By Nancy Levin Teichman, WG’87
Editor’s Note: This column evolved from an e-mail the author sent about an article in the Winter 2000 issue titled “Have Spouse, Will Travel.” The article profiled five couples successfully juggling extensive professional travel with family life. The following is a first-person account of one alum’s struggle to balance family and career.
In the fall of 1986 when I was a second-year MBA student at Wharton, I attended a pivotal presentation by a woman who had graduated from the program a few years earlier. She described her experiences as a woman, wife and mother working successfully in a challenging career, and convinced me, at age 25, that I too could “have it all” – career, husband, kids, dogs, house, a fit physique and a pedicure every Friday. She described the tool set – the nanny, organizational skills, money and motivation – that would be necessary, and she exuded promise: she looked in-shape, had energy, and wore make-up. It was an exciting message that I was eager to hear and a model that I wanted to emulate. Now I see how this is possible, I thought, and I decided I could do it too.
Later that year the man who would become my husband asked me if I would continue to aggressively pursue a career once we had children and if so, how. He hoped I’d figured it out since we were both excited about the idea of a double income household. Luckily I remembered the presentation and was able to recite, chapter and verse, just what would be required. He was convinced.
I graduated and got a job with Touche Ross in Newark, N.J. consulting in the healthcare group. It was exciting, challenging work and I was surrounded by smart, dynamic people. After about a year, I shared news of my pregnancy with my supervisor, who told me quite emphatically that the firm expected my work hours and travel schedule would not change once the baby arrived. After my maternity leave, he said, everything must return to normal. Having just come from a three-month assignment in Puerto Rico, I was concerned, but not surprised.
I successfully negotiated six months of leave, had my son Danny, hired a nanny, and returned to work. She got him up in the morning, took care of him all day, and made dinner for the family. I saw Danny at night for a short time and put him to bed. Somewhere along the way I changed jobs to work for a much smaller consulting firm that required less travel and shorter trips. I took a pay cut and knew that my chances for advancement were far less given the size and structure of the firm, but the compromise seemed worth it. Looking back, I realize this was the first chink in my “having it all” ideology. It would be followed by many more and would ultimately be completely replaced with its antithesis.
There were many difficult steps in this evolution. One time, for instance, I took my infant son and a nanny on a working trip to Chicago, as this was one of the things women who had it all could do. The nanny stayed out all night and I was up all night trying to keep my baby from waking the entire hotel. He cut his first tooth and cried without relief. At that point I “had it all” and then some: an early morning meeting, an ailing baby, a derelict nanny and a splitting headache.
Another day while sitting in someone’s office somewhere in Wisconsin I called home to see what Danny was up to. The nanny told me they had just returned from the park and were about to meet another little boy for playtime. I realized at that moment that I was working like crazy and paying someone else to have a really nice time with my son. Another chink in the ideology – this time a big one.
The first nanny’s tenure was cut short when I discovered she had taken a job at the local daycare center and brought Danny there every day. We lost the next nanny after we discovered she liked to steal things. By this time, the ideology had become an illusion.
I decided to stop working and had my daughter, Rebecca, but knew my decision was based on much more than child care problems. Families, I had realized, take a lot of work, time and effort. You can’t schedule them into a weekend. Children are exposed to unbelievable influences. Who was going to debrief them at the end of the day? When, I had asked myself, would I deal with the social issues, the academic issues, the cupcakes for the holiday party?
During my “have it all” years an inner voice became louder and louder and it told me that I wanted to be the one to raise my children. The extra money, the intellectual stimulation, and the sense of fulfillment I got from pursuing a career ultimately paled in comparison to my need to experience the full measure of emotional satisfaction that derived from simply spending time, and a lot of it, with my two young children.
I also wanted to impart my own values to my children. In light of current events, I was afraid for my kids. I believed it was critical to actively help them develop a worldview that would help them successfully navigate through so much dysfunction. Today I don’t know if I’ve been successful, but I do know that I have tried.
Finally, I realized that “work” would always be there. (This is what I told my husband when he started calculating the net loss to our buying power. I figured he could retire a few years before me, and I’d make up for lost time at the other end).
When Rebecca was about three, I started working part-time. I did some freelance consulting at a local hospital, which led to a part-time ongoing consulting position with a local health-focused nonprofit. I’ve since taught a bit as an adjunct faculty member at a few local colleges. I guess it’s obvious that my name isn’t likely to be found among those who have “made it” in the Class Notes section of this magazine. I’m probably underemployed, and I joke that I don’t know what to do with my life because none of the parameters that were in place when I began are even remotely relevant today.
Thus, my choice has not come without lots of self-doubt and second-guessing. I believe many women who have chosen this path – or not chosen it – feel similarly conflicted. There’s nothing clear cut or predictable about life for women today – they have endless choices and options, and this is a wonderful reality. But it is also confusing and pressure-filled as we try to balance everything and sometimes find we simply can’t. I often feel I should be further along in some sort of career at this point in my life, but don’t even know what I want my career to look like – now, or in the future. On one hand, I know that I’ll figure it out eventually and that my accomplishments are more intrinsic than an executive level position and a hefty W-2. On the other hand, though, those benchmarks undeniably have their allure.
But at the end of the day when I reflect back on my accomplishments, I need only appreciate the stability of my family and the reasonably well-adjusted children I’m fortunate enough to be raising. I pick my kids up at school most days. When they get a day off, or a week, I can usually spend it with them. I’ve been the room mother for both my children’s classes. I’ve been the treasurer of the PTA (and even caught a teacher who had been absconding with PTA funds for several years!). I’ve chaired committees, baked brownies, and gone on fieldtrips. I know most of the other kids in the grade with my children, and many of the parents. These are the perks that come with my lifestyle.
Do I have it all, finally? No, but I have come to realize that there’s really no such thing. I believe that my kids are getting what they need: they are growing up quickly, and in a few short years, they won’t need me to be so present in the details of their daily lives. At that point, I will resume my career, some career, though I wonder what will be available given the choices I’ve made. I realize I could be very disappointed. But I believe that disappointment would be far less than discovering, only too late, that I missed the best years of my life.