Fitting Kids Into a Life

I was one of the little girls who was told en masse, for the first time, "You can be anything you want to be: a doctor, a lawyer, a fireman, a senator anything." I heard it on " Sesame Street," in preschool, and later, I read it in teen magazines and books. The message was pervasive. And it was true. My career options were limitless. But what if I wanted a family, too? Adults assured me, "Honey, you can have it all."

That's what my generation has pursued. Our goal: to make the most of our hard-won opportunities in the classroom and workplace while finding a way to squeeze in husbands and babies and be around them enough to enjoy them.

While we're well-versed in the how-tos of breaking glass ceilings, today's talented, educated and motivated women have been given few details about preserving our ability to participate in the miracle of creating new life.

One highly successful educator a chair at a top-10 university details years of expensive, failed infertility treatments, concluding her bitter tale with the following:

You know the advice handed out to our generation was very problematic. We were told: "Do what men do. Work your tail off until you're established in your field. Sacrifice what you need to for your career." But now I think, if you want children, "cloning the male, competitive model" doesn't work.

I'm forever telling my women students: Don't be afraid of letting go of a half-built career. We are smart, well-educated and life is long. Career opportunities can be recaptured. Don't waste that small window of fertility. Don't live to regret not having had a child. 1

I never heard a lecture like that in college. Sadly, most of my female classmates didn't either. Consequently, many women err on the side of career development. That is, after all, where the kudos are to be found. Financial perks and bonuses, human affirmation, promotions, publicly valued achievements, all these and more await the young woman who pours her best energy into her career.

The other option seems marred by morning sickness, stretch marks, 2 a.m. feedings, sloppy sweat suits, mindless nursery rhymes and a probable drop in income just as expenses are rising.

It seems like an easy decision. Besides, there aren't any pediatricians or preschool teachers at the college job fair urging you to take the plunge into motherhood. Instead, the booths are lined with well-dressed, high-powered corporate recruiters singing the siren song of professional achievement and recognition.

And it is an easy decision for a while. But as writer Anna Quindlen admitted in a commencement address at Villanova University, "It's so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is cold comfort on a winter's night, or when you're sad, or broke or lonely, or when you've gotten back test results and they're not so good. You cannot really be first-rate at your work if work is all you are." 2

Eventually, most women do feel the tug to do more and be about more than work. The biological clock ticks louder and suddenly, they want a baby. But it turns out that "having it all" is near impossible. As new moms with big careers will tell you, balancing all those roles simultaneously is a lot harder than they imagined.

Feminist author Sylvia Ann Hewlitt shuns the phrase "having it all." "I don't use this phrase," she writes in Creating a Life, "I think it is nonsense. You can't have 'all' of anything. Some aspect of your life will be compromised in at least some small way while you are focusing on another aspect of life." 3

The simplest way to focus on raising children is to do just that. But if you're committed to having a career and a family simultaneously, it's worth the effort to find the best way to do both well.

Think like an entrepreneur

Hewlitt's book flows out of the results of a survey of high-achieving career women who, despite their success in business, had regrets about not having children. She found that "Certain careers lend themselves to a better work/family balance because they provide more flexibility and are much more forgiving of career interruptions." 4 And among them, the entrepreneur has the most flexibility of all.

Heather Leech, with husband Adam, admits that one of the main reasons they decided to open a retro retail store in Colorado Springs was so that they could be with their children. "I don't want to work somewhere so I can pay someone else to raise my kids," says Heather, 24. "I want to do that myself. Our kids have never been in day care." 5

Her comments represent a new way of thinking among up-and-coming career women who are also moms. It's characterized by flexibility: finding a way to use your talents, contribute to the family economy and still be the primary influence on your kids.

Marry a partner

In addition to flexibility, parenting requires sacrifice and not just on the part of the mom. The more willing Dad is to pitch in and help shoulder the responsibility, the more likely you will be able to maintain some of your career goals even during the demanding toddler years.

Consider again Heather and Adam Leech. Rather than asking her to stay home full time while he goes to his traditional desk job, or asking the kids to abide full-time day care while mom and dad both go to work, Adam and Heather opened a business together so that they can share the weight of both work and kids.

Be real about your goals

When you're sitting in your college adviser's office flipping through class offerings, it's tempting to be wide-eyed at the opportunities you have. Doctor, lawyer, CEO so many important jobs to do. But if mother happens to be one of them, be realistic. Go into your career pursuit with eyes wide open. Look for role models. Ask them how they balance work and family. If there are no moms in your chosen field and you want children, you might need to rethink your goals.

Be excellent at what you do

Even before you have kids, it's important to work with your future family in mind. If you're the best at what you do and your boss realizes your worth to the company she'll be more likely to work out flexible arrangements when it's time to ask about telecommuting or job sharing.

Molly Friedrich, part-time literary agent, wife and mother of three, offers the following: "One piece of advice for young women. Do a whole lot of planning early on. Be as strategic about your personal life as you are about your career. And find an occupation where you can bend the rules. Then, work hard enough to deserve having those rules bent for you." 6

Embrace the seasons of life

If you're not in a field that permits telecommuting and you don't have a husband who's interested in taking on more of the parenting role, you can find solace in knowing that a woman's life is made up of many seasons. And the season of having and caring for babies is among the shortest. Nursing every three hours and wearing Junior in a sling quickly gives way to play groups, then preschool and before you know it, they're off and running with schedules as busy as yours. Though the carpooling can be tricky, once your kids are in school, you'll again have more hours in the day to devote to your career.

Someone did it for you

Remember, as difficult as it is to balance your schedule, your career, your budget and your family, it's an effort worth making; an effort someone made for you. Though their circumstances were likely different, your mom and dad probably struggled no less in trying to figure out how to fit you into their life. And it was well worth it. You owe your very existence to their willingness to embrace sacrifice. And the next generation is counting on you to do the same.

Now that we have kids, I squeeze my writing in around their naps. I'm thankful for the outlet my writing gives me and the way it shapes my identity as a mom and more. It's a welcome break from "Elmo's World." And when they wake up, I'm the one who fixes snacks, reads a story and looks for cloud shapes in the sky while lying together in the backyard. I'm there to help my daughter pick her first apple off the tree we planted and to wipe the juice from her chin as she tries to eat it with her eight teeth. For all the sacrifices, watching a little person discover the world for the first time is part of the miracle of being a mom. I wouldn't give that up for anything.

  1. Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Copyright © 2002. Talk Miramax Books. New York, p. 50.
  2. Ibid., p. 117.
  3. Ibid., p. 118.
  4. Ibid., p. 302.
  5. Linda DuVal. "Leechpit aims to provide a portal back to the '80s." The Gazette. September 11, 2003, p. 1, Life section.
  6. Hewlett., p. 82.

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Other Things to Consider

Transitions: Changing Jobs, Moving

Relationships: Communication Gaps

Parenting Teens: Communication Problems