Career In Social Work

Were we the exception?

I began interviewing professional women about their work-life strategies. I started with women whose careers looked from the outside as if they were role models for the “lean in” movement. Like many of us in the Not-So-New Mothers Group, most of the women I interviewed had paused, although few identified those pull backs in their careers as actual “pauses.” One senior vice president of a highly successful Silicon Valley start-up emphatically told me she had never paused. “I’m a working mom!” she insisted. When I pointed out that the year she took a career break to move to Hawaii with her then-husband and their two young sons looked a lot like a pause to me, she said, “I never thought of it that way and yet, you’re right. I did pause when my sons were babies. And then, I re-entered and never looked back!”

I also spoke to women who had taken significant career breaks. Their experiences resembled the more traditional “opt-out” model, but unlike the stories we keep hearing in the news about “opting out” as a form of career suicide, they too had eventually re-entered, and never looked back. In all, I interviewed 186 women, and a handful of men, who had worked, paused, and thrived. I also conducted an extensive survey that resulted in 1,476 women sharing their career journeys (see the appendix for details on the compelling results of our Women on the Rise survey).

The message I heard again and again is that, despite the narrative that pausing would kill their professional aspirations, the women I spoke to have privately and quietly found work-life solutions that have allowed them to have successful careers and fulfilling family lives. That wasn’t the national narrative about how careers are built when I was a new mother, and it isn’t the narrative today. The message then as now is that women who aren’t all-in, all-of-the-time, won’t amount to much. But many women who have enviable careers have paused.

It’s just that, well, we don’t talk about it. As one woman said to me, “Why draw attention to something that is only likely to hurt you professionally?”

There’s a reason career pauses are buried in the resumes of successful women. They aren’t necessarily trying to be deceitful; in most cases, they aren’t trying to hide their choices. They are simply responding to the constraints imposed by the world in which they live.

The message then as now is that women who aren’t all-in, all-of-the-time, won’t amount to much. But many women who have enviable careers have paused.

In a society that values paid work and devalues the power and importance of caregiving, ambitious women are forced to suppress their commitments to their families. They gloss over their stints at home and reduced work schedules and they don’t list their PTA participation or anything that screams “mommy” because they fear, rightly, those choices are not valued. So, to the outside world, it looks as though they have been all-in, all-of-the-time. Even if, over the course of their careers, they actually haven’t.

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Sadly, hiding our stories does a disservice to our children and to the estimated 64 million Americans2 who are about to embark on the rewards and challenges of parenthood. Like us, they are being taught to believe work and life can’t integrate, that women can’t put family first for any period of time and still be successful, and that men can’t be as deeply engaged in the home as they are in the workplace. As a result, they are reporting the same anxiety, self-doubt, and sense of failure (at work, at home, in the community, and in society at large) that my generation has felt these past twenty years.

Take Anne Freeman. She is the proud mother of two young children and an accomplished litigator focusing on high-stakes venture capital and private equity cases. She is also deeply torn between her dual priorities. Like many of us, she loves her work, but the needs of her family and her own desire to spend more time with them causes heartache each and every day.

When I sat down with her to discuss my research and share the message that one can pause and still, over the course of her lifetime, have a successful career, Anne was shocked to hear the stories of women who have done it and done it well.

“You mean you can actually step off track for a while and it won’t ruin your career? Why don’t we know this?” she said, her lips trembling as though she were struggling to hold back tears.

Anne does not want to be a stay-at-home mom, but the either/or dichotomy of work and life has her twisted and torn. What if she knew her career wouldn’t be ruined if she decided to pull back for a period of time? What if she didn’t feel squeezed by the warring “working” mom/“stay-at-home” mom camps who collectively tell women their choices aren’t valid? What if she was able to find a way to support her desire to nurture and still meet her drive to succeed?

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