Want Kids and a Career? The Two Valentines Notes You Must Write Today

Dear 29-year-old female MBA,

Just a few days ago, I sat with a group of ambitious women from all over the globe. Like you, these women have poured their intellectual reserves and financial resources into their education and are ready to crush their careers and have a big impact on the world.

They have drive, determination, and a trailblazing spirit. But then … they confront that persistent rattle in the back of their minds: “The Pressure” between choosing the job they’re burning for, the one that will swallow them whole and absorb their every minute, or the one that will prioritize flexibility and allow them to do meaningful work and have a family.

This pressure is intense. A 2016 study conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that only 40 percent of women are interested in becoming top executives compared to 56 percent of men. And while women and men worry equally about balancing work and family, women are far more likely to say they don’t want the pressure associated with an increased workload. Women, it turns out, expect to face more challenges and, as a result, do a different cost-benefit analysis when they think about their career trajectories.

In my job as a Lecturer and facilitator in the Women in Management Program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and as a consultant for corporations, many women I meet bring up their decreased fertility patterns starting NOW (as in, their late 20s).

It is understandable why you might feel forced to forego your ideal post-MBA career for fear it could thwart your plan to have a life with kids. It is also completely understandable that you feel frustrated that your male counterparts don’t worry about “The Pressure” in the same way you do. Nope. They graduate and go right for what they want.

That same McKinsey study found that for every 100 women promoted there are 130 men promoted. And by the time women reach the Senior Vice President level, they hold a mere 20 percent of core roles. That means their male counterparts are more likely to hold senior roles that have a direct responsibility for the bottom line and a greater chance of being promoted to top roles, like CEO. Additionally, in a Pew Research Study among working Millennial mothers 58 percent said that being a working mother made it harder for them to get ahead at work, where only 19 percent of Millennial fathers said that being a working father made it harder to advance.

But, we’ve come long way — right?

A few weeks ago I marched with my daughter and mom in Los Angeles with over 100 thousand people. On that historic day almost 5 million women and men across the world marched together. We came from diverse cultures and backgrounds but we all wanted the same thing: to co-create a better world. As we marched, I was keenly reminded of how hard it is for young women to execute the proverbial “lean in” when having it all — a job, a family, a semblance of a balanced life — requires us to make impossible trade-offs.

Some employers are trying to be accommodating to help us with these trade-offs. And so I know you are studying egg freezing pamphlets as a perk in your post-MBA job offer package. Like me, you probably feel simultaneously outraged and relieved by this. Because while we contemplate what to do, the lack of affordable childcare makes it hard to breathe easier, even with these new options in place.

Personally, with three children ages 6, 3, and 2, the burden of dealing with Bay Area childcare costs has almost destroyed me. Many women I know simply opt out of work if they aren’t making more than the price they must pay for childcare. They ask, why bother? There is certainly sound logic in this argument.

We find ourselves in an era of innovative and crazy-making possibilities. One brilliant, incredibly thoughtful woman I know recently proposed an out-of-the-box idea to harvest her eggs. She would fertilize them with her someday partner and then implant them simultaneously in 3 surrogates to create an approximation of triplets. This plan would allow her to increase the number of children she can have (she wants 3) and minimize her time away from work, which would eliminate the impact on her career trajectory.

We’ve come a long way, but we must go further. Our options must be better.

For advice, I offer my experience by sharing what I‘m feeling two months after my 39th birthday. As I near the end of my baby-making period it is looking unlikely that I’ll have the 4th baby I long for. But …

  • I am incredibly grateful that my mom worked and that her mom worked. I am proud to tell my daughter and two sons that this is our family history.
  • I’ve learned to accept that the things I can’t do with my kids because of work is offset by the quality time I do spend with them outside of work. I’m grateful for the fulfillment I get from my family and from my job. I love my children with all my heart but I also appreciate that I get to have multiple roles in addition to that of Mommy.
  • The time I spend teaching or working with women MBAs, and the opportunity to connect with ideas and people I respect are an important part of who I am. And I want that for you. If that’s what you want for yourself.
  • I’m glad I connected with other women, and I suggest that you do, too. I’ve found it immensely helpful to talk to women who’ve had challenges similar to my own and have come out on the other side.

You are going to take risks no matter what. But make sure they are YOUR risks and that they have the possibility of moving you towards YOUR goals. Don’t lean in and spend all of your hours in the office because Sheryl Sandberg thinks you should. And don’t make your life choices based on some idea you internalized from your parents/classmates/colleagues. Now it is your turn to live your life.

There are countless ways to move toward your goal, but attaining it requires thinking through what you want and knowing your endgame. With any meaningful endeavor, you will need to course correct when your goals change or your methods aren’t working.

To get relief from “ The Pressure,” know that having it all means getting clear on what YOUR all is. Now is the time to decide what having it all looks like for YOU. I encourage you to be brutally honest with yourself and to seek wisdom from people you respect and who will tell you the unvarnished truth.

I want you to write two Valentines notes today:

One for the “shoulds,” that voice in your head telling you it’s never going to work out. Thank these internalized doubts for their tireless service and then inform them that there’s a new CEO in town who is laying them off and taking a different route.

And one for “Me,” the woman who can define what she wants her life to look like. In that note, write about how you will have hard conversations with yourself, the people who love you, and those you love or admire. This note is a declaration to love yourself as you find clarity about what your version of having it all looks like.

Write those letters. And when you finish, know you are in good company in weathering this storm. Because at times it is going to be rough going. Even the stress of trying to conceive, if that is your path, can have a significant impact on your mental health.

So from here on out, when you feel overwhelmed, turn to your tribe — sisters, friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors, and healers who will be there for you along the way.

And count me in that tribe. I know you’ve got this.

While it’s hard, I promise you that there will be days when you take out that second Valentine, the one you will write today, and you will see that everything makes sense, even if only momentarily, because you loved yourself and your path enough to make it so.

Love,

Leah

I’d love to get your reactions to this piece! Please email me at lweiss@stanford.edu.