I recently returned from a Columbia College Women’s Networking breakfast. The New York Times’ “Life’s Work” columnist Lisa Belkin was speaking about "how to realistically balance your career, home and life" (yeah, right).
Before Ms. Belkin spoke, the attendees had a chance to get to know each other. I was glad to meet one of the women who was in the first class of Columbia College graduating women (CC’87). It’s hard to believe that women have only been attending Columbia for 20 years. I didn’t realize that we were the last Ivy to become co-ed.
Anyway, I digress. Ms. Belkin was a great speaker (even though she’s a Princeton grad). She spoke about how she never thought about balancing work and life as a Princeton student. Rather, men and what she wanted to accomplish in the future were the focus of most of her student conversations. Everything seemed possible…students had a "the world is ours" mentality. Although I’m at least a decade younger than her, I felt the same way and discussed the same topics as a CC student in the early 90s. I remember that I used to think of the Columbia College steps as my "field of dreams". My friends and I would sit out there all times of the night and dreamscape about who we would be/ what we would do with our lives. It was such an innocent, idealistic time of life in many ways.
Then, Ms. Belkin spoke about how work at the New York Times was her life until she got married and moved with her husband to Texas. Even while in Texas, work was a huge part of her life as she freelanced for the NYT, wrote magazine articles and wrote a book. I remember the time in my life when work was the most important thing…it was before I got married and had kids. I remember my now-husband mentioning in a phone conversation at the time "You’re always at work." I couldn’t disagree. Those were my Smith Barney days. I got a "rush" being able to hang with the all-nighters. I realized that a lot of "game" was face time. There was a huge gap of time in the morning hours where people were totally unproductive. Doing all-nighters/ going home to change and come right back to work were the norm in the investment banking division, so people sort of scheduled their lives around that reality. I did it too until I got tired of the game!
Ms. Belkin then spoke about how her life really changed when she had her first son. Her family moved from Texas to Westchester and she started commuting into the city to work at the NYT. Her schedule was a little crazy but still manageable because of the "invention" of the cell phone. When her second son, Alex, was born, Ms. Belkin "quit" her job and began to free-lance with the NYT, write books, etc. from home. Being a work at home mom had its own set of challenges though. For example, she shared how she had to get dressed up, leave the house and sneak back into her home office for several months in order for her older son to stay with the babysitter without a huge hassle. I could relate to almost everything (except the commute…I have always worked near where I lived). Being a work at home parent is great but it has its own unique set of challenges. Right now, I watch both of my sons and work around their schedules. Some days it works really great. Some days it’s not so great (i.e. when I have a deadline and a "needy" baby at the same time..I end up breastfeeding and typing simultaneously!). At the very least, it’s an adventure.
Then Ms. Belkin shared about the day when she was offered her own column on "life and balance”. She needed to take her crying 3 year old son for a doctor’s appointment at the same time that a magazine cover story was due…she was in an extreme moment of unbalance feeling as if she wasn’t doing either of her roles (mom/worker) well. She decided that she would write the column for three reasons: 1. It was a column in the New York Times; 2.She hoped that she would be able to get some answers about achieving this elusive "balance" (she noted that seven years later, she still has no answers but at least the conversation is taking place. Everyone thinks that everyone else has the answer when the truth is that no one person is balancing their life "perfectly"); and 3. She saw the impossibility of "balance" as the story of our generation. The reality is that we as women are needed at home more whether we like to admit it or not. At the same time, many of us need and/or want to work and American workers are working longer hours in part due to technology (i.e. cells, Blackberries, etc.)…even when we’re "off" the clock, we’re still expected to be connected to it!
A little while later, the editor of the New York Times Magazine called and asked her to profile a women CEO of a Fortune 500 company to see how they were different from their male counterparts. There were only seven such women at the time and none of them would consent to be the subject of the story. This led Ms. Belkin to a greater story…why were there only seven women CEOs? Why weren’t women "running the world" when there were so many opportunities available? Those questions were the basis of one of the NYT’s most controversial stories "The Opt-Out Revolution". She had spoken with Mommy & Me groups of MBAs from elite universities where most didn’t work outside of the home at all and none worked outside of the home full-time. The bottom line seemed to be that it was too hard… that the workforce seemed to be designed for men. By that, she meant that workers are supposed to put everything into their jobs in their 20s and 30s and reap the rewards later in life. Women can do the same, but if they want kids, biology has to be accounted for. Although more women are waiting longer to have kids, medically-speaking that is still not the ideal. Another reason given for women who "opt-out" is that they don’t see success the same way as men do…money and power are not the only things that define success for women…happiness, sanity and contentment are being added to the equation. Also, women don’t feel like they necessarily need "to succeed" at every moment in time (i.e. they decide to stay at home with their kids when they are young with the intention of going back to work full-time later). In any event, the story had an amazing response which for the most part was consistent along generational lines. The older generation of women "the original warriors’ were upset that women were throwing away their hard-fought gains by not working, working part-time or taking time off from work for a period of time. The current generation (those who just graduated or will be graduating soon) were confident that they were going to come up with a better way of balancing work and life. I saved my generation for last…those of us who graduated in the 80s and 90s responded with guilt…those who were staying at home felt guilty for "wasting their education" and those who worked outside of the home felt guilty for ignoring/ not spending enough time with their children. In sum, everyone felt that someone else was doing it better. Of course, there were exceptions in each case.
I guess by definition, I am one of those women who the older generation would be upset with. I received an Ivy education and had a world of possibilities available to me. After working for about a decade, I decided to focus on parenting for about a decade/ until both of my kids are in grade school. I work part-time in a field that is totally different than the financial field that I worked in before. However, I feel no guilt about my decision. I appreciate the doors that have been opened for me but the door that I appreciate being opened the most is that of CHOICE. I make my decisions based on what I think is best for my family and me. Being my own woman and making my own definition of success are some of the best gifts that the women’s movement has gifted me. It’s so funny, I remember walking through Columbia with another Mommy friend and she said, "You went to Columbia and now you’re not using your education." She didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I am offended by that type of thinking. To me, education is never wasted. I use more of my "Columbia education"…i.e. Art Humanities, Music Humanities, Logic & Reason, etc. now that I’m a parent and parenting writer than before when I was a business analyst. (Anyway, my degree was in history and sociology…what does that have to do with number crunching?!) Overall, I think that we as women are our own worst critics. We need to be secure enough in our own choices to respect (not necessarily agree with) other women’s choices. For the most part I believe that moms love their kids. It’s something about giving birth that just opens up a new, deeper, "throw myself in front of a bullet for you" type of love that is unexplainable. As such, I assume that moms are doing their best and making the best decision that they can for their child(ren). Of course, there are exceptions, but overall that’s my take on things.
In the last four years since that article was written, things have changed (to a degree). Many corporate companies are implementing more family-friendly programs. Many moms are starting their own businesses. There is this whole "reinvention" movement going on (see http://www.rolemommy.com/ for inspiring examples). However, this is still very much a "women" conversation. Ms. Belkin believes that men must become part of the equation because this is truly a work issue, not just a women’s issue. She ended her speech with a story about one "ideal" situation…there is a married couple who are both neonatologists at the same hospital. They share the job and each day they decide who will go to work at the hospital. The hospital only cares that one shows up!
After Ms. Belkin’s speech, there was a short q & a. Questions that were raised included the following:
1. Why are women the ones choosing to opt-out rather than the men? (Parenting is still seen as a women’s role/issue.)
3. What should we be teaching our children about life and work? (The realities, but don’t necessarily expect them to listen….would the 20 year old you really listen to the 30+year old you?)
3. How do women who opt-out account for gaps in their resume when they want to return to work? (Flexibility exists in some companies but women have to realize that they will be facing issues of ageism as well as sexism on their return. Think about your long-term plan before "opting out" and "keep your hand in" the industry that you would possibly like to return to one day. In other words, don’t leave completely.)
After the q&a, I was fortunate enough to speak with women from each generation. The older woman that I spoke with encouraged younger women to spend as much time with their children as possible. She felt that she didn’t have a choice but to work full-time and now that her child is 21, she regrets the missed time. I spoke with a woman from my generation. She has two small children and works part-time as a junior partner at a law firm. She was questioning whether or not to stay at her firm where she’s not getting the "plum" assignments because of her part-time status. Then, I spoke with someone who wants to get married and have kids. She expressed that she wanted to stay at home with her future kids but felt that she would be wasting her education. Everyone (even the women in attendance who did not have kids) had their own story. It was great to hear them…without judgment being passed as to who was right or wrong.