Water Works Careers

I know motherhood is not the answer for all women. Many can’t and many don’t want to be mothers. However, despite the headlines about the declining fertility rate, the reality is the vast majority of us do, eventually, become mothers either biologically or through adoption. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1976, 90 percent of American women were mothers. By 2014, that number had dropped to 85 percent.232 However, looking ahead, researchers estimate that fertility will actually rise in the next ten to fifteen years in the United States.233 Why? Well, because 80 million Millennials are entering their prime child-bearing years. And by many measures, they are more family focused than my generation. In fact, unlike Generation X, Millennials place marriage and parenthood far above financial and career success.234 And yet, they don’t seem to be doing much to prepare for how they are going to have both the careers of their dreams and the family they report they want.

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I didn’t plan for how to integrate kids with my career and, it would seem, neither did most of the other college-educated, high-potential women of my generation. It was, I believe, one of the biggest professional mistakes we made. In the course of my interviews, women told me they assumed “it wouldn’t be a problem” and that “it would all work out.” Then they told me they were blindsided when reality set in.

The second biggest mistake many of us made was to step off track and downshift our careers without a plan for how we were going to relaunch ourselves when the time was right. Again, we thought we would “just figure it out.”

To our defense, we were bushwhacking new territory. Just as the women of my generation were trailblazing what it meant to try to break the glass ceiling, we were also trailblazing what it meant to step back for a period of time to care for our families. Yes, we were being innovators by disrupting the paradigm around linear careers, but putting our careers on the back burner without a plan was not very, well, professional.

If I could reel back my career to the period before I left my job in advertising, I would have taken the time to understand the personal, professional, political, and financial consequences of pausing my career. I would have recognized that because the workplace punishes those with caregiving responsibilities, if I wanted to place my family front and center (and I did), then I was going to have to embark on a non-linear career path. Then I would have put a plan into place that would allow me to achieve my professional goals even if my career didn’t fit the traditional mold. I would have understood that pausing didn’t have to mean I was abandoning my ambitions. I would have seen it was a temporary solution to an intractable workplace situation. By pausing, I was not failing; I was disrupting a flawed career model that didn’t work for me. And, most important, I would have understood my pause for what it was: just one point of time out of a lengthy career.

Here’s the good news: It has never been a better time to create a successful non-linear career. The workplace is changing, which means great things for women and men who want to integrate caregiving with their careers. But there is bad news, too: Things aren’t changing quickly enough to make a real difference for the 80 million Millennials who are just now entering their prime childbearing and child-rearing years. It will be up to each individual to figure out how to navigate the bumpy, curvy road ahead.

So what does a smart, modern woman do? She does what I didn’t do; she takes the long view on her career and makes a plan. And, I believe, so should every man.

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