There I was, IV in my arm, hard at work with my second child, desperately scrolling through resumes on my cell phone, trying to replace members of the 17-person Us Weekly video unit I started that were fleeing now. Even though no one in my department had been fired, many wanted to leave amid the carnage of layoffs after a messy takeover. I was one of the few remaining employees standing (or lying down). I had heard of these women, so chained to their labor that they labored from the delivery room. It’s funny, I thought – until I realized it was me.
I left this job after my unpaid maternity leave. Nonetheless, it took me another two years and two more positions at companies with – let’s be polite here – “evolving strategic priorities” for me to realize that pursuing another high-powered corporate media job was no longer what I was looking for. Fifteen plus years of hard work, and this was my reward for optimizing my life around my business card? No stability and no control. A wave of dread washes over me even at the idea of trying to balance two children and my professional ambition.
My father was an immigrant and an entrepreneur. He worked his fingers to the bone to send me to a posh Ivy League college. My mother was a lawyer and a feminist. I am a feminist. I’m supposed to climb. I was supposed to want this. In 2014 (before the kids, when I was also staying awake after 11 p.m.), I led a “Lean In” reading group.
I wasn’t ready to bend over, but was it time to bend over? When you lean over the side of a ladder, you fall. Right? I’m usually brave but I was terrified of what lay ahead.
Since I had no concrete plan, I naturally called myself a consultant. It was vague enough to match what I wanted. Upon hearing the news, my personal and professional friends and acquaintances split into two distinct groups. A group gave me friendly nods and sent me listings of full-time jobs. The other looked at me with a mixture of jealousy and abject horror and asked, “So you’ll be home with the kids?”
I found my groove as a small business owner, working on projects similar to what I used to do at larger companies: strategy and video production, but on my own terms. I was by my own choice a small business owner. My work-life balance gradually took hold. Balancing Zoom calls, creating creative decks, and leading media training sessions while taking my son to swimming lesson and enjoying leisurely unstructured walks with my daughter. I finally “succeeded”. It is success. My kids are no longer “tasks” in my schedule between meetings – “3:00-3:30” – they are now the focal points. Once I stopped equating my identity with my corporate title, that’s when the real joy came. Ironically, since jumping off the corporate ladder, I’ve won awards and industry recognition that I had long since given up on receiving.
On my path to self-employment, I began to see an army of women who wanted to bend over backwards. Or maybe they had always been there, and I finally didn’t notice. Women who ran businesses, not to make it a billion-dollar unicorn business, but to have a good, sustainable business that allowed them to see their kids without using the PTO. I met a part-time energy manager, a fashion founder who isn’t interested in scaling it to sell it, a six-figure earning social media coach, a psychotherapist three days a week, a lawyer 30 hours per week etc. I researched this topic and interviewed parents for the Mom’s Exit Interview podcast. They want to use their education, skills and experience to thrive, but on their own terms.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a scalable societal solution. While these women all make significant economic contributions to their households, many of them share a position of economic privilege. Even though not everyone’s sideways thinness led to a significant drop in income (mine didn’t), many (including me) had a spouse with a stable salary and health insurance, which left them allow you to take a risk. Not everyone is in this position; if more women of all income levels and from all walks of life find a better way to balance work and family life, we need much more government and corporate support for childcare, paid holidays and affordable health insurance at all levels.
My hope is that post-COVID, as we return to work, often staying home, non-traditional ways of working will not only be starred in, but embraced and potentially part of the new normal. Perhaps the Great Resignation can turn into the Great Reorientation. We learned: We don’t need a boss to give us permission to create the lives we want.
Rittberg is the host of the Mom’s Exit Interview podcast. She runs her own video marketing business and is a mother of two living in Brooklyn.