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What I Learned About Owning My Career

I have formed a bond of sorts with some of the other mothers at my daughter’s daycare. These women and I swap tidbits about our lives in the hurried mornings as we wipe noses and restock cubbies with diapers. Through these fractured conversations, I have learned that I have plenty in common with them. We are all “older mothers”––at thirty-five, I am one of the youngest in the circle. We all have given birth to second children since we met. We all have fretted over solid foods and sibling rivalry. And all of our careers have evolved as our families have grown.

We started together two and a half years ago, carrying tiny babies in bucket car seats, our high heels clicking as we rushed out the door to full-time jobs. Since then, each of us has figured out some sort of alternative work schedule. I quit my job as a newspaper reporter because I wanted to work at home. Several have cut back to part-time hours. One mom works at home on Fridays.

One of these friends recently invited a couple of us to attend a conference for working mothers called “Own Your Life.” The conference was sponsored by Mom Corps, a company that connects women who want to work part-time with employers. I knew about Mom Corps because I interviewed CEO Allison O’Kelly for a story called “Finding Stimulating Work? Yes, It’s Possible!” The event’s headline speaker was to be Jean Chatzky, author and television personality. The conference sounded interesting and I thought it would be fun to hang out with the other daycare moms—so I signed up.

That morning, I was late pulling into the parking garage of the Atlanta hotel hosting the event. A steady stream of other women were still making their way through the garage. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who had to wait for a babysitter to arrive (my newborn hasn’t started daycare yet). I checked my dress for spit up, applied lip-gloss, and headed in. I found my friends Charlotte and Tina nibbling on breakfast from the buffet set up in the lobby. We compared potty training notes before the conversation turned to careers. Charlotte said her company actually has increased both her responsibilities and direct reports since she went part-time. Go Charlotte! This says a lot about her boss and also about Charlotte, who obviously is awesome at her job. Tina, an attorney, explained she is switching firms. At her last job, she went part-time only to end up working nearly full-time hours.

“That happens to so many people,” I told her. And I have in fact heard about countless women who ask for—and get—part-time schedules. Their pay is sliced but they find it impossible to leave at the appointed time. Co-workers make snide comments like, “Oh, must be nice to leave at three every day.” The boss, used to having the person available, still calls mandatory meetings at all hours. Often, the women choose to work late because they feel guilty leaving before everyone else.

I don’t know the particulars of Tina’s situation, but I do know she found a job she expects to truly be part-time. Armed with good experience, she landed on her feet at a well-known firm. Go Tina!

One thing that became clear to me at the conference: there is a real upside to being an older mother (I think the medical term is Advanced Maternal Age). By the time our kids are born, we AMAs have been working long enough to have established success, credibility, and earning power, providing us the clout to negotiate for jobs that are both interesting and compatible with our increasingly complicated lives. The key is figuring out how to cash in that capital for what we really want.

After gulping a little coffee and eating a few bites of a muffin, I joined the crowd of several hundred women moving into the ballroom.

Our pre-event conversation seemed to be echoed during a mid-morning panel called “Own Your Career.” A life coach moderated as five successful women talked about the choices they have made. The moderator asked them to discuss the moments they realized they didn’t own their careers. Laurie Ann Goldman, CEO of Spanx, used to head up worldwide licensing at Coca-Cola. She traveled incessantly and had two young sons. One day, she was at the airport ready to leave for Hong Kong when she realized she had forgotten her passport. Her husband and sons rushed to bring it to her. Stressed that she might miss her flight, her heart raced as she waited for them. She made the flight—then spent the next thirteen hours thinking about her life and remembering the image of her family frantically racing through the airport. She cried. She realized her super-mom-I-can-do-it-no-matter-what mindset was ridiculous.

“I was so busy trying to make it all work, I never saw the big picture,” she told the crowd. Goldman hardly gave up her career; she just gave up a job that was making her crazy.

Carolyn Menzies, a senior manager from KPMG, said she worked insanely hard in her twenties, and then hit a wall. She met with an executive coach who helped her sort out her priorities. Menzies realized her life didn’t reflect her true priorities, so she made changes. She moved from New York to Atlanta, met a guy, and had two kids. She still loves her job, but now sets boundaries. For instance, she leaves every day at 4:30 to pick her children.

After the session, Tina and I snuck into the lobby to stretch our legs. Tina said the panelists made her feel more confident about her decision to switch jobs.

“Good for you!” I said. I too was feeling positive—proud that I have landed a job which allows me flexibility, and happy I spent my own twenties working long and unpredictable newspaper hours. Those jobs were fun, and I developed skills that make me marketable now. Finally, I was glad to be with Tina and Charlotte, getting to know them a bit better. After all, we working mothers have to keep reminding each other we deserve to own our own careers. We’ve earned it.