Motherhood as a Step on the Career Arc

When U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was a member of the House of Representatives and sat through marathon committee sessions the day before she gave birth to her second child, she got a round of applause from her colleagues. She returned to work three weeks later.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave a speech at a governors meeting in Texas as she was on the verge of labor. She reportedly took off only three days after delivering her son.

As satisfying as it is to see the acceptance of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace, is this workaholic model the only one women in their childbearing years have?

Sometimes it looks that way. But highly visible women — notably House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — as well as more ordinary workers, have begun to change the traditional male career arc that has dominated our workplace for the past 250 years.The old paradigm is based on the idea that one can work grueling hours in one’s 20s and early 30s and then begin to take on leadership roles throughout the next two decades. For a mother to do this, she must, as Gillibrand and Palin did, work almost as if she did not have a uterus.

Some women do not want to slow down, and they should not have to. For many others who want a pause or a deceleration of the pace in their professional life to birth and raise their children, it is certainly not ideal.Pelosi, though active in politics when her five children were young, didn’t hold her first elected office until she was 47, when her youngest daughter was graduating from high school. Yes, her family status and wealth helped her inordinately. But her life choices are still relevant.She did not proceed step by step up the corporate ladder. She was with her kids when they were home. Then, at a time when the old model dictated that her peak was about to be reached, Pelosi was ready to drastically quicken her climb.

Before the newest member of the House of Representatives, Kathy Hochul, left her job in Washington some 20 years ago for western New York, she is reported to have confided in her boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, about her struggles with working long hours with a baby at home.

He told her that, decades from now, she would not remember being in the office but she would remember her time with her child. My guess is that today, riding the wave of her election victory with her college-aged children by her side, she can confirm he was right.

Pelosi’s and Hochul’s models are exaggerated, for sure. And not every woman who spent much of her 30s and 40s raising children, or who has spent just a little less time on her career than her peers, is qualified for the job she wants in her 50s. But many are, and the “brain drain” — the highly educated mothers who opt out, and stay out, of what they perceive as an inflexible work force — is still leaking talent. A model entrenched for two centuries is not an easy one to bend.

It is laudable that Gillibrand was so dedicated to her job that she worked until the last hours of her pregnancy and returned soon after. Every ambitious woman, however, should not have to do the same.

Gillibrand herself has been an advocate of flexible work arrangements and has said that her quick return to the Congress was not ideal. Let’s extend the round of applause she got to those mothers who succeed in their fields with a pause for the demands of motherhood.

Originally appeared in Albany Times Union as “Let’s Hear it for the Women who Thrive at Two Vital Jobs”


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Motherhood as a Step on the Career Arc — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Kelly Wallace and Kate Bolduan: Two Career Arcs on Display at CNN

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