I was taking a survey a few months ago, when I came across a question: how has having children affected your career? The choices were along the lines of “a huge impact,” “a fair amount,” “a small amount,” or “not at all.” Assuming that this question was assessing the degree of negative impact, I answered “a small amount.” That seemed fair — there are certainly parts of my work life that are less efficient because I have kids.
But then I realized that I was making a huge assumption by assigning a negative connotation to “affected.” In reality, my children have had a huge impact on my career — a hugely positive impact. I never would have written my book on time management, 168 Hours, if I hadn’t had my first son several years ago. I wouldn’t have been nearly as obsessed with the topic of time, and how women (particularly mothers) were spending it, now and in the past. Writing that book has opened many doors for me, like making it possible to write another book. I’ve had editors seek me out, which is definitely more enjoyable than pitching blindly. I’ve been featured in major media outlets for my ideas far more frequently than I was pre-kids.
So let me segue from that thought to this one: I’ve never really written about the Sheryl Sandberg speech she gave to graduating seniors at Barnard college last spring. As she told them, her generation (she’s 40) blew it on the equality front. Women have been earning half of college degrees since the early 1980s, and yet still are massively under-represented in places where real decisions get made. She blames an “ambition gap” and says that the achievement gap won’t close until women stop doing sexists’ work for them. Figuring they’ll want “balance” some day, women make choices that put them in less interesting, less well-paid work, which of course then means when they do have kids, they’re not as interested in sticking with that work. Why would you choose a boring job over being with your kids if you didn’t have to? (admittedly, “having to” is an issue for much of humanity — but probably not the women with Barnard degrees). As she put it, “Do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
I agree with much of what she is saying. I’ve written before of the lack of op-eds by women, in part because op-eds require most would-be experts to put in extra time beyond their job descriptions in the interest of making a name for themselves. It is an ambition gap, pure and simple.
But what if this decision is not always what it appears to be? I think the lines of this conversation are changing. For starters, Sandberg’s advice assumes that you’re going to have children after you had time to establish a career. I think there’s a good argument to be made that there is never a perfect time in one’s career to have children, but there is a pretty good time biologically — and it’s a lot younger than traditional views of professional career trajectories would suggest. I’ve seen, anecdotally, that Gen Y women may be more willing to have children in medical, law or graduate school, or otherwise in their 20s. Does this make the first years of your career tough? Sure. But it’s always going to be tough. If you’ve had your babies by age 30, you’re going to have a long career with your children becoming less dependent on you as you go, rather than a major interruption at age 37 when you’ve established ways of doing things that don’t involve kids. Yes, I know that studies have found that women who have kids in their 20s are less likely to be working, but I think this confuses many things (including very young mothers, women who didn’t finish their educations, etc.).
And what if, sometimes, kids do enable you to lean in? Growing up, I kept hearing that kids and careers were choices that pointed in opposite directions. In my life, however, it has turned out not to be a choice — having kids has led to more career opportunities. Writing is obviously different than many other professions, but I imagine there are other lines of work where having kids is an advantage. Baby products have gotten much better in the past 10 years — probably because there are more mothers working in product development at places like Proctor & Gamble, toy companies, etc. Obstetrics? Pediatrics? The pediatrician I took my sons to this fall made sure to tell me, early in the visit, that she was a mother of six. This definitely made me feel comfortable with her and is no doubt a marketing advantage. Even in fields that have nothing to do with kids, per se, women like Sandberg are showing that there is nothing incompatible with kids and leaning in. Looking at the numbers of female CEOs misses a lot of what is happening in terms of small victories. A list of the newly-elected partners at a consulting firm doesn’t make a big deal about “Hey! Look! There are moms on here!” A father takes the reins of an office’s working-parents group. My son’s previous school had preschool class dads.
There is much that still needs to change — but there is a lot of reason for optimism, too. I’m grateful for the kind of work-life balance where I can go read a story to my 4-year-old’s class, and then check my email in the parking lot and see that Kirkus has given a glowing review to my next book. I took my infant along to a series of speeches in DC a few weeks ago. That’s hard to capture on a survey, but that’s my life — balanced, and leaning in.
flickr image courtesy of Ed Yourdon