The 1970’s reverberated with headlines about discrimination, including ones about women in the workplace and in the home. My single, young working mother went through it all, from climbing the corporate ladder and becoming the first female executive for one company, to discovering she was paid less than male counterparts throughout much of her career. She raised my siblings and I without a penny of child support or affordable child care, (which resulted in me taking care of the three of us by the time I was in grade school). My mother was rarely present in our childhood. Between work travel and her social life, parenting was minimal.
Not married until I was 29, I thought I was too smart to end up a single working mother, but that’s pretty much what I became. With a husband who traveled weekly, moving every few years, always living where we knew not a soul, I was the one who had to secure quality childcare and work out the complex logistics of our lives alone. For 12 years, I was literally the woman who had it all – career, home, family, investments, because I did it all.
I remember the point when I felt I could no longer stay on the frustrating treadmill my life had become. All the relocations were creating issues and my kids needed at least one full-time parent at home.
Career wise, I couldn’t do everything it took to take that next step up. In fact, I needed less to do. I decided to change gears and made the decision to stay home, just for a while. At the time, I couldn’t figure out a better solution (though you can bet I could now, knowing what I know). A while turned into two more moves across country and 10 more years.
Speaking with many women, especially the ones with less years in front of them than behind (like me), we understand life turns on a dime, whether it’s job losses, economic down-turns, devastating illness or even death. It changes. Not to be a Debby-Downer, but life is rarely what we plan and, sometimes, even want. Sometimes it just happens. Career and family demands are challenging and divorce, for whatever reason, is a possibility considering 50 percent of marriages end. (One day you’re in a blissful state with babies and the next day your husband announces he’s in love with his high school sweetheart he just found on Facebook, or worse, your friend who lives next-door.)
In longer marriages, some middle-aged men, fearing their own mortality and having the spines of a leaf of grass, may find a younger woman who admires their stature in life and reels them in (like catching fish in a barrel). These kind of men are aching for a taking. You have to wonder if dementia enters into it, because these old Don Juans seem to lose their memory. They literally erase their families as if the last 20 or more years never happened.
In sharing stories with divorced women, consistently there’s the final straw. While infidelity was involved about half the time, the other 50 percent completely lost respect for their spouse, often relating to a lack of financial contribution. (My marriage ended for all of the reasons, including me losing complete respect for him because of his bad judgment playing around with his female employees, and getting fired.)
I was raised with tough talk about not ever giving up my own power in life, yet I did. Now, over 50 and starting from scratch personally after ending a long marriage, as well as professionally, after sidelining my career for a decade. It’s overwhelming. In terms of re-entering the career-world, I paid my dues many times over when I was younger. But now, I have to do it all over again, except with wrinkles and feeling two steps behind everyone else in skills. It’s humiliating at times.
When my boss, one of the sharpest business executives I’ve ever encountered, was about to leave on maternity leave, we had a personal chat about what it’s like to go 100 miles an hour from a childless career-oriented person to a new mother in nano-seconds. I told her (laughingly) that I had actually thought I’d push my first baby out, hand it off to some child care person and run back to work in a few weeks without missing a beat. Well, not so much. And as many women will relate, giving birth and seeing this little person is instantaneous love. For me, I cried at the thought of leaving my son for a minute. But after six short weeks, back to work I went with pressure from everyone – my company, my husband, and our bank account.
Now my boss has a healthy baby and understands how motherhood changes you and is in no hurry to return to work. I feel for her and it’s hard to tell someone in the happy cocoon of baby-love that the more time you put between yourself and your career, the harder it will be to get back to where you left off. A few months is probably not an issue, but even a few years can be very tough. The business world is like the beach – your foot prints last only as long as the next wave.
For me, I thought all the sacrifices, putting my own ambitions aside, seemed like the right decision. I didn’t realize it then, but I do now. I gambled and I lost. How can women secure their future, their careers, and still be great moms taking care of the human race? That’s the million dollar question (really, getting off the career-track can equate to losing $1 million dollars).
If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be this:
- Get an education. Then keep getting it. Never stop learning new skills. Stay on top of what recent college graduates know that you need to know.
- Before leaving any job, have another plan of action that will bridge you into the next job; project work, part-time hours, anything that fills the gaps in your resume.
- Hire a full-time child care provider if your husband is absent for whatever reason. Even if it takes half your salary, it’s worth it.
- Imagine your life with and without your partner/spouse. What does that look like? How would you protect yourself? It’s scary. I liken it to putting your hand on a stove. Your first instinct is to pull away. It hurts so bad to go there, but do it.
- Have a bank deposit box that is entirely yours and put money into it as though you are paying yourself. Look at it this way, one day you and your spouse can enjoy some nice trips (surprise), or take early retirement (surprise-surprise), or you have a safety net that gives you more options, just in case.
In many ways, we women run the world, but what we need to do better is be strategic about ourselves, planning for every contingency and preparing a plan for ourselves, emergency or otherwise.