Bullish Life: Never Opt All the Way Out, Ever: A Response to the New York Times

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I spent the summer after my junior year of college in LA.

I was a girl from Virginia who had been going to college in New Hampshire, so I was really unprepared for my frequent encounters with homeless people and the fact that, if you are a pedestrian at any time, men will offer you money for sex.

My adorable naivete led me to befriend a homeless woman, question her about her job history, insist that she could get back into gainful employment, and smuggle her into an internet cafe to make a resume. I crafted a pretty impressive resume, considering the circumstances. Roxanne had studied physics at junior college in the seventies. Sometime thereafter she had been a hotel maid. But for twelve years in the middle, she refused to tell me what she was doing.

“Were you in prison?” I asked.

“Oh no, nothing like that!”

“Did you have kids?”

“No.”

Silence.

She refused to tell me. I shrugged and left a twelve-year gap on her resume, figuring that people would just assume she had kids.

In the end, I printed out 20 copies of her resume and packaged them very nicely in a bag so they wouldn’t get messed up in her shopping cart. By that point, I had caught on that the situation was way more complicated, so of course I doubt that my efforts really helped get someone off the streets. But I hope Roxanne thought it was nice that someone believed in her. She also kept insisting I looked like Isabella Rosselini, so that’s nice.

But a 12-year gap on a resume is kind of a problem.

Perhaps you’ve seen the NYTimes’ recent The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In. I remember vaguely hearing about this opting-out business back in 2003. Some rich ladies want to quit their jobs to have babies? GREAT, MORE JOBS FOR US, I thought. The issue did not seem relevant to my life.

So, the NYT looked up some of these women who opted out a decade or so ago. Many refused to talk. There was this:

After one emotional session with a friend, her 12-year-old daughter asked what all the fuss was about. O’Donnel told her: “This is the perfect reason why you need to work. You don’t have to make a million dollars. You don’t have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to at least earn enough so you can support yourself.”

And this:

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York, surveyed thousands of women in 2004 and after the financial crisis in 2009. She has found that roughly a third of “highly qualified women” leave their jobs to spend extended time at home. Though her subjects were all women with graduate degrees or bachelor’s degrees with honors, they didn’t necessarily have the elite credentials of the women in Stone’s research and many reported having a difficult time transitioning into the work force.

Most of the women, Hewlett found, stayed home longer than they had hoped. Eighty-nine percent of those who “off-ramped,” as she puts it, said they wanted to resume work; but only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs.

And, OMG, this:

Many of the women I spoke with were troubled by the gender-role traditionalism that crept into their marriages once they gave up work, transforming them from being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning; a junior member of the household, who sometimes had to “negotiate” with her husband to get money for child care.

Can I say, hallelujah for gay marriage for providing straight people with a model for dividing household tasks along the lines of personal preferences and skills (and, you know, fairness) rather than gender roles? Do you think there’s some lesbian couple out there where one woman is manipulated into doing all the housework, and when she complains to her friends, they give this Erma Bombeck sigh and say, “Oh, that’s just how butches are?” I DOUBT THAT VERY MUCH. Conservatives are not wrong when they point out that gay marriage weakens the patriarchy. IT DOES.

So, this article read like a horrorshow all around. And these women are privileged as fuck.

In Bullish: On the Topic of Women Who Don’t Work, I argued that it’s not anti-feminist to depend on a man for a time, especially if there are times he’s likely to be depending on you. Most women will now be breadwinners at some point during their careers; it’s okay to toss the potato back and forth. (I also wrote, “some feminists’ obsession with paid work is encouraging women to think about money in unproductive ways.”)

But that was an argument about whether depending on a partner can be feminist, not whether it’s the best possible strategic plan.

Here in the US, we live in a time of rampant capitalism dominated by international corporations and with very little safety net. Unless you marry someone very, very rich and get one of those prenups where you’re guaranteed a certain payout for every year you remain in the marriage (romantic! and not creepy at all!), you can’t just let your professional self go.

Seriously, we use that expression “letting yourself go” to talk about someone who lets her skin get old and her upper arms get flabby. Whatever. I’d like to repurpose the term to refer to someone who can’t be bothered to send some goddamn emails to her old network and who can’t manage to read the latest books in her field while waiting to pick up a kid at ballet. That’s letting yourself go. And you can’t afford that.

Apparently, roundabout 2003, the cult of motherhood held that women letting themselves go professionally held innumerable benefits for kids. Okay, lots of parental attention is good for young children. Newborn babies don’t want to be in daycare. But I don’t want an eight-year-old coming to think that having mom’s life would be a real fucking drag (but dad’s life looks pretty okay). That’s toxic, not just for daughters, but for sons as well. An eight-year-old boy who gets the message that women’s jobs don’t matter may very well grow up to discriminate against women. (And what a prince for some lucky woman to partner up with! Blech.)

On the other hand, the forty-hour workweek is artificial. It’s a vestige of the Industrial Revolution and the wave of reforms that followed. There’s nothing special about working forty hours a week. You don’t have to kill yourself to not let yourself go professionally.

So, what do you do?

If you live in the US, I completely understand not wanting to work full-time, on-site, for a corporation while you have a young child. I am no fan of the traditional 9-to-5 job in general, and our childcare options in this country totally suck.

Downshifting from selling your life to a corporation could be an opportunity to develop your own business, even if you must do so very slowly, or to shift careers into something you enjoy more.

But you really can’t wait until you’re sitting at home with a three-year-old and no obvious leads or options. That’s a cliche. You will not be taken as seriously as you would like. And there are so many women in exactly that position that they completely flood the market for the types of work that can be easily done from home by someone with no obvious leads or options.

You got to get your shit together before you get pregnant. Ideally, like a decade before you get pregnant. (I have high standards here at Bullish. See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.) Or, at least, ASAP.

Some ideas:

  • Don’t get pregnant until you’ve done something with a long trail: a project that generates passive income, royalties, or commissions; investments that generate income; some kind of intellectual work that interested people are slowly but surely passing around, constantly bringing in emails from people who want to work with you; a company you can sell but retain a percent ownership in. Or, at very least, a reputation that brings clients to you without having to advertise, and where they want you enough that you can set the terms. (If you can figure this out in less than 5 years, I’ll be fantastically impressed. Start early.)
  • Keep your resume going by doing something, even if it’s one hour a week, all the time. The obvious answers are freelancing and consulting. Set up a shop and only take on one client at a time. Other people want you? Tell them there’s a queue for your services. You’ll seem very busy even if you only work Sundays from 12-6 while your partner takes the kid to their mother’s.
  • If you do the above, get documentation and testimonials from everything you do. You wrote a report that helped Scranton Nuts and Bolts increase online orders by 45%? Write an abstract to this report that you can make public without giving away the client’s secrets. Get a quote from the business owner, and/or get data that you can make into charts, to accompany the abstract. If you have to anonymize your clients, still get the data. Sometimes I visit some expert’s blog and read 6 posts before realizing they were written 8-10 months apart, and that this person barely blogs. That’s actually okay — I just read enough to realize that that person knows what they’re talking about. The more you document your work — the more media you can present — the more you can make one small client job here and there look like a serious consulting practice.
  • If you work full-time but have decided to leave, can your full-time job keep you on as a consultant? Maybe it’s a nominal amount of money — for $200 a month, you do up to a certain number of hours of phone consulting. Or maybe it’s a more robust gig where you actually work on projects. But you keep that tether.
  • Present your greatly reduced working life as an intellectual advantage. While other people are rush-rush-rushing, too busy in the day-to-day to really think, you’re the one taking a step back, surveying new research in the field, and developing genuinely new insights. Your slower pace means more depth of thought. In reality, if you have something brilliant to say or offer, people don’t care if it took you two years or twelve.
  • Whitepapers. I have often written that people lose their shit for whitepapers. You can write an amazing blog post and maybe people link to it, but if you develop an amazing whitepaper, people download or print these out and present them to their bosses in meetings. Totally different. You don’t get paid for writing whitepapers on your own, but — as per the previous point about gaining an intellectual advantage — one whitepaper every six months (followed by a press release to the appropriate websites and trade magazines) is plenty to maintain a level of expertise. I think you could even employ this idea if you’re not an elite in an elite field. Say you have an associates’ degree in business management and after school you ended up working at Best Buy. If you dug out your old textbooks and wrote a series of one-pagers about improving customer service (and published them on your site, happy-zen-data-driven-customer-service.com or whatnot), I’ll bet you a bunch of Best Buy (and Starbucks, and Old Navy) managers would print that shit out and post in on breakroom walls and read aloud from it at the morning huddle. And then when you get back in the game, you’re pitching yourself as a manager.
  • Slowly work on a book. Insist that you’re on “book leave.” The baby is merely a red herring.
  • Research. You don’t have to be an academic to do research. You are researching your invention-in-progress and prior patents on similar inventions. You are researching the psychology of getting consumers to click on what you want them to. You are researching what neuroscience has to say about learning better and faster, which you will then incorporate into the summer learning program you start. You are researching different cultures’ ideas about how and when and in what conditions you should sleep, because that’s just interesting and could probably get you a book deal.
  • Pitch ridiculous stuff. Send emails to the Bill Gates Foundation about a great idea you have. Suggest lunch with Sara Blakely. Suggest to literary agents that you can produce the next Eat, Pray, Love, if only your entire expedition will be funded by the literary agency. Make your proposals so outrageous and wonderful that if one of them came through, it would be worth selling the TV to get childcare if you had to. (See Bullish: 3 Tips for Pitching Your Dream Gig.)
  • Invent something. There is nothing wrong with developing products and business ideas that appeal primarily to women (see: Spanx), but make sure you are thinking big (see Bullish: Are You Thinking Too Small?) Selling handmade goods online will not generally convince anyone that you are continuing your career unless you have a strong brand, a plan to expand beyond hand-making, and a plan to distribute your goods much more widely. (The bit in Orange is the New Black about a couple of dilettantes getting handmade soap and lotion into Barney’s is the entrepreneurship equivalent of Monica and Rachel’s giant NYC apartment in Friends.) People understand that it can take many years to work on an invention. No one will hold it against you if it took eight years to get your product right.
  • Plant the seeds in your contacts’ minds now: “Sometime in the next decade, I’d like to work for/with you.” Say this to people even well outside your industry. Say it to competitors in the sense that, in ten years, you may not be competitors: “It’s always so interesting to talk to you. Someday I hope we get to work together on something.” When you’re ready for a full-time job, that idea should have been on slow burn in the minds of your contacts for years. It shouldn’t look like you’ve been professionally asleep and just woke up and had the whimsical idea that you would like to hop back on the job train.
  • Network like a motherfucker. (Come up with your story ahead of time – you run your own consulting firm, you’re working on a book, you’re researching best practices in such-and-such…). Maybe you check the local business events calendar and go to whatever is during a time you can get childcare. Maybe you send intelligent emails to experts and propose coffee dates (see Bullish: The Nerdy, Reflective Person’s Guide to Networking). Maybe you work with your partner to enable you to go to one big conference a year, and you really make it count by reaching out to people online beforehand and following up diligently with all your new contacts afterwards. Keep in touch with your old work friends. Send them links to articles related to their business. Confine your complaints (babies leak out of every orifice, basically all the time) to a couple of good friends and your mother. Everyone else gets chipper emails with links to articles on the Harvard Business Review.
  • Make it your partner’s job to assist you in the above. One person takes the career hit, it’s the other person’s job to try to mitigate the damage. Sure, if you’re a surgeon and your partner’s a mechanic, there may be only so much your partner can do (but don’t mechanics fix cars for all kinds of people?) But I still think it’s an obligation. At a party? Whenever the conversation veers towards what kind of baby food the baby is eating, it’s your partner’s job to find a way to fit in, “Phoebe’s great at all the mom stuff, of course, but then again, she’s an organizational master. I can’t imagine what her old job is doing without her,” or “Fortunately the baby is now eating pretty much what we eat, so Phoebe has more time to get back to her research. How do you find time to advance your career when life gets busy?”

In last week’s Bullish: What’s Your Business Model?, I mentioned Tim Ferriss’s thought experiment: What would you do if you could only work two hours a week? When I wrote about that, I didn’t know I’d be revisiting the topic again so soon, but it’s very relevant here. If you don’t have two hours a week to work smartly and strategically regardless of circumstance, I don’t see how you can do American capitalism.

I hope the above ideas have been helpful and motivational, and perhaps also made you angry about the American system of doing things. I love the Swedes. I think we should bring some of them in to help us run our country.

There were a few positive notes in the NYTimes piece:

A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.

I’m betting you don’t have to be in the superelite to make this, or something better, a reality.

First published on The Gloss.