Did you read the article in The Atlantic, by Anne-Marie Slaughter: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All? The article discusses the myth of ‘having it all’ for women who are educated with professional careers and families.
The writer points out many myths but never addresses the challenge of being a professional woman with a career and who has a child with a disability.
At one point in my life, I had what I would consider a fairly successful career which began after finishing my full time graduate school education and receiving an MBA from Boston University. My first job was assistant to the president of a manufacturer of housewares- an amazing job where I worked 16 hour days but had a limited social life in a small town in Maine. So, I moved on to a marketing manager position at Dansk, a designer/manufacturer of dinnerware, then account executive promoted to account supervisor at a leading direct marketing agency in NYC, and then reaching Director of New Member Marketing at Doubleday Book Clubs when I was in my mid 30s. I was exceeding our marketing goals but was forced out due to sexual harassment. So, I then started working for myself as a direct marketing consultant, with clients mostly in the publishing industry. I was well known in my field and was able to leverage my network for business development. I partnered with a leading publishing consulting firm and worked on many interesting direct marketing assignments with clients like Hearst, TV Guide, and Jim Henson. But working for yourself does not help your career progression.
At this point, I got married and my husband moved to New York City. I then took a consulting assignment with an advertising agency that needed help to pitch IBM for direct marketing. After winning the account I continued to work on the business. After about 10 months I was invited to join IBM to start up interactive direct marketing to explore how to use the web for marketing. This offer came on the day found out I was pregnant. Not only did the assignment sound great, but I figured the client side would be a better place to be as a working mother.
I did not join IBM in a management position but assumed I would quickly move up. Returning to IBM after a 4 month maternity, my management had changed, more layers were added and the staff had grown in our start up team, and I no longer had momentum.
Around the time my daughter was 12 months old I started to think she was not meeting her “pointing” milestone, and by 18 months she had lost words she use to say. I began to focus on her developmental delay and undertook an unsupported lonely search for help. We then moved from Manhattan to the suburbs. While work was interesting I could not put in the commitment to pursue management positions because of all the research I needed to undertake for my daughter – the networking, the evaluations, the appointments, the treatments, the coordinating and negotiating – not to mention the supervision of therapies in my home.
Many mothers of children with disabilities take on the role of project manager/ general contractor for their special needs child as their full time job. And it is a full time job.
Managing the needs of a child with a disability is so demanding that often professional women give up their careers or chose to take a role that is less visible and demanding – which in essence is a career killer. I recall a professional woman who shifted to a part time role referred to herself as CEO of her daughter.
Some of us don’t have the luxury of eliminating one of the household incomes so we still work to earn a paycheck even if it no longer means professional recognition and advancements.
It is often humiliating for me to see women who were peers of mine 10, 15 or 20 years ago now in high profile executive roles. I wonder how they do it when they also have children – although none have children with disabilities. Or almost none. A Vice President in my management chain told me that her mother lived with her to raise her 2 children, one with a learning disability, and that her husband was very actively involved and available.
My husband is actively involved with our daughter but he is gone from the house from 6 am to 6 pm, and he does not have the skills or comfort with the networking, research, and advocacy work needed on a daily basis to help our daughter get the services, education, and social and emotional support she needs. He does plenty of other things to support the home (like dishes, laundry, and food shopping; in addition to being a playmate for our daughter).
Since there is no manual or prescribed roadmap for treating a child with autism (because autism is really autisms), I felt the best way to create the individualized program for my daughter was to learn from other experts – parents. So that means building my network, taking the time to learn from others, pushing and prodding schools, testing and trying various therapies, medications, behavior interventions, taking classes in advocacy, reading, joining support groups, starting up a PTA subcommittee for special education in my school district, and so on. Even if I could afford to hire full time domestic help, I could never leave it to anyone else to do the job of CEO of my autistic child.
All of these activities used some of my best skills: research: asking questions, seeking answers, trials and evaluations, innovation, building cases for change, and making change happen. And since my motto has been ‘good enough is not good enough” I could never rest on achieving any particular goal. (And as many mothers of special needs kids know, as soon as you take a breather, you notice things start to fall apart. This is known in physics as entropy.)
On the other hand, the activities that are important to professional success are not necessarily those – they are the ones I am least competent in: it use to be called office politics: self promotion, jockeying for position, presenting to executives, and doing things I don’t believe in to satisfy someone else’s position. All that takes extra attention for me since it does not come naturally.
At some point I must have made the decision and choice to focus at work on what I am good at naturally and not focusing on the areas that would actually advance my career in order to have the time and energy to also be CEO of my daughter. (Did I mention that IBM is considered one of the best companies for working mothers? Many of us work full time from our home offices, which, if you were wondering, does not mean we work less but actually more – our ThinkPads are on 24-7 and I often am on calls before 8 am and after 9 pm since we are a global company. As US jobs are eliminated and replaced with people in “growth markets” (aka India) the staff in worldwide jobs need to work closely with our colleagues in these locations in other timezones.
None of this is what I expected would happen when I graduated from Boston University Graduate School of Management with an MBA in 1981 (when women made up 50% of my graduating class).
This week my company gave out its annual raises to staff. I got my 1%. That is what they give to non-management employees that perform better than average. (Take note, public employees!) The US inflation rate is 3.5%. My compensation has essentially remained the same in the 16 years that I have worked at this company that was deemed one of the best companies for working mothers by Working Mother magazine.
So while my career has stalled, my definition of “success” has changed. It is now enabling my daughter to be able to live an “independent” life from her parents with the supports she needs from family, community, and government. And it is also to change the community, and the world, to accept people like my daughter as valuable members of society deserving the same respect as “typical” people.
Do you feel like you have it all?