Of the women we interviewed for this project, our Highest Achievers (women who are C-Suite-adjacent or recognized in their fields) have ascended to that level in part because they’re cool with not having it all: For them, being a physically present parent was not their number-one priority. Some don’t have kids, others have husbands who are the caregivers-in-chief, and others manage by outsourcing to nannies for carpools and making lunches. Instead, the women still chasing the having-it-all dream are the group we’re calling the Scale Backers—13 women who dialed down high-powered careers to simultaneously be full-time mothers and workers. And in the process of downsizing, they became, ironically, the most stressed-out of our subjects, attempting to do everything well, but feeling like they excelled at none of it.
One woman, formerly a partner in a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm, fled to a government job to spend more hours with her family. She now fundraises for her children’s school, participates in two book clubs, and is nevertheless still the primary earner for her family. Though her life is full, she misses the heady feeling she used to get from being in a power position in the legal arena. “For the first time since graduating from law school, I have a personal life, but it’s that holy grail of having a fulfilling career and a fulfilling personal life. I don’t know if it’s possible.”
A legal director of a women’s advocacy organization in Minneapolis has consciously not pursued professional promotion so that she can remain close to extended family, spend time with her children (for whom she rises at 5 a.m. to make lunches on homemade bread) and run trail marathons on weekends. While our Opt Out group has left the primary earning to their spouses, and our High Achievers have hired the help they need to run their lives, the Scale Backers insist on having one (super-flexed) leg in every realm—leaving many of them hobbling through their days.
Prior to having kids, all held jobs that afforded some level of satisfaction and achievement; after children, they also wanted to be physically “present” mothers. In order to manage this, they transitioned their jobs into more flexible arrangements. One corporate lawyer eschewed the partner track for an in-house counsel job with more forgiving hours; now she works from home two days a week. “I can pick up the kids and feel like I’m doing the mommy thing.”
The majority of these women have stayed in the same jobs for over a decade, in part to maintain the flexibility that employment loyalty can offer. A project director on an infectious disease study also hasn't sought promotion or a new position because yes, she enjoys the work, but also because she works from home—where she can take a break at 3 p.m. to have a snack with her kids, an hour she may repay either at 6 a.m. before the kids wake, or after 9 p.m. as they slumber. As her research project comes to its natural end, she seeks her next position, ideally one that isn't five full days in an office: “How can I find a job that gives me growth, but I’m not pushed over the edge by it?”