Two years ago, I sat on a panel of women with MBA degrees ranging in age from 25 to 60. It’s pretty rare to have significant age differences among women MBAs, since most business schools didn’t admit women until the 1950s. The panel focus was balancing work and family. The conference room was packed with younger, mostly unmarried, mostly childless business women seeking advice from us older, jaded, power mamas.
One audience member asked what it felt like to miss significant events or milestones in our children’s lives due to career conflicts. We panelists all smugly agreed we hadn’t missed anything.
I was thinking of my job at the time in the advertising department at the Washington Post, juggling clients and publishing deadlines Monday through Thursday from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm, leaving each afternoon to pick my three kids up at school, working from home after they were in bed. No, really, I didn’t miss anything -- on the work or family end. I had incredible clients and interesting responsibilities, good pay, regular promotions. My kids were all in school full day. Occasionally I had to call upon a former babysitter with a flexible schedule when I had to work on a Friday or one of the kids got sick; almost every day I had to shoo a chatty co-worker out of my office so I could make carline. And every minute I was aware and grateful that my MBA degree, years of long hours at work before I had kids, and a generation of glass-ceiling-busters before me were EXACTLY why I had the leverage to have a killer part-time career without missing anything at home.
A rude realization of the high price my female predecessors had paid came to me on the panel that day. On my immediate left, an older fellow panelist with three 20-something kids and a resume chocked full of consulting and Fortune 100 managerial positions shrugged. “I’ve never been home for Halloween, but it hasn’t been a big deal.” She blinked, waiting for the next question.
I stared, open-mouthed. I felt like bursting into tears. A mom who’d never trick or treated with her kids? She’d never seen them zip up their sweaty costumes four hours before the jack-o-lanterns were even lit? She hadn’t sifted through Candy Corn and mini 3-Musketteers looking for apples with razor blades hidden in them? And she thought she hadn’t missed anything?
I was shaken by the huge gap – more like a chasm -- between her nonchalance about sacrifices that were routine for her, and my visceral horror at the prospect of making those same compromises. Each mom makes her own choices about what kids’ events are sacred and what’s optional -- but we have choices today that ambitious working moms have not always had. As for me, I didn’t know if I could bear missing ONE Halloween, much less all of them.
This year I found out.
Last week I was invited to moderate a panel at the same annual conference for women with business degrees. The unfortunate date: Friday October 31st. The city is a four hour drive from my home. My kids’ Pumpkin Parade starts at 12:45 p.m., midway through the lunch keynote. I imagined my six, nine and 11 year olds in their costumes, proudly parading around the school, rendezvousing at our home in the afternoon with their friends for the attack on our neighbors’ doorbells, fighting over the largest candy bags. Without me to zip their costumes, grease pencil their cheeks, and shout at them to smile for the camera.
There has been a sea change in working motherhood in the past 30 years. The previous crop of female MBAs had fewer choices. They were tougher women, perhaps, because they had to be. Every working mom owes them, big time, for making sacrifices many of us never have to seriously contemplate – and part of our job now is to make sure other women throughout the economic food chain experience as much freedom of choice as possible.
The change (an accomplishment that isn’t on these women’s impressive resumes, but sure should be) became clear in the 30 seconds it took me to respond.
“I am a huge fan of your conference,” I wrote in an email to the committee. “But I am also a huge fan of my kids. Keep me in mind next year – but not on Halloween.”