“I am a (blank), and I sometimes put my career before my family”

Take a minute to slowly read the following statements, and pay attention to your reaction:

  1. “I am a mother, and I sometimes put my career before my family.”
  2. “I am a mother, and I sometimes put my family before my career.”
  3. “I am a father, and I sometimes put my family before my career.”
  4. “I am a father, and I sometimes put my career before my family.”

Chances are for 2 and 4 you were more likely to think “of course.”  But for 1 and 3, perhaps your answers were more along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s a good idea?”

Now consider the following:

  • What is the impact of our collective judgments about women who admit that they sometimes put their career before their family?   Personally,  I’ve experienced it, and it’s painful.
  • And if we don’t allow ambitious women to comfortably admit that, yes, sometimes they do put their career before their children (and aging parents) without the fear of being branded a bad mother (or daughter), will they ever ascend to the highest levels of business and government in representative numbers?
  • Conversely, if we don’t let men comfortably admit that, yes, sometimes they put their children (and aging parents) ahead of their career without the fear of being seen as less committed, will women continue to have to make the major and minor care giving concessions? This includes not attending after-hours networking events, or volunteering for special assignments.  These compromises accumulate over time and impact pay and level.

A powerful post by CareerDiva.com’s Eve Tahminicioglu, entitled “Women need keys to executive bathrooms, not lactation rooms,” following the release of the Working Mother list of Top 100 Companies got me thinking.  She pointed out, “What I found was pretty pathetic.  Women leaders are few and far between at these so-called ‘best’ companies.  Among many of these ‘best’ companies, women represent anywhere from zero percent to 30 percent of top executives.”  In other words, the best of the best “family-friendly” programs aren’t translating into greater female representation in the upper ranks.

I agree with the Your (Wo)man in Washington blogger that this is due in large part to the low level of utilization of these corporate supports.  This is because most are feel good HR benefits and perks that aren’t part of the business operating model (a subject for many other posts).  But something more is going on.

I realized what it could be when I read two terrific articles in More Magazine about two high profile leaders in their fields who also happen to be mothers.  One of the many things I love about More, is the “been there, done that” wisdom of the over 40 year old women they profile.   Mika Brzezinski, of Morning Joe fame, and Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, didn’t disappoint.  In both cases, these high-ranking working mothers candidly admitted, directly and indirectly, that to get where they are today required making certain decisions that put their careers before their children.  Choices they were very comfortable with.

I was shocked to realize that as I read each of their stories I momentarily winced and ever-so-briefly thought, “Was that a good idea?”  I did this even though:

  • I am someone who freely admits that there have been times I’ve put my career ahead of my family. (As well as times I’ve put my family ahead of my career.)
  • I know that the best research says children are not negatively impacted by maternal employment.
  • I’ve been a parent long enough to have met plenty of great kids with mothers who have all sorts of different work+life fit realities, and
  • I have four close women friends who are very senior executives with huge jobs who have wonderful relationships with their terrific, well-adjusted kids. (Note: in all cases, they do have male partners who willingly sometimes put their family before career.)

Then I thought, if I’m having this reaction, how is everyone else responding?   (Read the comments under the Mika Brzezinski article to see the judgment her candor unleashed).   How does this collective recoil at the thought of a working mother ever placing the demands of her job before her kids affect the ability of women to compete for top, high-profile positions with men?  Because, let’s face it, men get the “of course” response when they sometimes put job before family.

Here’s the reality:  If you want to be a senior leader in a large corporation, or you want to be the co-host of a national morning show, then there are going to be times that your job has to come before your care giving.  I didn’t say all the time, but some times.   Sometimes an out of town client meeting falls on your son’s birthday.  (This actually happened to a member of my team two years in a row!  It just couldn’t be avoided).  Sometimes there’s an end of the day fire drill or breaking story and you need to stay late.  Sometimes you have to catch an early train for a meeting and you can’t kiss your child good morning.  Sometimes, like NPRs Schiller, you may even choose to commute to another city every week for two years so you don’t have to relocate your family.  It’s not that everyone is going to make these choices, but these are the compromises top people, men and women, make to get to where they are.

There are those who would argue that the solution is to make the workload required to ascend the ranks less demanding and time-consuming.  Unfortunately, in today’s 24/7, always on, global, competitive environment you will never be able to engineer all of the extra time and energy requirements of senior level work out of the system.  Therefore, how do we support, and not condemn, the women who do what they feel they need to do to for themselves and their families to achieve their professional goals?  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Like me, consciously catch yourself when you start judging the work+life fit decisions of anyone (men and women), because we really don’t know anything about their lives and their work.
  2. When talking to women and men with responsibilities at work and at home, ask them about both!   It shows that both aspects of their lives have value.   I find a tendency to ask women about their kids, and men about their jobs.
  3. Ladies, let’s celebrate all of the unique work+life fit choices we all make!  Cheer on a sister who has ambitiously climbed to the top rung of their chosen profession while caring for their children and/or aging relatives in the best way that works for themRecent research proves that when women advance to top levels it makes it better for all women.   But we must stop the defensive judgment of each other!   It hurts and it keeps us stuck.

I applaud Brzezinski and Schiller for ascending to the highest ranks of their fields by making choices that worked for their circumstances and not letting the collective recoil get in the way.  However, I can’t help but wonder how many capable, ambitious women are held back, no matter how generous the work-life supports in their organizations, by the judgment that limits their ability to periodically and comfortably put their career before care giving.

Oh by the way, today I didn’t bring the gym clothes my 6th grader forgot to school because I had too much work to do (including writing this post).  Was she mad?  Yup.  Am I am bad mom?…careful how you answer that.

Note:  I’m submitting this post to the About.com Working Mom’s blog carnival, which is part of the Fem 2.0 campaign to highlight the workplace experiences of everyday Americans.

10 thoughts on ““I am a (blank), and I sometimes put my career before my family”

  1. I appreciate this thoughtful post Cali. Managing a career life alongside motherhood isn’t easy. In many ways, it’s one of those, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t situations. If I focus too heavily on my family, my employer might say I’m not committed to my career. If I focus too heavily on my career, my family (and society) might say I’m a bad mother.

    For instance, I recently decided to return to the traditional workforce after enjoying six years in business for myself. I’ve received mixed reviews as family, friends, blog readers and others who express their support (“Awesome – congratulations!!) or worry over my decision (“Oh, I’m sorry you *have* to go back to work. Good luck.”).

    I think many forget that women have a choice – whether it’s a voluntary choice (like mine) or one forced by circumstances – and that choice is unique to the individual. My solution is not your solution, and yours is not mine.

    It will be a beautiful day when we’re seen as individuals rather than a collective demographic that requires a one-size-fits-all solution to the work+life fit dilemma.

    1. Thank you, Michele, for your equally thoughtful comment. And let me offer up a big congratulations on the next phase in your unique journey! There will come a day when we can celebrate each other, and cheer each other on.

  2. Cali, there is much meat here. As a woman who is on-ramping with big ideas and ambitions, but also four (yes, read that again, four!) small children, you raise some salient issues.

    I value care-giving as a rich skill set and admire those who undertake it exclusively or in conjunction with a corporate career, work from home business or whatever form it takes. Meaning I value care-giving, period.

    I echo with a large shout your call to remove the judgment – public and private – from this complex issue. I make it a point to ask working fathers about their children and mothers about their professional or volunteer lives as a conscious reminder to myself that we are all richer and deeper than our job description. We ALL have many roles, wear many hats, walk many paths.

    There’s so much of the work-life conversation that rests with mothers. It frustrates me. It is so limited. I’ve had a very fluid and flexible career and in fact it was probably at it’s most structured and limited it terms of flexibility when my first child was born. But in other seasons prior to parenting, I’ve dipped in and out for grad school, travel, care of a dying relative. And have made a better contribution to the traditional work place because of those experiences.

    Yes, we need to check our judgment at the threshold. And we also need to keep agitating, researching and fighting for companies to re-evaluate the models of work that will soon place them at a massive generational disadvantage.

    Great post. Really helpful to me.

    1. Chrysula,

      I am so glad to have a passionate advocate like you in the tribe with me! Thank you for your insights and for sharing highlights from your unique work+life fit journey. As we share our stories with each other, we begin to see the power in our individual choices. And we can celebrate them all. Enjoy your babies — they’ll be 11 before you know. I still can’t believe it.


  3. Good for you, Cali, for choosing NOT to take your daughter’s gym clothes to her. Not only were you able to meet your job responsibilities, but the experience of not having her clothes with her because she forgot them will help her learn to be more responsible in the future — which is obviously a VERY important lesson for kids to get. In my opinion, that choice allowed you prioritize both your career AND your family equally — something we don’t often get to do. You gave your daughter an important life lesson and you did what your job required of you. I’m sure it was hard to tell her no, but in the long run, I suspect it’s what was best for both of you.

    1. Hi Susan and Michelle,

      You both caught me in another crazy moment of judgment–only this time it was SELF judgment. The worst kind of all :). I appreciate your insights that by saying no to the gym clothes I am helping both of us. Thank you for you wisdom!


  4. I had the same reaction as Michelle re: the gym clothes conundrum, Cali!
    And that was a very thoughtful and sensitive post. Thanks.
    And can’t believe your daughter’s in sixth grade already!

  5. Wow, what an interesting post!

    I think that our attitudes to work are still much as they were during the industrial revolution when work was first divorced from family and other aspects of life, and that we are operating a model of work that may well have served the purposes of the centuries before us, but is totally outmoded now. Of course, there has been much progress, but some things fundamentally haven’t changed. And some things that look like progress – like flexible hours etc – don’t really get to the heart of the problem, as they are working practice concessions only and not, as you say, part of the business operating model.

    And then there are people like ourselves – men and women – who, thank God, begin to feel that these choices we’re given around work OR family OR whatever else makes life whole and meaningful, are unnatural choices. We feel that we shouldn’t have to make them, and that at different stages in our lives we need to feed them all, sometimes one or two more than the others.

    Speaking for myself, I’m in the strange – perhaps?! – position of being a woman who doesn’t have children, but who is, non the less passionate about this argument. I used to have a single track life, which was 24/7 work, until it made me ill and I realised that I needed to pay attention to other things. To my surprise, some years of paying attention to other things more than work made me equally miserable. Finally, I’ve come to understand that sometimes I need at times to throw myself into work wholeheartedly, and at other times to dedicate myself and my time to other things and other people around me. It’s a difficult relationship to hold!

    I work for myself now – a large part of this has been because my experience has been that it’s difficult for me to operate at the top of my game in employment AND have the other things in life that feed me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. But it makes me wonder how many smart people create their own work because of exactly this kind of thinking. And how much corporations miss out because they are unable to accommodate us.

    Fabulous post. It has really got me thinking this afternoon!

    1. Hi Christine,

      London in the fall is so lovely! My favorite city. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. One of the outdated beliefs that needs to change (fast) is that a woman without children wouldn’t care about work+life issues. We all do, and if we all don’t, we should. As you so beautifully articulated, it is about moving beyond the limits of “all work” or “no work” and actively managing our unique work+life fit everyday. Keep promoting “a different kind of work.” Have a great weekend.


  6. People often think that Work-Life Balance means a 50/50 split between the two. Whether it is “fit” or “integration” to describe work-life, the key is thoughtful flexibility. Sometimes career does come before life. Sometimes life impacts career. Having a supportive employer and partner (for those that have one) allows choices and deciding what balance point to take at any point in time.

    Can anyone have it all? Only with honest assessment on a plan. And only with really good communications.

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