In 2014, I received a series of very pleasant emails from a publisher suggesting that I might want to write a book. I was invited to come pitch.
I talked about how what I do at GetBullish is like Lean In, but for younger, quirkier women who don’t want to give themselves over to corporations. A lot of people like the idea of “leaning in,” but I strongly suspect they haven’t read the book.
In the very first chapter of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells us about working full-time (and what is full-time to Sheryl Sandberg? Sixty hours? Seventy?) during a horrific pregnancy. The tale involved throwing up into the Google toilets. That’s what you’re leaning into, I thought. It did not sound very sanitary.
The meeting went well. I took myself out to a fabulous lunch at a restaurant overlooking Columbus Circle.
And then I went home, retrieved my baby from the babysitter, took off my nice pants, and climbed into bed to breastfeed the tiniest, wrinkliest, snuggliest little eight-pound animal in the world. It was, as they say, a moment. I’ve spent a lot of my life doggedly pursuing physical freedom, not wanting to be told by a boss when to get up and where to sit; this seemed like an extreme version of winning that battle. (And why wear pants if you don’t have to?)
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a paean to letting go, or falling so in love with your baby you become a different person, or finding a “new normal.” Fuck that. Burn it in a fire.
I only enjoy fully wine, and babies, and travel, and breastfeeding in bed at 2pm on a weekday because I have already built businesses and run conferences, I occasionally make money in my sleep via my various websites, and I have constructed a social environment for myself in which absolutely no one says stupid shit to me like, “So, will you keep working?” or “Does your husband help out?” (Sometimes that means cutting certain people out entirely, and I’m fine with that. YMMV.)
If I had been raised in a kinder, more socialist democracy—in Sweden, say—I would be a different person. Someone who doesn’t say things like, “I only like relaxing on the beach when I feel I’ve earned it.” But I am this way because we live in a cutthroat capitalist system with little safety net. I would like to change that system. (And I’d like to mega-acknowledge that I’ve got various kinds of privilege allowing me to put my life together the way I have.) In the meantime, however, I can tell you a little bit about my version of having it all, and some tips for constructing your own well-designed “all.”
Note: The version of “having it all” portrayed in the media is generally a heterosexual woman with a husband, a career, and kids. I certainly disagree that that’s what everyone should want or does want! But this article is mostly about how to have an awesome life plus baby, since that’s more or less what I’m doing. I also feel super weird writing about myself in this way, but I also like to provide some counterbalance to the Internet lady-trend where we write a lot about our weaknesses. (Which is good too, but not personally where I’m planting my flag.) So here goes.
This is really basic: daycare. It’s great.
I had some unexamined prejudices against center-based daycare. I was nervous about dropping off my ten-month old at a rigorously childproofed center full of fun toys and baby friends where women with degrees in early childhood education would take care of my baby’s every need and provide me with written reports of all her eating, sleeping, and pooping.
The ten months prior to that, I’d spent patching together a work schedule that took place when a babysitter was in one part of my house and I was in another, or when my husband was home and I was in a coworking space. It was not good. I rarely saw my husband. I rarely went outside. I was not really a person. I had been de-personed. (This is precisely how I felt about pregnancy as well, but that’s a topic for another day.) If I had not spent the previous decade building up my business and professional credibility, everything would have fallen apart.
Daycare solved a lot of problems.
I really enjoy when the baby comes home having learned stuff I didn’t teach her. I mean, I don’t own her. I’m not planning to homeschool her from some religious book that no one’s allowed to contradict. She’s allowed to receive information from the world! One day I was reading a book with her and pointed to a picture of a cow. “MOO!” she shouted. I had no idea she knew that. Experimentally, I pointed to a sheep. “Baa,” she said thoughtfully. I pointed to the goat. She looked at me. “Yeah,” I said, “I don’t know either.”
I love my baby like crazy. She’s an individual—a quite distinct one—currently in the midst of a condition called “babyhood,” that requires special care of many kinds. Loving someone doesn’t require that you personally care for all their bodily needs. I mean, I also really love my mother. And if my mother needed full-time nursing care—as we may all some day—I’d absolutely want professional assistance. I certainly wouldn’t love her any less because I hired trained nurses who know how to turn someone over in bed and help them in the bathroom.
In a practical sense: We pay $1,550 a month (in Brooklyn). Which is quite a lot of money, which is one reason I’m suggesting one make plans for this as many years in advance as possible. Surprisingly, we had no trouble getting a spot; your mileage may vary.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the cost of daycare comes out of your paycheck exclusively, so you’re “working for practically nothing” or some shit like that. If you have a partner, then daycare is a shared expense. Half of it comes out of your paycheck and half out of his. You’re not the only one who needs child care in order to work. So does he.
If he can’t see that, well…
Pick the Right Partner: Don’t Fuck the Patriarchy
Don’t fuck someone who’s not a feminist. Certainly don’t marry someone who’s not a feminist. And for the love of unicorns, don’t coparent with someone who is not a feminist.
Let me be clear: there are some men who are pretty good feminists who don’t really call themselves that. There are some men who call themselves feminists only because they like women having the individual liberty to have sex with them. I’m talking about—if you’re into men—only getting together with men who 1) recognize structural oppression of all kinds, and 2) believe in actively dismantling it.
Getting together with a “nice guy” is not good enough. I’m deadly serious. “Nice” will get you through dating and coupling and nesting. But if you get pregnant, give birth, and breastfeed, you introduce a strong biological component into your relationship. (There are lots of other ways to make a family, and all of them are likely to, to some extent, activate ideas about gender roles that you’ve absorbed without meaning to, over your entire lifetime.) And then the weight of thousands of years of tradition and acculturation will hit you both, unless you are both actively committed to ending gender-based oppression.
Here is an example scenario: You marry a nice guy. You both work, and you split the housework. Everything’s great. You get pregnant. You talk about both continuing to work, but one or both of you have unexamined biases against professional childcare, and one or both of you were raised in an environment in which children were the woman’s domain, and it just so happens that, probably partially due to cultural and structural forces, you make less money. You cobble together some kind of maternity leave out of whatever options are available to you. Paternity leave is almost never a thing, though. You have the baby. You are hit by a ton of bricks. He does what he can—maybe even heroically—but has to go back to work after a few days. You settle into a pattern where you do all the baby stuff, so the baby becomes more comfortable with you. At some point, you look into childcare but the cost really hits you—especially if you’ve already taken a financial hit from a rough pregnancy and/or unpaid mat leave—and maybe this nice guy of yours says, “I don’t know about leaving our baby with a stranger,” and you wonder about going back to work and how you’re going to manage, and every structural inequality and microaggression and well-meaning assumption just piles up until all the sudden it “just makes sense” for you to stop working “for now” and “this is what works for our family” and there you are, wondering what the hell happened.
You avoid this by only dating feminists in the first place. You can also just practice good management skills by dividing the tasks roughly down the middle and not overseeing, micromanaging, or wasting energy on the tasks that aren’t yours. If your partner is the lead on diapering, he’ll do it however he pleases.
My husband does 50/50. It doesn’t matter who’s making more income at the moment (for the record, I made more when we met, then he made more when I was virtually incapacitated by pregnancy). He’s tired, but so am I; we’re equally tired. All that shit you read about “mommy brain” is probably what happens when the tiredness is unfairly distributed. He’s amazing.
Side note: Think twice before marrying someone—or having children with them—where your relationship is already “work”! I mean, unless you like that sort of thing, I guess. Because you’re about to add a lot more work.
Money ISn’t evil
I am infuriated by people who insist that money is evil, or can’t buy happiness. If you have enough money to think that, you never missed out on field trips or braces for lack of money as a kid, did you? (See Bullish: Social Class in the Office.) Money solves a vast number of the causes of unhappiness, which is pretty close to buying happiness. And, frankly, I’ve bought plenty of happiness directly.
I don’t think work-life balance applies to your launch phase of life (which is probably your twenties). If there’s going to be a phase of your life where you work little or not at all (because of a baby, for instance), there should probably be a phase of your life—when you’re young and full of energy—that you work sixty hours a week and get single-minded and cut out people dragging you down (here and here) and maybe you go in a room and code something (here and here) and don’t talk to anyone until it’s done. Saying maybe it’s good to work extra-hard in your twenties doesn’t necessarily mean just giving that extra time to a boss—it may mean a side hustle or night school or a startup or aggressively networking and seeking mentors or a future entrepreneurial plan ready for activation if your job turns to shit.
Years before having a baby, I wrote a somewhat sarcastic article about preparing for motherhood in a cutthroat capitalist economy. I suggested making twice as much money as you need before you have a baby, so you can make half as much after and be okay. Obviously, that’s a fucking challenge! But if you have time for a challenge, there you go. And I basically did do that. Once, a coworker asked why I was working so hard (this was at a company where I was paid hourly, so the more I worked, the more I made, in a very direct way). Society tells us that only “crazy” women say, “I might need to have a baby when I’m single, so I’m making sure I can make twice as much as I really need.” So I said, “I want to buy a Manhattan apartment.” But I got shit done.
If you’re interested in how, specifically, I did that in my field: I made sure, before having a baby, that I had my name on published works and products that people would continue to find (I have written or co-written many GMAT and GRE books and tools), even if I was just lying around my house, too pregnant to move. I made sure I had recurring and passive income, from profit sharing for a division of a company I helped found, and from digital downloads. I raised my hourly rates; when you do this, it’s possible to lose a few clients but still come out making the same amount of money in less time.
I strongly believe in cultivating quantifiable hard skills that don’t depend on whether people like you. Am I a good freelance writer? Depends on your tastes (freelance writing is, by the way, the world’s worst way to make money). Do I know how to run an online boutique retail store? Yes. I can demonstrate that via spreadsheet. Am I a good GRE coach? Yes. I can prove it with numbers and success stories. Anything can be quantified. Anything you do at a company is done for the purpose of ultimately making money. How much more money was made? By what percent were sales and profits increased? How many hours were saved? At the very least, you can count how many times you did something and that the somewhat subjective thing you did generated positive feedback on social media or from clients a hundred percent of the time.
If all of this sounds ridiculous—again, it would be ridiculous if we were Swedish. But I thank my twenty-eight-year-old self for setting me up, because I’m kind of tired now and couldn’t do some of the things she did.
Don’t flex yourself out
Flexibility is great, but don’t sacrifice too much income for it. Plenty of people have extremely flexible careers because they are freelancers who barely have any work.
It’s also possible to have a career that’s so flexible that it gets flexed into nonexistence when your partner makes more money and there’s childcare to take care of. You can work “anytime, from anywhere,” so your work time gets relegated to naptime (no word on when you get to eat or shower). It only gets worse from there. If you opt out (here’s one good argument for keeping irons in the fire even if you step back from working full-time), you are unlikely to re-enter the workforce at even the low level that caused you to drop out of it in the first place. (That is, by the way, one great thing Lean In got right—even if you only make enough at your job to cover day care, you’re not “working for nothing.” You’re building a career that will pay much more over the next twenty to forty years than it would if you had dropped out for the four plus years that daycare is an issue.)
A staggered schedule works well for me and my partner—he works a typical schedule, and many of my speaking and teaching engagements are in the evening—but it’s infinitely helpful to have something that has to start at exactly 6pm, in a conference center, as opposed to, “Can you hold this baby while I run to a coffeeshop and try to get something done?”
Flexibility is great, but not at the expense of large amounts of income. If you aggressively increase your income over a number of years, you can make yourself valuable enough that you can later arrange your work life as you please. Maybe not within certain U.S. corporations. You may have to start your own business, or you may end up taking on projects on a contract basis. But going it alone is a lot easier when you have savings, a strong network, and have a large and powerful network of people who know you’re worth what you charge.
Extreme Advance Planning
You’re not crazy to plan aggressively for an awesome—and very different—lifestyle in three or five (or more) years when you upend your life with kids, or in forty years when you want to raise alpacas in a ball gown or something. Some people who like to just “let things happen” may look askance. Do not be derailed.
Focus on high-profile wins. Get credit for your work. Have an entrepreneurial plan in your back pocket. Cut the crap out of your life, like watching TV shows you don’t care about. Pursue forms of pleasure that are really pleasurable but less time-consuming. Don’t let complacent friends and relatives dampen your drive. Love them and pleasantly ignore their advice.
The people who tell you you’re ridiculous, or you’re working too hard, or you should relax more when you’re twenty-five are the people who may change their opinions when shit gets complicated ten years later. Look, all the hard work you did in high school set you up for what you’re doing now, right? Do you wish you’d spend more time going to high school parties instead of studying? It’s the same thing. The nerds in high school win later in life. Your twenties are basically the high school of your thirties and beyond.
Also, I never thought I was a baby person, but babies are adorable and sometimes quite charming! They also benefit from you being in a permanently good mood from having enough money and wine and professional respect.
Obviously, my approach is not for everyone; this is just one woman’s how-I-did-it. My mission is to make clear some of the many ways to get from A to B, preferably with a little pep talk along the way. We live in a capitalist society that is often inhumane to its workers. Sometimes it takes extreme measures to be extra-humane to your future self.