Feminism, Motherhood and a Demanding Career

I timed the birth of my first child to coincide with the end of my company’s fiscal quarter. I did this so that I would only lose one quarter’s worth of commissions, instead of two.

I was already using rubber bands to “button” to my work pants when I reluctantly admitted to my boss I was pregnant. It was during a business lunch and the discussion turned toward the upcoming year. He was telling me how well I was doing, and that if I could just work a little harder I was on target to win the coveted award. The look on my face betrayed me because when I said nothing, he said, “What’s wrong? Wait! Let me guess, you’re pregnant.” Then the look on his face betrayed him because I clearly detected disappointment.

While pregnant I suffered from such severe edema due to extensive air travel, I developed carpel tunnel in both wrists and had to wear compression socks every time I flew to minimize the swelling in my legs. When I was 36 weeks pregnant I attended a five-day meeting across the country without my OB/Gyn’s full consent. At that stage in my pregnancy my blood pressure was spiking so I snuck out of meetings to borrow the hotel’s blood pressure cuff to monitor myself.

My daughter ended up coming two weeks shy of quarter’s end and while holding my hours-old newborn in one arm, I used the other to close deals from my Blackberry.

On my twelve week maternity leave, that paid me a fraction of my working wage, I sent and received emails. My boss sent me one obscure message, the text was simply the dollar amount of my current quota deficit. The message was obscure, but the subtext was clear–he wanted me to make my quota. This was a week after I gave birth. In those twelve weeks of leave I attended a surgical case I couldn’t get covered and a lunch meeting that had been scheduled for months.

On my first business trip post baby, when my daughter was 4 months old, I paid to have my mother-in-law go with me. I was breastfeeding and didn’t want to leave her for that long. When my daughter was five months, I had no choice but to leave her for over a week. I pumped on the airplane–I excused myself during meetings and dinners and had the hotel’s kitchen store my milk in their freezer for the trip home. Soon after I got home I stopped breastfeeding all together because it was just too hard.

Pre-kid I ran in several social, work circles. I stayed up late telling jokes with the men. I commiserated with the ladies. But when I became a mom, there was a whole other crowd I didn’t know existed because they talked in hushed tones and you had to also be a mom to be included. All we talked about was how to manage a work-life balance in this competitive career. Sadly, no one was truly honest, including me. Everyone was too afraid to admit that they weren’t doing it very well, or at all.

One of the only woman managers in my division was pregnant with her third child at the exact same time as me. She gave birth days after I did. When I saw her at the week-long meeting when we were both five months postpartum I asked her how she was doing because her job was nearly 100% travel. She was Fed Ex-ing her breast milk home to her nanny and unemployed husband. She was also wound tighter than an eight day clock.

I need not tell you that a high-end sales job is competitive. No matter what management says to placate you, the reality is you are as valuable as your last quarter’s percent to quota and if you are only 99% committed to your job, there’s a never-ending stack of resumes beckoning to make up that extra 1%.

“You can do anything you put your mind to.” They all told me while I was growing up. The message was: You can have a career and a family and you can be happy because countless women before you sacrificed so you don’t have to. Pre-children, when my life was myopic and focused primarily on my own needs, I believed them. Then colic and ear infections and late-night ER visits blew my monocular lens to shit in less than a year and my world became a prism of shaky, fractured focus.

I do not mean that I couldn’t work and also be a mother. That is do-able and is being done quite well all over the country. What I mean is, I couldn’t have a demanding, high-minded career and move up the ladder into a leadership position and be a mother. The sacrifices to my family life were too great and were never ones I was willing to make. Ever.

I enjoyed working for the stimulation, accomplishment and rewards it afforded me. I was quite good at my job, too. But like every new mother my priorities and focus shifted. Before I filed a lawsuit for discrimination I was willing to take a step down and back to spend more time with my family, but economics and a crappy real estate market momentarily forbade it. But we already know how that story ended when the decision was made for me by a methodical and deliberate derailment of my career.

That derailment began when I recommended a colleague to a sales position in an adjacent territory to mine. I recommended her because she had an excellent reputation, intimate knowledge of the competition, and came with impeccable references from our clients. She happened to live in the territory she would cover and was wanting to transition. She was 37, had 10 years of medical sales experience and two children. Instead, my boss hired a 27-year-old man, from another state, with zero sales experience, (but hey, he played football for my boss’ favorite college!).

I obscurely questioned his motives, but my subtext was clear, and that turned out to be the first “mistake” in a long line of “mis-steps” in standing up for myself.

Despite all the ground-breaking work of Gloria Steinem et al, the choice between professional goals and family life are choices that are still required mostly of women. Largely because of these choices and requirements, women in leadership positions are dismal by comparison.

“Women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at 15, 16 percent.”  ~Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook

I did make the ultimate choice to have children. This is true. And for that, I apparently, (unknowingly) sacrifice any high-end career goals I might have had in my chosen profession because the competitive environment is not conducive to taking a step back to raise a family.

Although the latest generation of fathers (my husband included) are much more involved in the raising of children, you still don’t see many men foregoing a family to focus on their career or vice versa. In fact, as I write this, every male supreme court justice has a family while two out of the three women on the bench, do not. The third, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, began her judicial career after her son was grown. Condoleezza Rice is the only woman to hold the position of national security advisor and is the only national security advisor not to have a family since the 1950’s.

And must I mention Oprah… again?

These things are just not acceptable to our society anymore.  Female representation among the highest ranking careers in the country, in particular, our government, is imperative. How else will our voices be heard? How else will these impossible choices stop being primarily a woman’s choice to make?

I’m not implying that having a child should involve zero sacrifices to a woman’s career. I was willing to sacrifice breastfeeding, extra assignments, vacation time, money and whole host of things for the sake of my family. I’m saying that the sacrifice of having a family should not be placed so squarely on the woman’s shoulders alone. There are burdens that companies can take on too that will alleviate the need for impossible choices like, not having children, waiting to have children, or the deliberate and painful derailment of a career in a competitive industry.

As I see it, this is mostly a systemic and societal issue–one that needs to be addressed by changing mindsets and attitudes toward the value of family versus the value of money, or achievement or getting one step ahead, faster.

I know that I am privileged. I know that I have choices many women reading this may not have. I get that. But if very few women are capable of reaching and sustaining a career at the highest levels of leadership, then how can that be good for all women?

It’s not a trick question–it can’t.

I have never considered myself a “feminist.” I have been contented to keep my head down, keep working, and roll with the punches that life hands me while not being a victim of my circumstances, including my gender. But I can’t anymore. Not after this non-feminist found herself in the middle of a sexual discrimination lawsuit against a company that specializes in women’s health. How’s that for irony?

If this can happen to me, then it can happen to anyone.

As I write this my former company’s executive management list consists of eight men and zero women–and this is a company that manufactures and sells medical products EXCLUSIVELY for women. There is something inherently wrong with that equation.

Now, I believe it’s my obligation to use my voice to stand up for all women who face impossible choices, no matter which economic or educational stratosphere they inhabit or how many kids they choose to have. Because feminism isn’t anti-men, it isn’t even about women’s liberation and rights anymore. It’s about having choices and making sure society supports those choices. By doing that, society recognizes the invaluable, irreplaceable contribution women make to our families, the board room, and our world as a whole, and that is something I can get behind.

*The statistics recited in this article, and the inspiration to write it, are from the recent, thought-provoking op-ed, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter published in The Atlantic.

Hot Lava

I swipe a burp-clothe-gloved hand under each breast to wipe away the slick, soupy mess that has accumulated there. I have always had large breasts, but since my milk came in, they overwhelm me.  It’s the hottest summer on record in the Pacific Northwest and in the 25 1/2 days since my daughter was born we haven’t had a single drop of rain. Like most people here, we don’t have air conditioning because this type of weather isn’t typical.

Our thermostat has read 98 degrees in the upstairs of our home for several days. The kitchen and her nursery are up there. As much as possible, she and I have been holed up in the basement during the day with the lights out, shades drawn, fans blowing… alone. The sound of the fans help us sleep, what little we’re getting.

There is not one inch of me that is not swollen and prickly from heat, shifting fat and spiking hormones. I would go naked but I don’t like to see my stomach like this so I wear a cotton maternity nightgown and a milk-stained nursing bra. I would go bra-less but I need absorbent pads because I leak when she cries, which is a lot.

It started two weeks after we got home—the no sleeping and crying. It was just long enough for family to leave town and just short enough not to catch my breath. It’s been a struggle finding air ever since.

She is my first and she reduces me to my elements.

My hands feel more like claws, tight and harsh next to new skin and I fear breaking her little body because I think I already broke her spirit. I don’t know why she cries. I’m sure it’s something I am doing, or not doing, or worse, can’t do. I think she can sense through her raw nerves and involuntary reflexes that I’m no good at this. Maybe that’s why she cries? A desperate plea for rescue and comfort?

I think that’s why I cry.

I think I cry because I sense that I’m on the edge of something hot and deep like that time we flew over the mouth of a volcano on our honeymoon in Hawaii. Up until that moment I had never seen anything as awe-inspiring and soul-shifting as those guts of Mother Earth. Looking into her atomic glow made my cheeks burn and my eyes water. Just like now. Knowing I was relatively safe in the helicopter I was intrepid. I wanted to fly closer, as close as possible without risking anything. Unlike now.

Now I’m not intrepid; I’m terrified. I’m scared that instead of amazing and beautiful the guts of this mother are deadly. I don’t want to fly any closer. I want to go home.

Before I can even feel that feeling I snap back into the reality that I already am.

My sweaty, bloated body with its milk and its weight is lying in this darkened basement and although I might wish for it, I am not alone, nor will I ever be again. The heat of this life is inside me now, in my breasts and my bones that are shifting back into place and also, especially in this baby. She’s a piece of me broken off, tossed up and flung outward upon the world in a burst of molten lava.

She flows and rips back to the center of me with every breath, expanding my world one inhalation at a time and now I will never breathe the same again…nor do I want to.

Easily Forgotten, Remembered Always

Image credit- aswirly.com

It was just before midnight on that muggy August night.

My windows were down. I took the winding back roads so that I could take my time, turn the radio up, and remember the feeling of the hot wind of my hometown one last time. The back of my year-old SUV contained all the belongings from two years of a desk job. On the seat next to me, a fruit salsa I made for my own going-away party. I was warm from all the things, the air, the love, the beer.

Life was good– an all-time high in fact. The next day was my last day of work for a month. Hours after I would walk out the door one last time, I would be on plane headed toward a month-long adventure that included a mountain wedding, Tahiti, a cross-country road trip, and a new home in a new city with the man I’d been dating for a year.

Floating through those pitch-black back roads, I chose Stevie Nicks to serenade me. A contented smile was scrawled across my face from the simultaneous satisfaction of a job well done and an awesome new chapter just beginning–a rare, transcendent, perfect moment.

I was almost home. One turn into the subdivision and another into my parent’s driveway and I would be there. As I prepared to make that familiar turn an unfamiliar rabbit-shaped missile shot over the hill in front of me. It was the single most paradoxical moment in my life. Never before or since have I free-falled so fast from one state of emotion to another.

If I close my eyes I can still see it under the orange glow of the street lights; steely grey, rabid, wild-eyed. It was coming for me and I knew it. It covered a football field’s distance in less than three seconds. I would learn later that the rate of impact was 86 mph.

I had time for two things; gripping the wheel a little tighter and the realization that my life was about to change forever.

In the time it took me to blink there were shards of metal, glass, plastic, fluid and fruit salsa all around me. I heard the unworldly sound of all these things breaking at once. I was no longer facing the direction I thought I was going; home, work, an airplane. I was facing a darkened road, my car horn stuck in a permanent state of panic and Stevie still singing about Silver Springs in her signature gravel.

My lungs filled with the acrid smoke of the airbags which had slammed into my chest like a 20lb medicine ball dropped from two stories up. My seatbelt had cut deep into my collar-bone and across my lap and in a moment of sheer panic, I suffocated on all of it. My mouth was open, but no sound came.

Then I knew had to get out, but I couldn’t remember how.

Soon, adrenaline became my copilot. It brought air back to my lungs and thought into my brain and I jumped from the critically injured vehicle that was screaming at me in its own kind of pain. In those brief seconds the rabbit had made an erratic turn which slammed its driver’s side into the front of my much larger SUV’s passenger’s side. There was no longer a floor board, only twisted metal and a tan fabric seat smeared with fruit salsa next to me.

The moment my feet touched pavement I felt a sudden and unmistakable weakness in my left leg. It was only a weakness, because adrenaline was in charge and it says that the pain comes later.

I looked to the rabbit sitting there motionless, smoking. It too, was turned toward a direction it hadn’t planned on going. I started to go to it but something about the way the driver’s side was pushed all the way over to the passenger’s side stopped me.

I thought I was brave. There have been many times in my life when I have done brave things. But something distinct cowered inside of me at that sight. It wasn’t adrenaline, it was something else–instinct maybe–that told me not to go. It told me that I would never forget what I would see because forgetting is my survival instinct.

The rest of the night came to me in camera flashes.

FLASH! I am prostrate on the grass, the sky above me is ablaze with urgent lights. My mother is holding my right hand, my father is holding my left. I feel the methodical and hurried rhythm of cold scissors up my leg cutting away my pants.

FLASH! It is just me and an EMT in the back of an ambulance. I am prostrate still. I hear, “blood pressure dropping, heading to a different hospital.”

FLASH! Prostrate on the x-ray table, I am told. “Dead–too disfigured to know the approximate age.”

FLASH! “Miss, have you had anything to drink?”

FLASH! “Hold still, this will only take a second.”

FLASH! “Miss, we’re going to need to take your blood alcohol level.”

FLASH! “You’re free to go.”

Really? Was I really?

I woke the next morning to find out that the disfigured person in the other car was a 22-year-old kid named Andy. He took his father’s sports car without permission and had been wasted on more than one drug. He went to my school. People loved him.

The next day, I didn’t go to work and I didn’t leave on an airplane. But leaving on the airplane was the only thing I wanted to do so I rescheduled my flight for the very next day. I left with my crutches, pain-killers and even more baggage than I had planned on taking. The more distance I could put between myself and those skid marks–the more radically I could change my view–the quicker I could forget.

Because forgetfulness is the best of all coping mechanisms and I use it for all the tragedies in my life.

It’s not that I pretend things haven’t happened. I know they have. Every time I go back to my parent’s house I am reminded of this one by the make-shift memorial two turns from their driveway. But I have developed a calcification process for bad memories and it operates on an involuntary, instinctual level. I harden my true-to-life tragedies and then push them away, outside of myself–into orbit.

If a memory is triggered, for a split-second I will see the event as though it happened to someone else. I see it as though it was not a part of my own life and I am hearing it for the first time. Then I have that strange, surreal, surprised moment when I realize that it actually did happen to me.

This happens every time.

But like the orbital path of the moon commands the tides of the Earth, these things affect an ebb and flow inside of me, too. A silent river flows just below my awareness; an ever-present force brimming with the reality of life’s impermanence and inherent fragility. A reminder that there are no promises in well-made plans and in less than three seconds you can be facing a darker road.

This reality river, it shapes me. It constantly cuts new paths and wears out old ones. Like all rivers, from time to time it floods. Sometimes the rain comes from something in my own life, but more often than not, it is the stories of others that breach my banks; an abducted child, a terminal diagnosis, a freak accident, a tornado.

Like the diligent beaver that I am, I maintain my dams. I stack up everything I own (and some of what I don’t) to shore myself up against what I know will come anyway, inevitably, always–a sadness brought on by things I cannot control and do not understand.

When these times come, I retreat inside myself and onto my raft made of words and I float. I lie prostrate looking at all the things in my orbit, including Andy, and I remind myself that I am that, and they are me, and we are One, and only then do the calmer waters prevail.

Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

I have never written a book review, but because I loved this book by so much, I am inspired to write this.

Dani Shapiro grew up as an only child in an orthodox Jewish home in New Jersey. Her reserved, devout father died in a tragic car accident when she was 23 leaving behind more questions than there would ever be answers. Her relationship with her mother was complicated and tragic right up until her death of brain cancer when Shapiro was in her early 40’s. Early on, Dani splintered off from her Jewish upbringing, finding refuge, sanctuary and community in various places including her yoga mat and church basements attending AA meetings (although not an alcoholic).

She became a New York Times best-selling author, a wife, and like so many of us, got busy numbing herself stacking up accomplishments and material accoutrement.

Then she had a son, and also like so many of us, was changed forever. When her son, Jacob, was only months old, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare and likely debilitating condition called Infantile Spasms. Strangely, it is a rare condition of which I am partially familiar.

When Brooke was eight months old she developed a strange tick on her right side. It looked like she was bringing her right shoulder and her right ear together in a sudden, involuntary movement. Within hours of showing her pediatrician a video, I was at the hospital distracting my daughter with a dusty, leftover stash of rickety toys while they pasted a rainbow of electrodes to her baby-fine hair. Between the two appointments, I frantically Googled “Infant Seizures.” That is when I became familiar Infantile Spasms, which was the most tragic of all possible outcomes.

There is no definitive cure for IS although experimental treatments do exist. If IS is not treated immediately and effectively, it can erase your child from their own mind leaving irreversible brain-damaged. The probability of surviving Infantile Spasms without severe neurological impairment is 15%.

Our Pediatric Neurologist said he would call us as soon as he got the results, “no matter what time.” In our case, it was 7pm on a Friday night. To say I was afraid, feels wholly inadequate. I don’t think I took in, or let out a full breath that day. I busied myself. I chewed my lips and watched her and the clock like only a mother sensing trouble can.

We got the call and it was good, not IS.

But Shapiro and her husband received the opposite diagnosis. Through more than a year of intense monitoring and precise administration of an experimental medication, Jacob survived IS with a few developmental delays that he would eventually overcome.

Of all the tragedy and uncertainty Shapiro endured up until that point, it was this experience that felt like the locus of the book– the principal reason for the deliberate search for what she believes. Against such infinitesimal odds, why had this happened? Furthermore, why did Jacob survive? What would she tell her son when he was older? How could she tell him anything if she didn’t know herself?

Not one of us is immune these switchback moments of life. The moment when the horizon comes into view, but suddenly you are forced to take the path leading in the opposite direction. This disorientation leaves us looking behind us, yet forced to keep moving forward.

Ultimately, it is a reality we all face, the recognition that life is fragile, potentially tragic, and definitely out of our control. If we’re lucky, it is faith that shores us up against the storms. Belief becomes our safety net; religion our life-line, and for many, finding a community of like-minded people to help weather the worst of it. When you are a renounced orthodox Jew, a itinerate yogi and a non-alcoholic member of AA, where do go? What do you do? How do you define your beliefs?

Shapiro finds the closest thing to answers in the small spaces between all these things–in the moments of awareness brought on by daily rituals, mindfulness and setting intentions.

She is Jewish, but reads Buddha’s teachings to her son. She finds refuge in the practice of daily meditation, but also at synagogue on Friday evenings. She finds solace on her yoga mat and also in the mezuzah hanging to the right of her front door. She finds community in reading the Torah with a Rabbi, or in watching the leaves turn colors outside her window.

In the end, it is always a practice, a never-ending journey in finding peace in a world full of split second sorrows– creating meaning in a fraction of a second of breath and the seemingly inconsequential gestures of ritual and repetition, because they are reminders of the only thing that is… our intricate connection to each other in this solitary moment in time.

Life will always be switching back on us, each corner producing a new set of questions and rarely will there one answer for them all, more often than not, there are no answers. It is on this precipice of uncertainty and fear that we all must learn to find solace, refuge and community without closing our eyes to the view.

Because even when you’re afraid, especially when you’re afraid, if you keep your eyes open, it is still beautiful sight to behold.