||The Brazen Careerist
Nurturing kids or career?
It's 10 p.m. and Donna and Richard
are talking schedule. The question is: Who has to take the kids
to day care in the morning? Richard says he has a 10 a.m. meeting.
Donna has a 9 a.m. meeting. She wins. He has to take the kids to
The kids are ages 2 and 5. The older one will complain
about going to day care. He will want to stay home. He will demand
to know why can't someone stay home with him. It's good that Richard
will be dropping him off. The complaints kill Donna, but Richard
will tell his son to suck it up and get in the car.
It's a small win for Donna, but she faces difficult
work-family balancing questions, so small wins matter.
This is not a column about how Donna worked out everything
perfectly in the end because she hasn't. But this isn't about the
end -- this column is about what it's like when the work-family
balance first feels off-kilter. It's about what to do so that you
increase your chances of having a happy ending.
Donna and Richard both work at an entertainment company
that you know, and they both have career paths with a steep upward
slope. Richard thinks day care is a fine way to cope with their
busy lives. Donna thinks day care is too long a day for their kids.
The problem is that both parents would rather work than stay home
with their kids.
Donna tried to keep her fast-paced career after she
gave birth, but she had to make adjustments. One of the first things
to go was the long hours. Then the mentoring; she couldn't be a
mom at work and at home.
Then she convinced her boss that she should be a strategist
rather than a day-to-day manager, so she got rid of management responsibilities
for 15 people.
She is still torn. Other mothers at her office tell
her, "Go home. Be with your kids. I don't remember my son when
he was young. Don't let that happen to you."
Donna's husband has made adjustments too. He used
to work 80-hour weeks. Now he works 50 hours. No one at work tells
him to go home and be with his kids.
When Donna suggests that the kids would be happier
with a parent instead of day care, Richard says, "If you think
someone should stay home, then stay home."
But he says she's being too hard on herself. "We're
at home all weekend," he assures her. I ask him why he doesn't
want to stay home and he says, "I couldn't do it. I can't provide
the structure day care provides."
When they were first married, Donna announced she
wanted to be the one with the high-powered career, and Richard was
supportive. Now, though, with Donna's guilt creeping in, she has
put family before career and Richard has put career before family.
I put it this way to Richard and he says, "Well, yes, that's
a crude way of saying it." Then, 10 minutes later, he says,
"Kids have a way of making you see what your real priorities
I ask Donna and Richard why she is torn and he isn't.
She's not sure. She says they have different ideas of parenting.
"He watches TV while he reads 'Goodnight Moon.'"
Richard says he thinks, "It's a chemical, woman
thing." He has five sisters. Each of them ended up staying
home with children even though that wasn't their plan.
One reason Donna has been able to rise through the
organization is because she is good at presenting to the boss what
needs doing in a way that gets her what she wants. Right now she
wants to test out working part time, so she is maneuvering to get
the type of responsibilities she can do from home.
But these aren't the type of responsibilities that
gain big promotions. So she doesn't tell her boss exactly what her
plans are because she wants to leave room to put herself back on
the fast track quickly if she wants that.
It's a careful dance she's doing, and she has enlisted
lots of help. Donna has a friend at the company who she trusts enough
to talk to candidly. And she has cultivated a mentor outside the
company who has already done this dance and can provide guidance.
She talks openly with her husband and her sisters-in-law,
who have decided to stay home. But Donna's problem persists: she
thinks a parent should be at home, and she doesn't want to be that
"It's embarrassing," she says. And then
she asks me again to be sure not to use her real name.
I am sure Donna is not alone. Many parents would rather
work than stay home with kids, but for the most part, it is women
who experience guilt over this predicament. I have a feeling, though,
that Donna is a step ahead of a lot of women in comfortable income
brackets because Donna is not saying she HAS to work, she is saying
she WANTS to work.
There are no quick answers. There are couples where
men are willing to stay home with children. There are couples who
cut back on both careers to care for the children. But most couples
have a man who doesn't want to cut back on his career, so it is
the women who are weighing these decisions.
Donna does not have answers, but she's taken a lot
of steps to give herself breathing room to get to the answers. For
those who are flailing -- in the open or incognito -- we can all
learn a lot from Donna. She is unsure, but she is unsure in a dignified,
unfrazzled way, and that may be the best we can hope for right now.