In early 2009, I hosted a small get together at the Oyster Bar in NYC, which was near my apartment. I was celebrating getting a book deal for what became 168 Hours. One of my guests was Emma Johnson, a woman I knew through freelance writing circles. I was somewhat annoyingly evangelistic about the 168 Hours message — that there is plenty of time in a week to build a big career and spend oodles of hours with family too. Emma’s toddler daughter was about the same age as my son, but she noted that she was moving in a different direction, trying to minimize hours worked. Indeed, we had a conversation about how she wasn’t interested in working much; her husband had a great job, and he traveled a lot internationally, and so it was best for her to be mostly at home with her daughter.
I think I grumbled at this (again, probably in that annoying new mom way of taking all comments about life choices personally). After all, my husband had a good job too, and traveled internationally, and yet I really wanted to “lean in,” despite this not being a phrase we used in 2009. We left it at that, agreeing to disagree.
Little did either of us know that Emma was about to become a poster child for the importance of keeping your career going no matter what.
Later that spring, she and I were in the ballroom at the Roosevelt Hotel in NYC for the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors conference. I saw her look at her phone, and she went out in the hall to take a call. After that, she disappeared. We were supposed to have dinner that night with a group; she never showed. She sent a note the next morning explaining that her husband, while on assignment in Greece, had fallen off a cliff and suffered a severe brain injury. Emma and her young daughter had taken off the previous evening for Athens, and she planned to be there for a while.
Her husband lived, and seemed to recover. But his injuries turned out to be more problematic on a psychological level than Emma first thought; his personality changed in some difficult ways. Meanwhile, in the excitement of his living through the ordeal, they decided to have a second child. It didn’t keep the marriage together. Her husband wound up leaving her while she was pregnant. He wasn’t really able to work in his old capacity, so she wound up getting very limited child support.
So there she was, broke, with two small children, realizing she needed to scale up her earnings fast.
Her book about how she did so, and how she learned to build a rich and full life for her two children, and for herself, comes out today. As she’s talked about, it’s fortunate that she had the 12 or so hours a week she was working to fall back upon. She could scale up some of those clients, and use the connections she had because of that work to find new ones. If she hadn’t had that available to her, scaling up would have been a lot harder. But because the work she had gave her breathing room, she could then figure out what she wanted to do, and her Wealthy Single Mommy brand is the result.
The truth is, in life, you just never know. Part of doing your best for your kids is thinking about how you would support them. You. On your own. Because life can happen.
Emma and her husband both came from families that had experienced divorce. They vowed they would do things differently.
Things seemed to be going well, but no one can predict accidents or other trauma, and how people change in the aftermath.
They had savings, but if you’ve got joint accounts, it’s hard to keep one party from draining them. Or a messy divorce might introduce its own expenses.
Your partner might have a good job, but not be able to keep that job. Even if he/she does, you’re relying on a family court to award an adequate amount of child support, and you’re relying on your ex to pay it in a timely manner. Neither of these happen anything close to 100 percent of the time.
I’m so proud of the business Emma has built in the years since that phone call at the conference. And her book is really good! It’s hilarious — with a few juicy details of her post-divorce love life that are whoa. (I’m still laughing about her explanatory comment about a Danish man who accompanied her to a party — he wasn’t her boyfriend, he was her lover. And there was that outdoors hook-up after a neighborhood shindig…). While that might no be how everyone would approach dating in mid-life, her absolute refusal to blame or be bitter is inspiring. Indeed, she and her ex have a pretty good co-parenting relationship at this point, as his recovery has progressed and he’s been able to take on more with the kids.
But anyway, her experience has always been in the back of my mind. If a parent wants to stay home with a child, that can be a great choice, but if you neglect your earning capacity, you are leaving your kids vulnerable. It’s worth spending some time figuring out how to shore up those vulnerabilities. It’s worth maintaining your professional network, any professional licenses, and taking on a few projects here and there. Kids need time and money. Part of smart parenting is figuring out how you might be able to give them both.