A while back, Penelope Trunk wrote that the key to success, for professional women, is having children early, preferably by the age of 25. If you’re part of that demographic, chances are that this statement will have evoked a visceral reaction on your part. It did on mine. On further reflection, I’ve decided that the author was wrong in her assertion … though not for the reasons I had initially thought.
Before I tackle what is likely to be a controversial position, let me clarify some things. It is safe to assume that the target audience for this discussion largely consists of women whose career ambitions are geared to competitive positions in competitive professional fields. In other words, women who will likely be going head-to-head with men, and competing for the big “prizes” in their fields. This is, by no means, intended as a value judgment on women whose career goals are different; it’s just that their playing field and rules of engagement in the workforce will be different. After all, “work-life balance” conveniently covers off a multitude of compromises, some of which bear little resemblance to any balance at all. Generally speaking, if the position you currently hold (or the one to which you aspire) is not incompatible with the possibility of, say, part-time work, flex days, or sabbaticals, then you probably won’t ever have to grapple with the considerations I’m going to address. And that is great news. Sadly, it is not the case for everyone.
Here is the unvarnished truth about corporations: they don’t care about your personal life. They don’t care about how fulfilled you are by your partner, your kids, your hobbies. They care about how much money you can make for them. To the extent that your personal life does not interfere with your revenue-generating potential, they will tolerate its existence. Chances are, though, that they will prefer an employee with a minimum of potential distractions. As women, we have a very significant additional potential for such distraction for one simple reason: child-bearing. Even if we are in a position to delegate some or all of the child-rearing work to others, the prospect of the mere process of bearing a child represents a potential disruption in our professional lives and, by implication, our employers’ revenue streams. The more senior a woman’s position at the time when she decides to have children, the more serious that disruption will usually be. Importantly, in competitive fields, the impact is rarely limited to on-the-clock hours, because work obligations in those fields extend far beyond that – marketing, client management, professional development, you name it – all eating up what is ostensibly your personal time, and now competing with your family obligations. From that perspective, at least, it makes sense to have kids (if so desired) as early in your career as possible, minimizing the impact on your job in the short-term, as well as the impact on long-term career progression.
There are, on the other hand, a myriad of reasons why having kids early isn’t really a solution to the disadvantages faced by women (or, more accurately, mothers) in high-powered work environments. Ignore for the moment the contingent of women for whom such solution is moot, age not being on their side in this context. Is today’s generation of career-minded 25 year-olds prepared for motherhood? Is it even something on their radar, beyond a vague, “some day” kinds of idea? Probably not – these days, for better or worse, a person’s early twenties are considered a sort of post-adolescence, pre-adulthood experimentation ground incompatible with the prospect of non-delegable parental responsibility. Moreover, many of today’s twenty- and thirty-something women grew up indoctrinated with a contrary message: focus on getting your career started first, then worry about having kids. With most academic careers now lasting well beyond the standard four years of undergrad, the “then” in that equation is deferred by up to a decade or more.
Even if a woman is open to the idea of early motherhood, there are still certain obstacles to overcome. One thing this proposition presupposes is the existence of two-parent families. Young women who end up as single parents are often at a disadvantage in terms of the resources needed to ramp up their careers after baby. It also presupposes that women who do end up marrying and starting families young have spent a not-inconsiderable chunk of their university careers focused on non-academic matters like, well, getting married and starting families. This may not bode well for their academic success, again placing them at a potential disadvantage in the employment market. On the other hand, it does not take into consideration the probability that some of these young marriages may end up failing, causing a whole different set of distractions and set-backs for the women involved. All in all, having kids young is a great career move if you happen to have the luck of meeting your life-long partner at an early age, have good support systems in place, experience no difficulties in conceiving, and are able to time your child-bearing perfectly – neither too early to impact your entry into the workplace, nor too late to impact your career in its emergent phases.
And yet … even those fortunate enough to beat those odds will, in all likelihood, be only marginally better off than their female peers – and still be at a disadvantage as compared to their male ones. The responsibilities of parenthood don’t decrease as kids get older; they just change. In most relationships, the bulk of the child-rearing work – long after the kid is out of diapers – inevitably falls to the woman. Call it sexist or unfair, but in cases where the woman’s earning potential is less than her partner’s, it is at least economically justifiable. But what if it’s the woman who has the greater earning potential? Having her continue to be the primary caregiver, despite potential conflicts with work obligations, becomes a losing proposition in every sense of the word.
Which brings me to what is, in my opinion, the real key to professional success: a stay-at-home spouse. And by that, I mean someone who – whether active in the workforce or not – is prepared to take over most (and, if needed, all) of the responsibilities attendant on having a family. A spouse who is able and willing to pick up the kids’ from school/make their dinner/help them with their homework/drive them to soccer practice on all those occasions when you’re stuck at the office with a client crisis or some other unexpected emergency, be it on a weeknight or weekend or any other inconvenient time. Because, in many professions, the higher you rise, the less you are able to pass the buck in such cases. Once your career comes to a tipping point, having a stay-at-home spouse can be the deciding factor in whether that career trajectory shoots up, or falters and plateaus. Men have little problem with this concept and, in fact, have taken full advantage of its benefits for … ever, really. For women, this concept runs counter to the feminist mantra of “You can do it all!”, which is actually the biggest load of self-defeating BS ever sold to us. We can’t do it all. Men can’t do it all either. No one can. Everyone’s resources are finite. Life demands compromises. A marriage is a partnership whose function, in economic terms, is to maximize the wealth of both partners through their joint efforts. Those efforts, and the spouses’ contributions, will likely be different in nature; ideally, they will be complementary. Two people working harmoniously will, by definition, achieve more than either one of them, alone, might do. Harmony is not easy to achieve, but then again, neither is success.
Of course, one might just as easily say that the real key to success is not having any kids to begin with … but that is a debate for another day.
What do you think is the key to professional success for women with global domination on their minds?