Unexpectedly, women like me began leaving the workforce in droves. We became the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine”1 of workplaces that hindered our abilities to be both the professionals we had worked so hard to become and the mothers we wanted to be. Our decision to seemingly abandon our careers confounded employers and the women before us who had fought so hard to give us the equality they were denied.
The truth is, our choices confounded even ourselves. Dani Klein Modisett, a close friend from college, had always been single-minded in her ambition. An actress, she landed a few Broadway tours and a handful of TV jobs, but she found her calling as a stand-up comic. Eventually she married, and although being a mother wasn’t at the top of her list, Dani told me she was concerned she “might die and regret not having been one.” And then she became pregnant.
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Dani was thirty-nine weeks along when she got a call about hosting a talk show a professional dream come true. But when the female executive saw how pregnant Dani was, she pushed her resume back across the desk and said, “I think you’re going to want time with your new baby.” Dani was offended, but one week later when she was holding her newborn son, she realized, “That woman was right.” So Dani paused, but not for long. She went on to become an author and host of a hilarious stage show called Afterbirth. But Dani didn’t know this was ahead of her when she held her baby for the first time. She just knew that, at that moment, nothing was more important.
I understand what she means now, but I didn’t then. I knew many women who wanted a child more than anything, women who cherished their pregnancies, who couldn’t wait to be a mother. But that wasn’t me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children and, if I did, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to be a mother and have the career I had worked so hard to build.
Plus, wasn’t being a mother a hindrance to women’s achievements? Certainly that was what I had read in my college women’s studies classes, what I had heard from the media, and what I saw from successful women themselves. The vast majority of female leaders I knew didn’t have children or, if they did, seemed to rarely spend time with them.
It was also what my mother taught me, not directly but in oh-so-many other ways. She was born and raised in Norway, the daughter of a successful canning entrepreneur. She married my American father when she was nineteen, had me at twenty, and had my brother, Chet, two years later. At thirty, when my brother and I were both busy with school, our mother could have gone on to get her college degree and find a career she loved. Instead, she got pregnant with my sister, Kirsten.
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