Not Sure about Starting a Family and Pursuing a Career? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a thirty-something woman who has just accepted a new position at a software company.  This job is quite a leap from my last one and the company has made it clear that they have big plans for me.  I love my work, it is interesting and fun, and I am really good at it.  

My husband also has a great job and is pursuing a PhD.  He and I both work ten- to twelve-hour days. We spend our extra time doing things we love—running, sailing, and getting together with friends.  We both have had weight and health issues in the past and have a high commitment to taking care of ourselves through exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep. 

Many of our friends have started or are about to start their families.  The ones who have new babies have either dropped off the planet, or when we see them they seem stressed and exhausted.  Every working mom I talk to says she feels she is always falling short either at work or at home. Neither my husband nor I grew up under ideal circumstances and we figured we could do better.  We have always vaguely planned to have kids, but now we aren’t sure it is a good idea.  What do you think?

Kids or No?


Dear Kids or No,

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that you would send me this question, although I have to say I am staggering a little under the weight of it. Obviously, this will be one of the biggest decisions you and your husband ever make.  The amazing thing is—and it is a fairly new development in human history—you have a choice. It used to be that children were something that happened and you just dealt with them.   But with choice comes responsibility, and nobody can tell you what to do. What I can do is lay out some things you want might want to consider as you weigh your options.

  • Parenting is more complicated now than it has ever been, and you will want to know that you and your husband will always be a team. Everywhere you turn, you will be bombarded with advice—or worse, judgment—about the way you parent.  So every choice you make will be fraught with second guessing and doubt.  You and your husband will want to decide what your standards are for what good parenting looks like.  It will be important that you are on the same page for the big decisions like how much time you need to spend with your child, what spiritual tradition will you depend on, what would you do if your child had special needs. For example, if you are okay with leaving your child in daycare or with a nanny but your husband is not, that is a potential deal breaker right there.
  • The person who will generally take the brunt of the parenting will be you, especially at the beginning. I spent two years at a big Wall Street firm and every female VP who had kids had a husband who had a lower impact career that allowed him to stay home full time, work from home part time, or at least get home by the end of the school day.  But then there are amazing role models like Sheryl Sandberg who made it all work with a husband who worked full time and is now—horrors—gone.
  • Speaking of role models, are there good role models in your organization or perhaps in your professional association; i.e., senior women who have kids? You might talk to them about how they have done it and what they recommend.
  • The whole parenting thing is made to look really magical and wondrous—the Christmas cards with the smiling mom and dad, two kids, and the golden retriever. And there are magical moments, but it is hard.  There is no guarantee that you will get one or two perfect children who are as gifted and delightful as you.  Serious wild cards get dealt that can really throw you for a loop.  My point is that your children automatically become an intensive spiritual development program, no matter how perfect and easy they are. You really have to be signed up for that.
  • John Gottman, the foremost researcher and expert on marriage, tells of a deep dip in marital satisfaction when the kids come that lasts until the kids are out of the house. Some of the happiest people I know are people who have chosen not to have children.  Of course, the dark flip side is that the people who have the most regret are the ones who wanted to have kids and couldn’t.  So the thing I would say is if you aren’t sure, wait.  Freeze your eggs. You can always hire a surrogate if you wait too long.  You can adopt.  None of those roads are as easy as just going for it when you are young and healthy, but at least you will be sure.
  • I grew up in the 70s during which the anthem was “you can have it all.” Well, that turned out not to be quite true.  My experience is that you can kind of have it all   If you have a good education and some career stability and support going in. If you have an amazing husband who really does share the parenting including the endless domestic chores. If you have unusual stamina, if you have a strong immune system and can function through stomach flu and rotten colds, if you can go for long periods of time without proper rest and exercise, if you have reliable and high quality help and support—either trusted family members or a high enough income to pay for it. For many women I would restate the anthem as “you can have it all, but maybe not all at the same time.” This is not generally what people want to hear, but in my experience it is the truth.
  • If you have a child and continue to pursue your highest career potential you will, I guarantee, lament that you are never 100% at home or at work. I have felt that way for the last 27 years.  But I am not sure that is so bad.  A little dynamic tension away from home isn’t so terrible.  I always felt that my kids appreciated me more because they didn’t have me at their beck and call.  And I always did enough at work to make good things happen but I never became completely obsessed—which I may very well have, if I hadn’t had to walk out of the office every day at 6:00.  The most efficient workers by far are the working moms, because they are always on a deadline.

My mother always said that having kids was the best thing she ever did in her life, and I automatically thought that it also would be true for me—and it has been.  But you are going to want to talk to more people.  Just know this: you and your husband are doing the right thing right now by really questioning it and thinking it through. That way, when you do come to a decision, you will know it is the right one.

Good luck to you.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine_2_Web

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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