If there is a god of after school activity schedule coordinating, he must have been smiling down on me when I discovered a gym that offers gymnastics classes for four year-old boys and six year-old girls, at exactly the same time. And then he must have decided that I have a nice butt, or something, because he did me the further favor of populating the class with several children who just happen to have smart, fabulous, interesting mothers. So not only do I get to kill two birds with one stone each week, but I also get to do it with a group of, well, I don’t know what you would call people who kill birds with stones, but whatever, my point is, I get to hang out with a cool group of moms while we wait for our kids to finish jumping on trampolines, falling off balance beams and performing vaguely cartweelish-type maneuvers.
The gymnastics coffee klatch group is an eclectic bunch – aside from me, there’s a former lawyer, a former investment banker, a very part-time voice over actress, and an independent television producer with the luxury of setting her own work schedule. And most of us are in the same place with our kids – one or two in elementary school, with another one or two still in preschool. We talk about our kids, of course, but inevitably, the conversation always seems to turn to work. What will we do when our kids are in school full time? What options are there for a former investment banker or a former lawyer, aside from going back to work as an investment banker or a lawyer? What would it be like to go back to school now, at this point in life, in the hopes of starting a new career? And this week, a new twist in the discussion: when our daughters go off to college, what will we tell them about choosing a career?
It’s an interesting question, and one that I, personally, hadn’t thought about before. After all, when I was a kid, my mom told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and I’ve always just assumed that that’s what you tell your kids, whether they’re girls or boys. But one of the moms that day pointed out that we, as the first generation of mothers to fully understand and accept the idea that ‘having it all’ is an impossible goal, are in a unique position to guide our daughters into careers and lives that might, ultimately, spare them the angst that a lot of us are going through right now. After all, she said, knowing what we know now, would we still have chosen to work at big law firms, or at major investment banks, or might we have chosen jobs with more flexibility from the start?
It’s a provocative point. When I was interviewing for jobs after law school, my mother never pointed out to me that the less prestigious smaller firms, or the lower paying, government jobs, might have benefits that I would one day desire. And she certainly never sat me down to explain the rigors of balancing a high-powered career with a family, or to point out the difficulties of leaving the work force to have kids, and then trying to enter it again years later. But even if she had, would I really have listened? At twenty-five, when the world was my oyster, would I have allowed my potential, unborn children to steer my career choices, or to get in the way of my ambition? My guess is that I would have just rolled my eyes at her and told her that she had no idea what she was talking about, but it’s hard to say for sure. After all, I left my job at the big law firm not too long after I started, mainly because I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to have a family with that kind of job. And that was before I even got married.
At the same time, though, is it dangerous for us to counsel our daughters out of high pressure, time-intensive jobs, well before motherhood is even on the horizon? Those jobs offer experience, and add credence to a resume, often allowing the women who had them to launch the more flexible careers they want when they become mothers. For example, when I went to work as a college counselor, with no prior college counseling experience, I know that the fact that I worked at a name-brand law firm had a lot to do with my getting the job; it gave my new employer confidence that I would be professional, and that I could handle the learning curve quickly. And let’s not forget, if I had never had my big law firm job, I certainly wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate how lucky I am to have the kind of flexible hours that writing affords.
So will I do things with my own daughter differently than my mother did with me? Perhaps. I think it’s worth having a conversation or two, or ten, about different kinds of lifestyles and the jobs that go along with them, and there’s no harm in providing information. But will I try to convince her to not even attempt to have it all, because it isn’t possible anyway? I don’t think so. Maybe, in twenty years, things will be different, and the women of our daughters’ generation will figure out how to balance family and work in ways we could never imagine. Or maybe things will be exactly the same.
But either way, I’m not going to be the one tell my daughter that having it all is impossible. Someday, if and when she goes through her own angst about it, I’ll be able to tell her about the times when I sat outside of her gymnastics class, talking to my friends about my own.