When Anne-Marie Slaughter, who had leaned in to her professional life to seemingly great success, admitted even she couldn’t “have it all,” women across America began to ask, “Why bother?” It appeared that no matter our path, we were destined to fail.
Standing with Lauren in the conference hall after our panel, it was hard not to be angry and discouraged. Then she turned to me and said, “Looks like you made it work. How’d you do it?”
Me? Made it work? Ha! I wanted to laugh and then to cry. I realized that to Lauren, my career my life overall looked like one long series of successes, but hidden below my seemingly impressive LinkedIn profile were hard realities.
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How could I explain the circuitous path that had me fumbling and failing and pivoting and launching and relaunching and, eventually, accomplishing much just not any of the things that were part of my original plan? I’d given up the corner office, the big paycheck, the prestige that comes from the fancy title. Instead, I’d spent days trying to string together consulting jobs, nights writing freelance articles that barely covered our monthly food bill. My office was filled with books, not people. If I was lonely, I had to commute to my other office, the local Starbucks. But I got to write on issues that mattered to me, I got to consult on projects with fascinating people who inspired me, and I got to pick my children up from school nearly every day.
Oh no, I hadn’t made it work, at least not by the standards I was told defined success. And yet, despite a lack of role models and systemic support, despite messaging that said my choices reflected some sort of failure, I did manage to carve out a professional and personal life that allowed me to achieve my own, altered definition of success. Somehow I had found a way that worked for me and my family. A way that allowed me to place as much value on my role as a mother as it did on my role as a career woman.
And I knew I wasn’t alone. Many of the women in my extended network and many of the women I interviewed for my work as a freelance journalist had pulled back from their professional lives and, eventually, managed to power forward to great success. Like me, they too had careers that, though not always part of their original plans, enabled them to thrive. How did they do it? Were they the exception? Was I?
I wanted to find answers for myself, for the men and women of Lauren’s generation, and for my own two sons and daughter. I started by reading every book on the subject I could find. I spoke to CEOs, heads of human resources, sociologists, economists, and experts on social policy and the law. And I interviewed women themselves, nearly 200 in all, to understand their choices, their satisfactions, and their regrets.
I looked for quantitative data and was astounded to discover little contemporary research has been done on women’s non-linear career trajectories, particularly those of women who have paused their careers and re-entered the workforce. So I launched the Women on the Rise survey and nearly 1,500 women across the country shared their experiences as they tried and continue to try to “balance” family and work.
This book is what I learned.
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