Thursday, December 13, 2012

The plan, what happens and how to change it

This morning I heard a twenty-six-year old woman earnestly explaining her Life Plan. She's ambitious and high energy. She's considering law school, training for a marathon, debating marriage to a medium term boyfriend, and she adamantly, definitely wants two children—before she turns 31.

She wants the children to be twins, because she doesn't want to waste more than a year of the next decade (her best career ramp up decade, she's smart enough to realize) on pregnancy. She wants to work part time when her kids are small, then go great guns as soon as they hit kindergarten.

Listening to her took me back to the days before I realized that there's the plan.

And then there's what happens.

I think I understood this concept by my early thirties, but I've only embraced it more recently.

Of course there's no point in telling this to someone fifteen years younger. I'd only be raining on her parade.

Or is there?

I almost wish someone slightly older, but not old enough to be from my parents' age cohort, had sat me down and spelled out an uncomfortable biological truth: a woman's best years for starting a family coincide with her best years for establishing a career. Even if you don't plan for this inconvenient truth, it's a good thing to understand it.

Put differently, it's sub-ideal to put in five years in the career world, opt out to have kids, and expect to re-enter your old professional life when your youngest child marches off to elementary school. For most of us, the jobs we left just won't be there after a multi-year gap. And even if your old job is there, its scheduling demands may not be compatible with your life's new realities.

I've stopped counting the number of highly educated (i.e. Master's Degree or higher) women I know who have reluctantly left interesting, lucrative careers because their employers can't make part time or flex time arrangements work. When part time means thirty-five hours or more a week, that presents a logistical problem for most moms.

I've also stopped counting the number of women I know who put off starting a family (despite having stable relationships and decent financial footing), only to have their entire lives taken over by the Great Fertility Project. It's hard to be taken seriously at work when you slip out to medical appointments almost every day for months (or years) on end.

No, that's absolutely not fair, but it's the way it is.

Then, because we're older when we have kids, many of us face the prospect of caring for elderly relatives at the same time we're caring for toddlers. Because, yeah, young woman from the gym, you might as well know now that mom and dad's health crises are likely to be your problem time suck scheduling and financial challenge, because of your sex.

Women, particularly those in the "helping" professions (e.g., teachers, counselors, social workers, physician's assistants, specialized nurses, etc.) do the math and realize that their take home pay washes with the cost of hiring child care. Some bite the bullet and go back for adult interaction or intellectual challenge, but it's not practical for too many of us.

Those who work in law or financial services or scientific research routinely clock sixty-plus hour work weeks. Many women I know in these sectors went back to work after having children with promises of part-time schedules that vaporized forever with the first work "emergency."

I'm going to go out on a limb with this prediction: Staid employers in the boys' club professions will not truly accommodate working moms until they're forced to do so. Too much of the "she's taking a place that could have gone to a man" mentality still lurks in the executive suites.

When I was twenty-six and a third year law student, I figured these issues would sort themselves out. Female employees would force change from within. Bosses would become more enlightened by the time my friends and I faced the career-kids pickle. Women would rise to C-level jobs in huge numbers.

Hasn't happened.

Maybe, for the woman from this morning, her generation will succeed where mine has fallen short.

But the older I get, the more I subscribe to Anne Marie Slaughter's school of thought.  She eloquently spells out the case for top down change in how we think about work-life policy.

Her thesis: the American workplace will work for women when women start calling more of the shots in government. You can call me sexist, but I believe that family-friendliness remains a women's issue. Despite the growing number of stay at home dads and breadwinner moms, for most families the woman is the one responsible for the day to day, minute by minute needs of the children. She's the one the school calls when Junior vomits. She's the one who "figures it out" during school vacations. She's the one responsible for the 4 o'clock soccer shuffle and other activities logistics.

I've got a suggestion for the thousands of smart, highly educated career women I know who took maybe ten years off to raise babies, only to find the door of the old corporate suite slammed shut in their faces:


The incoming United States Senate will have twenty women: a record, but still a dismal, pathetic, ridiculous showing. Imagine if it had instead, fifty or sixty women. Imagine if the Supreme Court had five women justices instead of three. Imagine if just half the men in the House (many of whom have never worked outside politics) were replaced by women, moms with real careers under their belts.

Something tells me that a government stacked with women representatives would look at questions as diverse as our embarrassing national education system, healthcare cost control, child care, aging, parental leave, and wage and hour legislation with fresh eyes.

Women don't come near unanimous agreement on how to best handle any of these issues, but they bring perspective from the trenches.

To present just one example: I suspect a woman legislator, in most cases, is going to have an easier time than her male counterparts grasping why having millions of women working multiple part time jobs for poverty wages while attempting to parent young children, who subsequently go un- or under-supervised, isn't in the long term national best interest, even if it's good for some big box store's bottom line.

Yeah, yeah, maybe people shouldn't have kids they can't afford, but what most moms I know understand, and what too many old male politicians can't seem to grasp, is that in social policy, you deal with the problem you have, not with the problem you wish you had.

I'm not considering a future in politics.  My second novel comes out in a few weeks, and I'm working on a third. I spend plenty of time with the Grape. But I'm also smart enough to know that I'm an aberration, one of the lucky few who gets to do what she loves.

But to the many professional women I know who miss the work force and find themselves unable to pick up where they left off:

If you decide to run for office, I promise to work my tail off to help you win.


  1. This feels familiar. I'm still trying to figure out how to revitalize the career when kiddo goes to Kindergarten. Great point about more women in government.

    1. Come on in, there are plenty of us in this boat.
      Anne Marie Slaughter has been preaching that the fundamental structure of our working society won't change until women outnumber men in government AND shatter the highest glass ceilings in government.

      What got me thinking was the age issue and the ever important pipeline. If educated women who opted out of the work force cut their teeth by seeking local/state office when kids were elementary age (and they are about 40), some of them would be really successful by the time the nest was empty.

      Then they would have the network and experience to run for big, national office by age 50 or so.