A Harvard MBA & Working Mother Reflects On Life’s Choices

by Lindsey Mead on

LindseyMead

Lindsey Mead

I know that the topic of mothers working or staying home touches a well of emotion in me, as deep as it is inchoate, because every time I read anything about the debate I cry.  Ten years ago, Lisa Belkin’s seminal Opt-Out Revolution piece was my introduction to this subject.  I was curious about the article because it focused on women from Princeton University, my alma mater, and I was also new to the arena: it came out on the very first birthday of my first child.

Over the years I have read Lisa’s piece several times. I read her book of essays on the topic, Life’s Work, and a litany of titles and articles longer than I can list about the debate. Judith Warner’s follow-on piece in The New York Times this past Sunday, The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, is about the same women profiled by Lisa Belkin a decade ago is the latest in the canon, and I read it with tremendous interest.  My passion for writing about the tension between working and staying home is seemingly boundless, and the discussion always brings tears to my eyes.

The thing is, while the topic touches a knot of something buried in my chest, the truth is it never makes me regret my choice to work.  I have never opted out.  I graduated from Princeton in 1996 with a degree in English and with an MBA from Harvard in 2000.  I transitioned from a career in management consulting to one in executive search and had two children along the way (a daughter, Grace, now 10, and a son, Whit, now 8).  When my children were small I worked part-time, and now that they are both in school all day I work full-time.  My office is in my house and I am able to manage my schedule, most of the time, so that I don’t miss anything important in their lives.

WITH HER HARVARD MBA, SHE CHOSE A ROLE THAT WAS ‘MARGINAL AND EXTREMELY FORTUITOUS’

When I look back at the path my career has taken I can see all the chance and luck and randomness that have shaped it. But I can also see that my early and unwavering goal, to have flexible yet meaningful work, has been met. What is less clear to me is how I came up with this particular goal so early in my life.  When I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2000 I chose a role that was at once marginal and extremely fortuitous in terms of setting up the career I have now.  I oscillate between being frustrated at my 25-year-old self for so immediately “leaning out” – I didn’t even have children yet – and being profoundly grateful that I sensed back then that flexibility would be vitally important to me years down the road.

One thing I am certain about is that the choice to stay home with babies is one of huge privilege.  I’m constantly frustrated – amazed, even – that the dialog about mothers working or staying home so rarely acknowledges the simple fact that most mothers in America don’t have this choice.  The very first piece of writing I ever published, in September of 2010, began with a scene where my pre-baby self pointed out to a roomful of angst-ridden Harvard MBA-holding mothers that feeling torn between careers and babies one loves seemed to be a dilemma of privilege.  I described the way I was flayed by this crowd, and went on to discuss the downsides of my choice to have a foot in both worlds by working but also by refusing to cede primary responsibility for the day-to-day lives of my children.

There are certainly downsides – mostly a lingering sense that while I’m doing everything, I’m doing it all poorly.  The thing I’m not sure of is whether this is a result of my choice to work and have children or whether it’s a more fundamental and innate orientation, and that I’d feel this way no matter what.  This latter point of view, which is the one I lean towards, also suggests to me that the emotion all this discussion triggers in me is a deep-seated desire to do right by my children that has almost nothing to do with what I do during the day that they are at school.  Maybe the knot that my reading and writing and thinking about working and motherhood touches on, that prickly tangle of feelings, is as basic as my hopes and dreams for my children and my fierce wish to do the best job I can as their mother.

‘IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION FOR ME TO KEEP WORKING’

As my children get older I feel more certain, not less, that it was the right decision for me to keep working.  They are in school all day every day now, and I am grateful that my years of part-time work, coming out of that decision to lean out for which I have so maligned myself, enabled me to ramp up to a challenging and interesting position now.  Do I feel exhausted, and overwhelmed, and as though there are too many demands on me?  Yes.  Do I feel that our lives could be simplified?  Yes.  But do most of my friends who are mothers, regardless of the choices they’ve made about their careers, feel this way?  Yes.

1 2 Next
  • Sara Stienstra

    Lindsey Mead – Thank you for writing this piece.

  • lemead

    Thank YOU! I so appreciate hearing that.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes!!! I think that you (intentionally or not) hit on a great options for many women – find something interesting that gives you some flexibility, but stay in. Recognize the seasons.

  • agata

    Hi Lindsey. I loved your piece. If it is of any consolation, i also cry (or get upset, depending on the type of article) when i read post like yours about working women&family. Cried this time too. I think the simple reason is that there are lots of conflicting feelings in “choosing” to work when one could indeed stay home -some people dont have the choice, some people just need to work to feed their kids. Even in the 21st century, there is a strong push (from employers, peers, society, norms) for women to stay home when they have children. Even in the 21st century, there is a glass ceiling, and clear sexism in the workplace. With that background, generally in the office, when somebody talks about: “women can (or cannot) have it all”, “lean-in”, “the opt out revolution”, “off ramps and on ramps” and all that, next to a picture of a baby, i cry, and that is ok.

  • Dan Short

    Eh… women want it all. What else is new?

  • Rita Ramstad

    This evokes strong feeling in me, too. I chose a career in education largely because I thought it would be a good fit with parenting. Eh, not so much. Great during the summer, but that’s about it. The struggle was especially acute during the years my babies were young. However, when it became painfully apparent to me that remaining married to their father was an unhealthy choice for both me and them, I was glad that I’d never really had the choice to opt out. (Because, YES, that is absolutely a dilemma that only the privileged wrestle with. Kinda wish I’d been in that room in which you got flayed. Don’t get me started…) These questions are not just about fulfillment and satisfaction and life balance. Because I’d kept working, I was in an economic position to make a choice that allows me to be a better mother to my kids. The issue is incredibly complex, and there is certainly no one right answer. I am glad I am past the childbearing years. I would have loved to have had one more child, but I couldn’t bear more of that struggle.

  • SoChivalrous!

    Nice and insensitive comment.

  • kby413

    And the problem with that is what exactly Dan? Guys want it all and more often than not they get it. Time for us to catch up.

  • kby413

    Lindsey, thanks for a terrifically beautifully written piece. I’m 51, working full-time, though in between jobs, and gearing up to take my eldest to Yale next week to start her freshman year. I was hired 17 years ago 5 months pregnant with my daughter by a blue-chip media brand, Unheard of back then, and it happened on account of the reputation I had built for myself. I found that I like, you, went on to build a career for myself that enabled me to “have it all” in many ways. This did not come without my still having guilt for working though, as I watched friends drop from the workforce. Nor did it come without judgement from my sisters, neither of whom had children who kept insisting that my children were going to take a toll. I had to laugh out loud when a few years ago after having been laid off due to a downsizing, my daughters assured me that I would be fine and whatever I do, keep working because they need their own alone time. I write this bc I have found that sometimes we harbor so much unnecessary guilt and judgment on ourselves that nobody else is inflicting on us. The questions to ask are, is your family happy? Are your children loved, safe and happy? Really important, are you happy? I have learned not to make blanket judgments and recipes on right and wrong when it comes to family raising. This is an intimate decision to be made by the family members involved. Its then up to the rest of us to support them in their happiness.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t this the same author who wrote an article a few months back about how HBS had failed her in her career?

Partner Sites: C-Change Media | Poets & Quants for Execs | Tipping the Scales | Poets & Quants for Undergrads