Myers and others say is necessary for the types of policy changes that will break down barriers stopping women who want to “have it all” but just can’t get there.
I think it’s just a matter of patience. (As a parent, you know how important patience is in your arsenal when dealing with kids!) We need to add that tool to our long-term professional toolbox — to think of our career in terms of how far we will get and how much influence we will wield over the decades, not in the next year or two.
If you take a look at the trajectory of a typical career — graduating college in your early 20s and retiring in your mid-60s — you’ve got 40+ years to devote to your career, if nothing else gets in the way. If you put your career on a slightly different track for 20 years during child-rearing, you’ve still got 20 years to go full steam ahead. (And multitasking women know we can generally get twice as much done as a man in the same amount of time!)
Think about an ambitious young woman who plans to establish her career first before settling down with the right man and popping out some kids, which was pretty much what I did. (I planned to move away from my then-boyfriend to take my first job in television; he followed me and eventually became my husband.) You will have achieved a level of mastery in your field — or put in your 10,000 hours — after five years of full-time work.
Of course, the first several years may be devoted to menial tasks as you move up the ladder to get to the job where you can really develop your talent. So even if it takes eight to ten years to get to the top of your game, you can reach a reasonable level of success in many fields by your late 20s or early 30s. (I believe I was at that point when I was interviewing celebrities on the red carpet for a division of CNN.)
Of course, by then, if you want to have kids, you’re thinking about that clock. Tick, tick, tick. In my case, I was feeling confident in my career, and I wanted to have kids — but I didn’t know when. I knew I didn’t want to wait until I felt like I was in a hurry to get pregnant. But I also didn’t want to start trying to get pregnant just because it was biologically the right time for my body. I wanted to get pregnant because I was ready in my head. I knew when a few of my friends were starting to have fertility issues, that scared me. Some of them had the financial resources to overcome that. I did not have that option.
So I thought about what I wanted to happen before my effort to start trying to conceive, and I created a three-part checklist.
1) I did want to have children with the right man. Check. I was confident I had found my soulmate.
2) I didn’t want to resent children taking me away from something fun “out there” I’d rather be doing. Check. My days of clubbing in LA had been replaced by happily snuggling with my honey on the couch watching movies every night, something I figured we could easily be doing with the patter of little feet around.
3) And I wanted to be financially secure or at least at the top of my field. Uh, uncheck? I decided I couldn’t wait for that, or I might end up waiting so long that I’d be running to the fertility clinic after six months of trying to conceive. I didn’t want to be taking my temperature daily and full of anxiety over the process.
So with the first two checks on my list, and not forcing myself to wait for “some day” when I had enough money, I tried to conceive — and eventually it worked.
As my belly grew, I started trying to create a plan for my new family and my career. I thought I was realistic about my expectations — I wanted to be home with my baby, and I wanted to maintain my career. (By that point I was a television reporter in a top 50 market.) So I would take time off, and then go back to it. It seemed simple enough to me. After my son was born, and I told a close friend of mine that I was staying home to nurse the baby, he was incredulous.
“What? After all these years of pushing for the career you wanted in television! I thought that was more important than anything. I thought you wanted to get to the national network news. You’re just forgetting about all that?!?” He obviously never felt the awesome power of let-down. Seriously, as a man, he couldn’t understand why I would “end” my career that I had struggled so hard to attain, and I was shocked that he didn’t believe that I could “pause” it for a short time and come right back to it on my terms. (Like you do with TV when you go to the bathroom. You don’t miss any of the movie! That was my plan.)
Maybe I was naive, but I believed; I planned for it, and I lived it. And I believe it is one of the ways to “have it all.”
After six months away from the TV station, I brought my baby to the newsroom to visit my former colleagues. My managing editor implored me to come back. “We really miss your dedication and would love to see you reporting here again,” he pleaded. (That’s where it came in handy that I had put in my 10,000 hours and established myself in my field before my baby came along.)
“I don’t want to leave my baby now, not during these critical years,” I insisted. (I had read several books already about how important all those brain connections were during the first three years of life; I wasn’t trusting that to some day care or nanny, no matter how many big news stories I was missing.)
“I’d only come back if I could work, like, one day a week,” I flippantly added, not expecting a response.“We could do that,” my former boss quickly chimed in. (I suddenly realized as a seasoned professional, I had more leverage than I thought — and I could use that to create a new grand plan.)
“Really?” It was like a dream, only one I hadn’t had yet. I hadn’t really considered that as part of my plan. But it sounded enticing. I wanted to hear more.
“I could just come up one day a week, turn a story for the news that night, and be done until the next week? No work to take home? No pressures to show up for breaking news or holidays or…” my voice trailed off, not wanting to push my luck.
“Nope. Just one day would be fine,” he declared, and thus began my wonderful stroll into the realm of Overachieving Mom — having a career I loved; doing all the things I dreamed about as a hands-on, stay-at-home mom; and having the energy to maintain a great marriage.
I started with one day a week for about a year, eventually went to two days a week, took off another six months after my daughter was born, went back to two days and later started averaging three days a week — but at that point I pulled in the reins and realized two days was the sweet spot for me (especially because I was commuting 200 miles each time I worked). I pretty consistently worked as a television reporter two days a week for most of my son’s life. (He’s now 14.)
I did take on other jobs throughout those years and started my own business to help my family’s finances when my husband was laid off — but I took on extra work that still allowed me to maintain control of my time (such as tasks I could do while the kids slept — which I’m still doing now, writing this at 3:20 am).
I was able to work only two days a week NOT because we were wealthy, but because we made conscious decisions about trade-offs — what we could do without (new cars, new clothes, cable TV) in exchange for having me with the kids more (girl scout leader, soccer coach, room mom).
I do work in a field where I can complete a project in one day. But hard-working women in jobs that require ongoing projects with continually changing demands can use their leverage to create job-share (with other overachieving moms) or work-from-home options. No one will hand you a flexible schedule; you need the confidence that you are valuable enough to deserve it and the nerve to fight for it. And you need to be willing to “stall” your career at the same level for a while. I didn’t really try much to move up to a bigger market with better pay and more status because I didn’t want to give up my dream “work-life balance” I had achieved at a station that allowed me enough flexibility in my schedule that I never missed a piano recital, a school play, a parent-teacher conference, an anniversary celebration with my husband, or holidays with my extended family.
Did I become a network correspondent as one of my colleagues did? No. She did not have children. I did. She traveled the world. I shuttled kids around my suburb. Am I disappointed that I didn’t reach higher levels in my field? No, because my time in my career is not up yet. I see my career as a marathon, not a sprint. I have the patience and confidence to believe that I can ramp up my career again after my kids leave home. And I grabbed all those precious memories with my family while my kids were growing, so I never had to say: It went so fast; I wish I had been around more.
In five short years, my youngest will be heading to college. I’ll be ready to resume my career full-time. Will a job be waiting for me? No. But there was no job waiting for me when I graduated college. I pushed to get my career started, and I’ll push again even harder when it’s time to jump-start it. I’m patiently waiting for that time and grateful to be an active part of my kids’ lives during these challenging teen years.
In the meantime, during these next five years, I can hopefully squeeze in plenty of news stories while maintaining “the ability to set my own schedule most of the time” as Slaughter so elegantly put it. I’ve been doing that for years even though I’m not one of those “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices… about the type and tempo of the work we do.” I don’t fill all of Slaughter’s prerequisites because I’m definitely not well-off and don’t consider myself “highly educated” with only a bachelor’s degree and no master’s or doctorate (although I’m constantly listening to non-fiction books on tape, so I get my own education on the cheap but without a certificate to frame).
The one glitch in the “have it all” formula I haven’t touched on is the toll that it takes on overachieving moms — the women who expect to give 110% to everything they do. When you’re balancing career and kids and marriage — even a part-time, flexible career — you can’t do it all perfectly and stay sane. You have to let go of a lot of details, and let some things fall through the cracks. Do you wait until it happens by default, or can you plan for that too — and control what you do 90% vs. what you only do 70%?
You can, with some guidance from those who have been there before.
And that’s why my new mission in life is putting together a television show to help women navigate the journey to “have it all” — because, like any magic act, the flashy trick you see took years of effort and lots of failures before it could be pulled off successfully.
In this television magazine show, I’ll be looking behind the curtain to reveal how the overachieving moms are really doing it all — the secrets to their magic tricks. I’ve given you a few of mine in my blog, but that’s just scratching the surface. I can’t wait to begin exploring the strategies that other overachieving moms have used to reach their dreams, and sharing them with the world. I hope you’ll join me by helping to fund this TV show for and about overachieving moms. With your help, it will get off the ground and get all of us on the track we want.