What if I had known?
What if I had known that you really can’t fly to cover the biggest oil spill of your generation when you’re eight months pregnant … and that you’ll have to be content with writing about it from your cubicle?
What if I had known that your lactating, leaking breasts don’t care that you’re on a deadline and really don’t have time to pump?
What if I had known that when a senior producer recommends you for a cool, career-advancing project, you’ll have to say no … because you won’t be able to get it done in time to put the kids to bed?
Would I still have chosen to work in journalism?
It’s a question that’s nagged me through the years and forced itself to the forefront of my consciousness again, just recently, after I read about another mom wishing someone had warned her, early on, how hard it would be to balance her chosen career, in television, with raising children. Suzanne Jannese, who also contributes to Babble, wrote on YourTango:
With all my heart, I wish someone at school had taken me aside and said that after sweating through exams, university, getting on a career path, and climbing the ranks it would all become impossible when I had kids. I wish someone would’ve said that I’d have to compromise in so many ways because my chosen career path is mainly filled with childless folk — AKA those who don’t have to dash out of a meeting because, “The nursery closes at 6pm, and I can’t pay late fees!” or pretend to be at the dentist because there’s a play on at school or leave early or require notice before travel.
Though I dread wading into the shark-infested waters of the “Can women have it all?” debate, I do question whether some of us would have seen more success and professional fulfillment if we had chosen more family-oriented industries. Working Mother Magazine, for instance, touts online marketing, human resources and, of course, the female-dominated education field, as “mom-friendly.”
And I wonder if even the tech field would have been more conducive to family life than my vocation — yes, the proportion of women to men in the business is shockingly low and Microsoft’s CEO made a particularly egregious comment about women and compensation … but it’s also the industry that brought us powerhouse contemporary feminist Sheryl Sandberg, offers generous maternity leave options and, more recently, provides insurance coverage for women seeking to freeze their eggs. (Not to mention the fact that tech workers tend to earn more than journalists — which is helpful when you have to foot the bill for things like diapers, swim lessons and bounce-till-you-vomit birthday extravaganzas.)
Perhaps dropping my computer science major all those years ago was a bad call, eh?
The College Years
The fact is, I really wasn’t thinking about the prospect of juggling work and children at all when I hungrily began applying to my first media internships as an undergraduate. I focused on getting jobs, period.
Was this uniquely foolish on my part? Were other women more thoughtful as they chose their majors, pursued internships, and otherwise planned their careers? I reached out to one of the most diverse and accomplished groups of women I know, alumni from my alma mater, Dartmouth College.
As you might expect, their responses were a mixed bag. Some, like me, copped to not giving much thought to children when pursuing their careers and were caught off guard when they realized exactly how disruptive having children would be to their professional trajectories.
“As an academic, it is a frequent expectation that a scholar, particularly a woman, should wait until tenure before kids,” said Lara Dotson-Renta, who graduated college with me in 2003. Dotson-Renta noted that achieving tenure often doesn’t happen until a professor is in his or her 40s. “I found that what I was being asked to trade to prove professional worth wasn’t something I was willing to risk not ever having. I didn’t know as an undergrad that no matter how stellar an education or track record, taking the foot off the accelerator for even a minute as a working woman costs you dearly. ”
Others, however, did plan ahead, and in some cases purposely chose one career over another.
“It was a big part of the reason I did not go for a career in the foreign service — I figured I’d never find someone who would want to be a househusband while I dragged us all over the world,” Anne Bagamery, a 1978 Dartmouth graduate, told me.
Ironically, at least in the context of this essay, the career Bagamery ultimately chose was in journalism. She took about three years off from working after she had her daughter but later rose to prestigious positions at The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times Global.
So even though she initially dismissed one career for being too family unfriendly, she ended up pursuing another one that many — myself included, clearly — would argue is also tough on the parenthood front.
How’d she do it?
“The probability that I’d have to drop out for a bit to have kids was also a motivator early in my career as a journalist to do as much as I could, pile up as much experience and achievement and recognition, before that happened, so that it would be easier to get back in later. And I was absolutely right about that,” Bagamery said.
What Young Women Think Today
If Bagamery’s strategy sounds familiar, that’s because it’s pretty much the same road map you’ll find in Lean In, the book that brought tech exec-turned-author Sheryl Sandberg’s name to the forefront of ongoing debates about women’s success, or lack thereof, in the workplace.
Sandberg urges women to pursue opportunities and career goals even if they expect to become pregnant in the near future. If they’re succeeding and enjoying their careers — instead of hanging back and, consequently, becoming disenchanted — they’re more likely to continue to succeed even after they have children. Senior leaders, she notes, ultimately benefit from greater flexibility — read: ability to spend more time with their kids — as they have more control over their schedules.
And it’s that strategy, rather than choosing one industry over another, that may well be taking hold in the minds of more and more young women today.
“I want children, but I plan on being a mother later in my career. I’d like to wait until I have set myself on the right path to achieve my career goals,” said Savanna Rovira, a recent graduate of American University who led several Lean In circles — peer groups inspired by Sandberg’s book — at the university.
Rovira, who now works as a business analyst, added that women in her groups were more interested in choosing family-friendly companies than family-friendly industries.
“I have seen women very actively choose companies that make it loud and clear that they value women,” she said. “I speak from experience when I say that there is little that will stop a millennial woman who knows what she wants.”
Of course, you don’t have to be in a Lean In circle to subscribe to the idea that working hard and choosing a family-friendly company will pay huge dividends later on.
“As far as strategy goes, I’d ideally want to be at a place in my career where I feel established and am past the stage of having to ‘prove myself’ to my editor or boss,” one of my former interns, a promising young journalist, shared with me. “I’d want to make sure I have a good relationship with my boss so that he/she knows I’m serious about my career but would also be understanding enough to give me some flexibility so that I can take care of my family.”
And experienced career women beyond just Sandberg are encouraging this thinking.
“I’ve heard from women engineers in the industry that the thing to do is work for a couple of years and prove yourself so that your boss wants to accommodate you — and keep you — when you start a family. Students are usually pretty excited to hear this,” said Heather Doty, an assistant professor and co-investigator of a major University of Delaware-based program designed to increase recruitment and advancement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “I’m careful never to suggest that family-friendly policies are a fix-all, or that all employers offer them, but I think these women need all the information they can get before they make important decisions.”
In discussing her plans, meanwhile, Rovira hit upon something else Sandberg touted in her book — the importance of having a partner who shares equally in childcare and domestic responsibilities.
“Your partner should actually be your partner. A 50/50 marriage makes both partners happier and more fulfilled — and it helps with balancing children and work,” she said.
The Catch: When Life Gets in the Way
I think Rovira’s confidence and optimism are wonderful. But I worry about how she and other similarly-minded women will feel if life gets in the way. What if you “lean in” with all your heart and still don’t reach your career goals or, at least, a comfortable position within your field, before your fertility starts declining? (It should be noted that egg freezing, however popular, is not a guaranteed backup plan.)
What if the family-friendly company you sought out suddenly comes under new management with different objectives — ones that might be distinctly family unfriendly?
What if the love of your life ends up having a job with far less flexibility than you’d hoped and your dreams of dividing childcare are dashed?
With all these what-ifs, choosing an industry known for allowing parents to maintain a reasonable work-life balance seems like the safest choice. And so I ask myself again, if I had known years ago what I know today, would I have looked to another field, abandoning my journalism dreams in the process? I still don’t know. But what I do know is that I’ve spent more than a decade doing what I’ve loved and, though I’ve slowed down after children, I don’t intend to stop.
Neither does Suzanne Jannese. She explained in her Your Tango piece that now she’s trying to write TV shows while continuing to be a stay-at-home mom. Wish her luck, and, please, wish me some, too. As any working parent can testify, we all need it.
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