May 4th, 2011 | 12:00 pm

Ambition and Motherhood: Can Women Have It All?

filed under Work-Life

iStock_000006413659XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In her 2007 book Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett explores the often “non linear” career paths women take because of the still constant tug of domestic responsibilities. According to Hewlett, women typically provide 75 percent of the housework and childcare, which makes it harder for them to cope with today’s extreme jobs.

“Thirty seven percent take an ‘off ramp’ at some point in their careers, voluntarily quitting their jobs for a short period of time. Another 30-plus percent take scenic routes and the consequences aren’t pretty: 50 percent of those seeking to return to mainstream jobs fail to find them and those taking an off-ramp lose 18 percent of their earnings power,” Hewlett wrote.

Presumably, these off-ramps are an attempt to raise children or manage other family responsibilities, with the goal of returning to the workplace. But as statistics show [PDF], there is often no workplace to return to. And for those who manage to return to their previous employer, many suffer what’s been called the mommy penalty. It is assumed their head is no longer in the game and they no longer care about their career as much as they did pre-child.

According to a new survey by the SFN Group, over half of working moms aren’t satisfied with their careers. Fifty-six percent of the 600 working mothers surveyed said they are not satisfied with their career and 62 percent said work/life balance is the most crucial aspect to their career happiness. The problem is that work/life balance is difficult to attain, so it comes as no surprise that 70 percent of the survey respondents report not having a flexible work arrangement.

Yet so many continue moving forward, hoping to successfully balance an exceptional career and a healthy family. Can ambition and motherhood go hand-in-hand; will one always suffer as the result of the other? Essentially it comes down to the one question that has been haunting working mothers since day one: Is it possible to have it all?

Making Trade-Offs

Shannon Kelley co-wrote the book Undecided with her mother Barbara Kelley after looking around and noticing that many of the women in their lives – women who had all kinds of opportunity, the kind of opportunity their mothers never had– were dissatisfied, overwhelmed, and unhappy. According to the authors, these women were suffering from analysis paralysis; grass is greener syndrome; angst over the road not traveled; and how the success of the women’s movement has left them stumped in the face of limitless options.

Shannon believes the media isn’t really helping women either, with its constant portrayals of endlessly beautiful women who somehow find the time to cook gourmet meals, be happily married, raise perfect children, and do important work that’s fulfilling and making the world a better place. These false and impossible images do nothing but make real women feel as if they’re missing out and not measuring up; that no matter what they’re doing, there’s the always something they’re not doing. As a result, if having it all means doing it all at the same time, Shannon contends that it’s not possible.

“Can women have it all? No. No one can have it all – that is a fact of economics; it’s called opportunity cost and it’s a spiritual truth of life as a human being. Yes, you can have a career and a family, but something’s gotta give,” Shannon said. “You can’t have a full-throttle career and 24/7 with your kids. So maybe you won’t have the time you want with your kids. Maybe you’ll have to dial back your career. But the fact is, when you’re doing A, by definition you cannot be doing B. Women are living–and working–in a world that was built by and for men. Workplace structures haven’t evolved to support this reality; they still operate as though each of their employees had a full-time spouse at home to take care of business. Whose life looks like that anymore? For most people, work isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity and the workplace needs to change to reflect that.”

Until then and until the brunt of the childcare, housekeeping, errand-running, dinner-cooking, lunch-packing, grocery-shopping, etc. ceases to fall on the woman’s shoulders, Shannon encourages women to stop chasing down everyone else’s definition of success and begin measuring success according to what feels right to them.

“The thing is, everything is a choice; everything is a trade-off. I think it’s important to really realize and grasp that idea and then to go into your choices consciously. We like to talk about choices in terms of what we’re choosing, but we leave out the rather unpalatable part about what we’re leaving behind. The trick is finding yourself and redefining happiness in terms of internal markers rather than the external measures dictated by society and the media.”

Changing the System to Work for You

When Erin Giglia and Laurie Rowen met, they were both pregnant, associates at Snell & Wilmer, and both knew they didn’t want to work full-time lawyer hours after giving birth. It was during this time that they hatched the idea for Montage Legal, a network of 20 freelance attorneys specifically designed to help women achieve career success while tending to family. Each of the attorneys in the network is independent and therefore able to handle as much or as little work as they feel is appropriate for them.

“Over 20 percent of female attorneys who start at big firms – women who graduated with honors from top law schools – end up unemployed, so we realized that we stumbled upon an extremely strong, untapped resource,” Giglia said.

Essentially, Giglia and Rowen have changed the system to work for their attorneys, enabling them to have their cake and eat it too. Some may call this having it all, but Giglia is apprehensive to use that tricky phrase.

“Defining ‘having it all’ is incredibly subjective. For me, it means having the ability to be there for my kids at events, helping with homework, and generally running the house on a daily basis, all while advancing my career,” Giglia said. “There really is no best practice when it comes to balancing career with family. I think the key to achieving success in career and family is finding a supportive work and family situation. Women need to have the courage to ask for what they want and the confidence to know that they deserve to have it.”

5 comments

  1. Deborah Connolly

    Great post and a few tips on creative solutions to deal with this very real issue for women.

    In my coaching I realize that there are some things that we need to work creatively toward overcoming and unfortunately this issue with regard to woman’s career paths is a very real one.

    Deborah Connolly

  2. Been there, don't do that

    My experience with the “off ramp” (which was more of a detour off the corporate ramp to manage a complex ERP project at a smaller company – not exactly less work, just different culture)?

    The ramp is One Way Only.

    Moving up the ladder is extremely hard for women in the first place. Getting back on in the same spot is impossible.
    You will spend many frustrating years not using your full talents and capabilities when you return to the workforce. The once thriving career may end up being just a job forever after.

    My advice to young women is to stay in the game. Refuse to yield your spot and try to make changes that will make it work for you. And if you take the off ramp? Build your own company. Make your own future.

  3. The eternal dilemma: combining motherhood and work » The Looking Glass

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  4. marguerite dorn

    Your piece raises an extremely important discussion that young women need to be engaging in – and contemplating – as they create choices moving forward. Boomer women who ramped off with the misguided notion that they could return to the workforce 20, 25 years later – after raising a family – are now facing hard truths about their marketability. Young women need to understand the tradeoffs, and to address their decision-making with clear-eyed understandings of the ramifications of maintaining linear career paths, foregoing career for family and/or attempting to forge a path somewhere in the middle.

  5. Emma Vas

    It is impossible to have it all i.e. rise to the top of your professional career and raise a family at the pace of men in the workplace or at the pace of women who are without children in the workplace.

    Those that do manage to keep up the same pace have a phenomenal support system that needs to be talked about: family that lives close by, husbands that stay at home, mothers or in laws that either move in or buy a house in the same neighborhood as their grandkids or money that buys great nanny services.

    Working women with kids have to either slow down their pace if they don’t have a phenomenal support system and accept this as a fact of life, or just accept that they are not rising to the top and create a new hybrid definition of success: one that includes being a good homemaker (notice I did not say “perfect” home maker), not just a professional achiever.