Ask Polly: Should I Have a Baby or Establish My Career First?

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Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. Photo: Mary Evans/Everett Collection

Dear Polly,

I am a 27-year-old woman happily married for the last two years, living in a great home. I've been actively building the life I've always dreamed of, but I have a steady, corporate job at a bank, which I feel absolutely nothing for. What's worse, my manager retired and I hate my new boss, so my easy, secure job is now the seventh circle of hell. Every day, I dread walking into my building and feel like a total failure who is wasting away her life with every passing heartbeat.

Now I only want to start a family. But I feel that if I do, I will never go back to work, nor will I figure out what I want to do with myself career-wise. I'm looking for a new job at the same company, but my heart isn't in it because I'm not interested in the industry and I'd still be an anonymous and invisible employee of an enormous corporation. But I'm afraid of leaving because this job has great benefits, especially when it comes to maternity leave. I would leave for a "dream job," but I have no idea what that is. My real dream is to be the parent who works from home or for herself.

As far as careers go, I can see myself as an interior designer, or in the hospitality industry, or maybe as some kind of broadcast journalist. I am creative and I love to write. I often consider going back to school for broadcast journalism (a four-year program), but I will surely be pregnant by/before graduation. And then what, the degree goes on hold while I build my family? I read a lot about women and careers and feel that, by now, I should have a job I can "lean in" to, so that when I bow out and become a parent, I have a good career foundation established. I also feel that if I want to have any semblance of a career while juggling family, I should probably be pregnant yesterday so that I'll only be in my 40s when my kids are 18. I have considered starting a small business I could handle part-time, but I can't invest the time since I only have evenings and weekends to get anything done.

I feel plagued by all the things I should be doing with my career life before getting pregnant. Should I move on to a different, less-shitty corporate job, then get pregnant? Should I take the time to really figure out what I want to do for work, then pursue it fully? Should I quit my job to set up a small side-business before I'm pregnant or invest in this venture only on evenings and weekends? Should I just get pregnant soon-ish, roll the dice, see where the career chips fall?

My husband works for small companies and we rely on my job for the banking perks and job security, but he's supportive of anything I wish to do. He just wants me to decide and to commit. I have no idea what to decide, and I am so scared of committing. I have asked this same question to my friends, peers, elders, and family. Everyone's answers vary: (1) Don't get pregnant while you hate your job, you'll be so hormonal and emotional, and pregnancy is supposed to be a happy time; (2) Get pregnant while you're at this job and milk it for all it's worth; (3) Quit your job altogether and find out what you want to do.

No one understands the variables — that we cannot afford to lose my job, that I need to work here until I have something new, that I don't actually give a fuck about finding something new, because I don't want to work, I want to be at home with babies. I feel like it's a crime to say this out loud. I feel judged and judge myself harshly when I say this. I am a smart and capable woman who should have a meaningful career, and if I don't, I’m not a smart, capable woman, I'm just a parent. I feel so much pressure to be the career woman who has it all, I worry that by having a family I'll never have a career, and I feel plagued by the fact that I don't honestly care enough about building a career, because all I want is to make a beautiful home and raise a beautiful family with my beautiful husband. But then in ten years, maybe I will regret not having been more career-focused.

All I do is imagine other women's lives and wonder how they managed it all. More than anything, I am paralyzed by fear. I can't even address what pregnancy and childbearing themselves would mean to my marriage, my body, my house, my mental health, etc. I wish I did not have to multitask or juggle all this. I wish I was allowed to just be a woman who wants to get pregnant, I wish I could trust myself to figure it all out, I wish I could stop judging myself, I wish I had even an inkling as to which to choose — career or baby?

Help!

Career or Baby

Dear Career or Baby,

It looks like you've unknowingly stumbled on the mantra of the working mother. Akin to Bill Murray's nihilistic rallying cry of "It just doesn't matter!" from Meatballs, the working mother repeats to herself, over and over, "There is no satisfactory solution! There is no satisfactory solution!" It's one part "There's no place like home!" and two parts "There's no milk in the fridge, and I'm on deadline!"

At this very minute, in fact, my husband is across the country at a conference, and I am sitting next to a pile of ten books I need to read for various assignments. My kids are at a friend's house, but they'll be home soon, and they wrote "park" and "tee party" on the calendar for the day. See? There is no satisfactory solution. Go to the park and have a tea party and worry about work the whole time, or make the kids play by themselves all afternoon and feel like a neglectful mother? As a working parent, you often feel like you have to choose between neglecting your career or spending too little time with your kids. You're always burning the candle at both ends, pissing into the wind, and robbing the cat to pay the dog. But — casting aside the feminist layers of this issue for a moment — this state of affairs is not impossible and terrible and lamentable, necessarily, it's simply WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE IT ALL.

Because having it all, by its very nature, implies that you have a lot more than you can handle. Who can handle "it all," anyway? "ALL" IS A WHOLE FUCKING HELL OF A LOT. If you have some kids and a career and you don't have big piles of cash and a staff of five, you're going to be busier and more conflicted than you've ever been before. Okay, even with the money and the staff you'll be busy and conflicted.

So why not just say fuck the career and just have the baby? Why not just say to hell with kids and pursue a career you love instead? Why try to have "it all" at all? Here's why: Because having a great career is the best and having babies is fucking incredible and having both is AMAZING, and no I'm not kidding, not even a little bit.

Choose both. Choose the career AND choose the baby. Don't put off one for the other. Choose both now and later and accept that you'll be juggling for years no matter what you do. Even if you never have a career, you're going to feel like you're juggling. Parents juggle. Why not juggle things you love? Sure, you'll have to work hard and make some sacrifices. Accept it and move forward.

Because even though you keep saying you "don't want to work," you "just want to have beautiful babies," I read that as the temporary sentiment of someone who's trapped in a job she hates. I know plenty of happy housewives, but they're naturally low-key people for the most part, not people who send rambling three-page letters to advice columnists. Based on the racing, anxious rhythms of your letter, I really don't think you fit the happy-housewife profile. I think you're imagining that "downshifting" to raise beautiful babies is a little bit like an extended vacation, a little breast-feeding and cooing and one gorgeous photo op after another. If your husband and maybe an in-law are around after the baby is born (strongly recommend!), your maternity leave will feel luxurious and relaxing. But day-to-day life at home alone with an infant is a particular kind of challenge, one that, based on my personal observations, suits maybe one out of ten women well. Personally, I love babies a lot, but I need a little bit of time each day to think and write and be alone and get shit done. It's easy enough to get obsessed with having babies when you love your husband, love your house, hate your job, and don't know what else you'd want to do instead. But I would strongly recommend that you not make the choice to have a baby sooner simply because it offers the best one-way ticket away from corporate purgatory.

You need to address your career situation separately instead of throwing it into the mix of having kids and then summing it all up as impossible. You already know for a fact that you don't want a job in corporate banking. That's never going to change. I would make a plan to quit within the next year. I would make a plan to save money and scale back your spending. I would commit to exercising once a day, to keep your spirits up and tackle your anxious nature. I would put your ideas about your new career on paper. I would talk to people who do what you want to do for a living. I would take action, and yes, maybe dedicate nights and weekends to figuring it out.

Okay, and what is this horse shit about keeping your job for the banking perks? The fact that you even put those words to paper tells me that you aren't seeing clearly. Do you want to wake up five years from now and say to yourself, "Well, I was miserable for a long time, but fuck, those banking perks were really something"?

You have to get very calm and practical and you have to move forward, one step at a time, without panicking. You know what you want already: You want a career, you want a baby, and you want a job you can do from home. You want a home-based business. You also mention broadcast journalism, but honestly that particular route sounds like a stressful crapshoot for you given your strong desire to have a family soon. Four years of school and then you're either a local anchor or you're traveling for stories or you're sitting at home with babies, looking at your degree on the wall? This is obviously my personal take on it, but most people won't give you any kind of opinion on a job you might want to do, so I'm going to step up to the plate and Be That Asshole: This doesn't sound like a good fit for you given your current desire for a good work/life balance, nor does it sound like some kind of lifelong dream you'll die if you don't pursue. If it is, then disregard everything I've written here and fucking go for it.

It's understandable but also a big mistake to read 15,000 articles about How Women Can't Have It All and then think yourself into a deep dark hole over how you'll ever pull it off. In this case — and so many others — fixating on The Big Picture will only drag you under. (To be clear, I love Anne-Marie Slaughter's article on this subject, because I think she points out a lot of the bullshit assumptions so many of us hold dear: That child care is somehow a women's issue and not a parents' issue, for example.)

The hysteria around these choices is off the charts. People will say, "Oh lots of parents regret having kids, they just don't tell you about it." Or "Working women are miserable" or "Kids with working mothers are anxious and unhappy" or "Kids will destroy your career" or "If you can't give your children every ounce of your energy you shouldn't have kids at all" or "You can't be a real artist and have kids" and all kinds of other completely black-and-white, fearful, conflicted nonsense. I'm not inside other people's heads, but the close friends I have who are in good marriages (like yours) and have kids AND engaging careers are some of the happiest people I know.

So listen: You'll deal with problems as they come up. The problems come up every day, and the problems change every millisecond. Babies and toddlers are two different species of animal, and schoolkids are in some ways more high-maintenance than babies OR toddlers. There will be many challenges along the way, and there will be plenty of solutions, too. Some of them might even feel satisfactory for a second or two.

One other thing: Being pregnant makes you irritable and ambitious at the same time. Use that energy to fuel your new business. Once you stop feeling hung-over around the clock, you're going to want to conquer new terrain and strangle anyone who tells you to "relax" with your bare hands. During my first pregnancy, I channeled this energy into writing scathing TV reviews. During my second pregnancy, I wrote a book. I couldn't sleep so I woke up at 4 in the morning and wrote. I know this vision is just as idealistic and misleading as any other, and every story is different. I just want you to know that I, personally, was amazed at how much more energetic I was as a pregnant lady. I often said to my husband, "Whatever this drug is, I wish I could take it FOREVER." (Then I probably said something like, "Go get me some nachos or I'll bust your knees in with this tire iron.")

Save now to hire a nanny if your husband can't take paternity leave. And don't say, "Women have been dealing with infants on their own for centuries." Women have been treated like chattel for centuries, too. Living in a village full of women is a far cry from haunting a house in the suburbs with an adorable little alien who turns into a screaming banshee for mysterious reasons every few hours. Find a way to get help. FIND A WAY. LOTS OF HELP. The biggest mistake new mothers make is telling themselves, "I should be able to handle this all by myself." Bullshit. You should do what you need to do to take care of yourself and not send yourself off a fucking cliff emotionally. Babies have no use for parents whose nerves are frayed to the point of no return, and babies are biologically designed to fray nerves like a motherfucker because it guarantees that their needs will get met.

So look, I could write an entire book on this subject — a terrible, highly subjective book. Most parents could. All I want to tell you is that you can have a baby and have a career and yes, I think it's very smart to want both and to go for both. Should you wait to have the baby? Maybe set up the business and get it going first, yes. I wouldn't wait that long — either to quit, or to start your business, or to have babies. I don't think you can be insanely strategic about the timing of kids. It's great to have a good marriage and know what you want when you're young and full of steam. But for those who aren't there yet, I'm 45 and I have a 6-year-old, and that's great, too. My husband and I both have established, flexible careers and that makes parenting feel much less exhausting and lonely. There are advantages and disadvantages to every timeline.

Bottom line: I was so fearful. But throwing my energy into both my kids and my career turned out so much better than I ever thought it could. And I became much more focused and ambitious after I had kids. I valued my time more. I used my time more wisely. All of the time I used to spend questioning myself and worrying about the big picture is now spent doing dishes and folding little dresses. A lot of the working mothers I know feel the same way.

You're smart and ambitious and you're sensitive to feeling like you're wasting your time. You sound like someone who will need to work at least part-time for the rest of her life, particularly once you find something that you really enjoy. Don't confuse your current lame job with the feeling of working at something that feels gratifying to you, where you complete projects from start to finish instead of just punching a clock every day. Imagine a full life and be true to that vision. Defend it. And put fear aside. You have one person with a steady job in the house. Don't panic. Look closely at your budget and make it work. (And go read The Two-Income Trap while you're at it.)

You can have it all. You may have to adjust the particulars of "IT" but trust me, "ALL" is what you want. It's exhausting and it's a balancing act and it's way too much for anyone to handle, ever. That's also what's so gratifying about it.

Polly


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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