Are We Allowed to Gloat?
Working moms react (gleefully) to “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In”
I’d just crawled out of bed, poured my three-year-old some juice, and situated him in front of Nickelodeon so I could frantically get ready for work (it’s always a Defcon 5 operation getting everyone out the door in the morning) when my cell phone began to thrum. Before long, it was a constant vibration, so persistent that for a moment—I’d still not had a cup of coffee—I thought New York was in the throes of some pre-earthquake tremors. Instead, what I found were nearly a dozen emails and texts from friends and colleagues alerting me to “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In,” the startling piece in the New York Times Magazine which revisits a gaggle of well-heeled, uber-educated moms featured in a 2003 magazine cover story, all of whom had willingly (eagerly, even) relinquished their enviable careers to raise their kids full-time. Apparently, a decade later, a good many of them desperately wanted back in.
“Am I allowed to gloat?” read one of the emails, a sentiment I heard over and over again from working moms who, upon learning that so many stay-at-homers regretted their “choice,” felt gleefully vindicated.
Can you really blame us? For years we’ve couched our careers as largely driven by financial pressure. Which may have been true to an extent, but left unmentioned was that fact that we actually liked to work, that we savored all those hours far, far away from story time and Matchbox cars, pureed peas, and Pull-Ups, that we felt energized and stimulated and sometimes even inspired at the office—this though it meant handing off our children, eight, nine, ten hours at a clip, to caretakers. For the longest time, women like us weren’t supposed to talk about the mojo we got from our careers, that we actually got off on being in charge and making our own money. Instead, we were subjected to glossy lifestyle stories about the new guard of stay-at-home dads (how sensitive!) and marriages upended by the emasculating role reversal of wives as breadwinners. (In addition to the laundry, we are also apparently responsible for our spouses’ egos.) We were guilted about racing home from work at 5:30 and sweet-talked about all those “women-friendly” companies that offer lavish nursing rooms on-site—pump in private!—as if perks like that trumped actual child care facilities or subsidies so that it’d be easier for us to return to work (and stay there).
We were never really allowed to actually crow about our careers and accomplishments, especially if they explicitly came at the expense of child-rearing. Could any female exec have declared “I don’t see [my children] much, but I do email with them,” as Tesla CEO Elon Musk casually noted this past spring in a talk at South by Southwest.
Then a few months ago, I edited an interview for the June issue of Marie Claire with Marianne Lake, the CFO of JPMorgan and one of the most powerful women on Wall Street. Lake talked unabashedly about having a child on her own two years ago at age 40. Hers is, as you can imagine, a demanding job, and some days she’s lucky to see her son for 30 minutes. “I try to make it work, but if I can’t I just move on. You can’t beat yourself up about it,” she told us. I was struck by how unapologetic she seemed. When’s the last time you heard a successful woman fess up to the fact that she rarely sees her kids—and not lament it? Of course, I anticipated the angry letters and emails that inevitably rolled in, lambasting Lake for effectively outsourcing her son’s upbringing. Why bother having a kid? these readers squalled. And yet, those comments were overwhelmingly outnumbered by those from readers, most in their twenties, dazzled by Lake’s stature and headway in Wall Street’s notorious boys club. Her decision to be a single mother was far less interesting to them than her climb to the top and the view from that perch.
That sentiment echoes what we often hear from Marie Claire’s twenty-something readers, who have trouble relating to the “juggle” questions we usually ask in our career-oriented Q&A’s. To these young women, work-life balance conversations aren’t owned by mom. Some of our staffers are training for marathons; others want to take time off for extended trips abroad. They don’t make distinctions between motherhood and their own time-consuming, personally fulfilling pursuits. (“If she gets to leave at 5 to pick up her kid at daycare, shouldn’t I be allowed to leave to make my Soul Cycle class?”)
They also don’t frame work and family as an either-or proposition. In 2011, PwC surveyed 4,364 college graduates and found that the vast majority seek jobs based on how much “balance” they offer. They go in with eyes wide open, and make their choices in part based on just how much their jobs will impinge on their personal lives. If that’s the primary consideration, there’s less of a risk that down the line they’ll “opt out” in the face of the crunch that inevitably comes with having children. To be clear, they are no less ambitious or hungry, but the pursuit of riches is from the outset on their own terms. Which helps explain why, according to several studies, millennials are more likely to start businesses right out of college. Though start-ups are, of course, 24/7 affairs, founders call the shots. There’s is a fundamentally different approach to work than that pursued by my generation (Gen X) and the Boomers before me, which basically dictated that you take a good job and deal with whatever comes with it.
In fact, at Marie Claire, we’ve found that our twentysomething readers want less content about work/life balance—indeed, I’ve seen younger colleagues roll their eyes at the mere mention of the term—and more about relationship-building and networking. For women especially, the job you score is less important than the contacts you cultivate and how you leverage them. Networks, it turns out, are the new resumes. (Credit where credit is due: I first heard a version of that useful mantra—“Networks are the new companies”—from Sallie Krawcheck, the former Bank of America exec who in May bought 85 Broads, a global networking forum for professional women.) Worth noting: The women profiled in the Times piece who were able to transition back into the workforce, albeit with lesser titles and more modest paychecks, were those who’d maintained their Rolodexes.
I’d be heartless to not sympathize with those moms struggling to get their dormant careers back on track. (An old friend who years ago abandoned her uber-successful PR career to raise three kids and now wanted to dip her toe back in recently emailed me this doozy: “Do you read press releases that get faxed to you?”) She was smart enough, at least, to stay vigilant about our relationship, sending me birthday cards and calling fairly regularly (though usually with updates about the kids). And so, while she may feel baffled by Pinterest and Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram, and what these platforms mean to her professional goals, she was savvy enough to recognize the value in good old-fashioned relationships. So when a couple of leads came to my attention, how could I not pass them along to her?
Lea Goldman is the Features & Special Projects Director at Marie Claire magazine, overseeing their career coverage.