Distressed Babies, Penelope Trunk, and Being a Woman in Business

Penelope Trunk isn’t afraid to say what she thinks, or maybe — a self-proclaimed aspie – she can’t help herself. While a lot of what she writes is quite controversial (often, seemingly, for the sake of being controversial and getting site traffic), sometimes she raises a good point.  If there’s honesty in her crazy then at least I can respect that, and her bravery for being public about it and not letting that hold her back as an entrepreneur. So she says.

In a still-relevant post from 2012 she writes “Get Pregnant at 25 if You Still Want a High-Powered Career” — she argues that women still want to work part-time or flexible hours while they have kids (esp young kids) and if they wait until they are 30 to have children (like I have) then this also comes at the time in one’s career when the top-level jobs often require frequent travel, long hours, and anything but the time any good parent would or should want with their children.

Even though it’s sexist to say, there’s truth that many (most?) full-time executive dads are married to stay-at-home wives. I don’t have the stats, but I assume not that many full-time executive moms are married to stay at home dads. It happens, but society has to change a lot to get there.

Trunk writes, “But here’s the truth for women: You should not plan your life so that you work until you’re 30 and then have kids, and also have a huge career. Because you will be taking care of kids during the very time when all the men you worked with are working harder and longer hours than ever before. Men who have kids are in a great position to climb the ladder. They have wives at home. Women cannot go full speed ahead until the kids are grown up.”

I hate the all-or-nothing talk because it’s not true. What works for one person might not work for the next. Trunk points to the heated Anne-Marie Slaughter Atlantic piece, also published in 2012, which notes women can’t have it all. Slaughter notes that if you want to have a huge career, have kids when you are 25 so your kids will be grown when you are 45, because there will still be time to have a huge career.

Oops. Missed that window. But I wouldn’t give up my career growth in my 20s for anything. While I’m still baffled by what I really want to do in life, I’ve done a lot compared to some people, and that makes me feel accomplished and also more confident in my own skin.

The experience itself is even less valuable logistically than the actual money I’ve been able to put away into my 401k, IRAs, and taxable funds to grow for my own retirement. Even though I’d love to get married to a partner who is financially stable, I feel it’s more important for women to focus on saving money and investing this money in their 20s than it is to rush into shacking up with the first man they meet and popping out three babies in prompt succession.

Trunk goes on to argue that 20-something women should date older men because – surprise – older men like younger women and women can snap up a partner who is financially secure (cough-gold digger-cough) and more likely to settle down and have kids sooner than later (ok I’ll accept that rational if you’re looking to pop one out before 25.)

The thing is, and trust me I’ve scoured the depths of the internet for answers on this one, there is never a GOOD time to have kids. But the entire human race has managed to do it anyway for a long time. Yes, times are changing and women are finally able to access more job opportunities previously only accessible to men, and women are trying to figure out if it’s possible to have it all. Well, it’s never possible to have it all. It depends what matters to you. The most important thing is to grow your networth so you have options. Not the other way around.

Penelope Trunk seems quite insane, the more I learn about her. One second she’s a prolific female entrepreneur-author (the type you want to cheer on), the next she’s telling you to get an MBA right out of college because it’s a great place to meet eligible men to marry by 25 and have babies with, and the next she’s sharing intimate details of domestic violence in her household and tweeting about miscarriages and abortions DURING board meetings. I don’t meant to make light about any claims of domestic violence (I grew up in a household filled with it), or argue that talking about issues that occur during pregnancy, such as obviously unplanned miscarriages, are challenges for women who are still working full-time jobs before their leave, but something about her stories comes across as a bit desperate for attention.

My blog, however, repeats the same topics because my life is rather boring. I’m sure some of the people who encounter my blog might initially think I’m as crazy as Trunk but the difference between myself and her is that I still have some sort of a filter. She takes pride in not having one. I guess that’s her shtik and it’s working for her, having founded four startups and written a few books. Well, whatever works. Go get’em girl.

But Sellinger’s old piece speaks a little more true. She had a great job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, and after 18 months the frequent calls from school about her misbehaving teenage son sent her packing back home (she was living away from home during the week while her husband was taking care of the kids, and apparently couldn’t handle their issues himself.) So, after two years, she quit her job and went back to her full-time-plus work-load that at least generally kept her on the ground near her children.

I’m not sure if men and women naturally have different desires to be near their children (some of it’s nurture, some nature, probs), but when I think about having kids, I think about having time to spend with my kids. I think about being there for them for their sports games or school plays. When they had a rough day at school and need a shoulder to cry on. I really, really want to somehow be a good parent. Or at least one that is is present, a good listener, and as non judgmental as I can be.

I didn’t grow up WANTING to be a mother, but I didn’t grow up wanting to be an early-stage startup employee either. Work-life balance, whatever that is, these days just doesn’t exist for most jobs, unless you’re an hourly employee lucky enough to charge a high rate. In a capitalistic society, whether you work for a startup or huge international corporation, profits come first, second, and third. You are worth only as much as what you add to the company and if someone else can add more for the same cost, why not replace you?

It sounds the same in government, or worse.

Sellinger writes, “Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-highest job in the department, to spend more time at home with her three children, two of whom are teenagers. Karen Hughes left her position as the counselor to President George W. Bush after a year and a half in Washington to go home to Texas for the sake of her family. Mary Matalin, who spent two years as an assistant to Bush and the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney before stepping down to spend more time with her daughters, wrote: ‘Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.'”

The latest hubhub about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong ranting about how he had to cut 401k plans because of “two distressed babies” (costing the company over $1M each in insurance/medical fees) on a company call shows just how little capitalism cares about life.

In Washington, “leaving to spend time with your family” is a euphemism for being fired, writes Sellinger.

I guess when it comes down to it I’m still struggling with the whole concept of being a career women. Sellinger points out that the women at the top of government and and technology are superwomen – from Rhodes Scholars to Pulitzer Prizes winners to receivers of Harvard’s top prize for economics study. I’m no superwomen. I’m just an average person who sees problems/inefficiencies intuitively and wants to help fix them. Maybe that’s another way for saying I’d actually make a good mother. Is it so terrible if I, in my 30s, make a decision to leave Silicon Valley, settle somewhere more affordable, get a job that enables some more flexibility to have the type of family I think I want? I just don’t have this hunger to be CMO or CEO. But I’ve come so far at 30 it feels wrong to stop now.

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4 thoughts on “Distressed Babies, Penelope Trunk, and Being a Woman in Business”

  1. Excellent post. I too, don’t believe in this all or nothing thing, but then again I started my freelancing career quite young and the older I get, the better my chances are.

    I wanted to be a career woman but not where I rise to the top as a manager or a CEO. I abhor responsibility of others. I am not interested in any of that. I just want to do my job that I love doing (being a consultant) and stay (down) where I am rather than rising in the ranks.

    It is not because I’m a woman and I want to raise children or spend time with my family, it’s more that I want to feel free and not stressed out by having to manage others (read: babysit).

    Lots of people feel like this — even my partner who was a high-ranking manager before his current job, feels like this and doesn’t want to be a manager if he can help it.

    The only small point I want to say is in regards to this:

    The latest hubhub about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong ranting about how he had to cut 401k plans because of “two distressed babies” (costing the company over $1M each in insurance/medical fees) on a company call shows just how little capitalism cares about life.

    This has to be clarified for non-Americans or even Americans who aren’t used to universal healthcare, but in my experience living in the U.S.:

    Your healthcare premiums / costs are INSANE.

    You pay 16% of your GDP and Canada pays 10% (with universal healthcare). Somewhere, healthcare providers are taking a huge margin and it’s being passed on to companies and subsequently employees.

    $1M each baby is a lot of money, but not if you think about how inflated your healthcare costs are compared to the rest of the world, considering the quality of care you receive versus what you pay.

    I can see his point even if I don’t agree with it or like it.

    I am not saying Canada is perfect, but as another example, an ambulance in the U.S. costs about $1000. In Canada, it’s around $350. 3X the cost?

    And for what?

    1. Yes healthcare is expensive in the US because it’s privately owned. But that doesn’t excuse the AOL comments. AOL choses to self insure because it’s cheaper for them and they are supposed to keep their employee’s medical records private. A capitalist CEO like Armstrong would surely be supportive of private insurance, and as a self-insurer I bet the company can actually end up saving more money if they have a year where there employees file less claims then expected.

    2. Quite. Not sure what ambos cost in NZ, have never needed one, but I believe it’s under $100. The ER is free – hence why I much prefer dealing with accidents/emergencies, because going to the doctor is costly and appointments usually end up being a couple days in the future (personally I’ve never needed the ER but T has been 3/4 times in the years we’ve been together).

  2. Penelope is certainly not the most perhaps stable individual, that much is clear. But she speaks truth, IMO, almost all the time. I’m a big fan overall.

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