This is the first story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.
Shortly after I turned 40 I was offered a fantastic job that I didn’t take. It had all the hallmarks of the kind of job I should take, and wanted to take, but it would have also meant a dramatic change in lifestyle. For the last 15 years I’d been a freelancer and then a small-business owner. I worked from home, which meant I could be around for my two young children. When someone had strep I could be there to administer the Tylenol in between conference calls. I picked my kids up from school most days and spent a lot of afternoons with them. I had what was, in theory, an ideal setup—I got to have a job and be a physically present mother.
But my career had stalled. I was taking on the same kinds of projects at 40 that I’d been doing 10 years earlier. Lots of the people I’d worked with early on in my career now had the word “global” in their title. They were VPs, making VP money and VP decisions, while I was cramming a full work day in before 3 p.m., and then spending my afternoons picking Cheerios off of the floor.
Now, somewhat suddenly, I had an offer. I loved the company and they loved me. As the last step of the interview process I had dinner with the creative director, who was the only woman at a senior level in the organization. Over plates of pasta I asked her what I hadn’t felt comfortable asking the men who ran the company: How flexible are the hours?
“They’re not,” she said. After seven years, the company leaders had begrudgingly allowed her to work from home on Fridays, she told me. It was a tech company. Twelve-hour days were the norm.
I couldn’t do it. And in the weeks that followed I sunk into a crisis of sorts. I spent lots of time reflecting back on my life, looking at the choices I’d made that had gotten me to this very point, and wondering exactly when it had all gotten so hard. I’d be walking to the grocery store and think, maybe I should move to Vermont and grow hydroponic tomatoes. Watching my kids play at the playground I’d think, maybe I should have gone to film school, or med school, or gotten a Ph.D. in political science. Heading to the dry cleaner I remembered my 10-second fascination with emerging markets and wondered, was leaving the huge consulting firm all those years ago a mistake?
At the same time, the conversation about leaning in and leaning out and having it all and opting out had reached hurricane-like proportions in the media. Marissa Mayer had recently been appointed CEO of Yahoo, only to banish working remotely. Sheryl Sandberg was exhorting everyone to step up their game, which I was trying to do, but felt I was falling short. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s story about how she’d needed to scale back (into a career that most mortal women would see as a leaned-in, overachieving one) had zinged around the internet and was more proof that all of it was impossible. And one study after another found that women lack confidence, struggle to break into management, and are increasingly dropping out of the workforce as they hit the apex of their careers.
I recalled a conversation I’d had in college. It was shortly after Bill Clinton had been elected, and my friends and I were claiming cabinet positions for ourselves in a hypothetical administration of the future. One would be the head of Health and Human Services, another was going to run the Justice Department. Someone else wanted to be the White House Communications Director. We believed, for just a moment, that if we worked hard enough we’d all be hanging out together in the Oval Office. (We also had no idea that two decades later we would watch a woman who believed the same thing fail in her own attempt to reach the Oval.) It had been a while since I’d talked to most of those women; I was in occasional touch with a few. I knew that none of them were in the cabinet, but what had become of them? Were they also finding life to be infinitely more complex than we’d anticipated back in college? Or was it just me?
* * *
I had known, as a college student, that being a working mother was going to be challenging. It was hard to miss. Arlie Hochschild’s book The Second Shift had come out a few years earlier, and I’d read it like an instruction manual. Step one: Marry a husband who will participate in the housework and child-rearing. Step two: Be okay with a house that is a little messy and don’t criticize the husband for not doing things the way you would do them. Step three: Don’t have a way of doing things in the first place. I determined early on that I wouldn’t care about decorating, cooking, or plants. I didn’t get married until I had a solidly established career, and my husband was an engaged parent who prioritized childcare and housework at more or less the same level I did. And yet, I was still stuck.