‘Avocado,’ my friend recently Whatsapped me out of the blue. Initially I thought this was another Gen Z insult, or that she’d accidentally forwarded on an item from her Tesco’s order. But unbeknown to me, fruit is one of countless pantry items used to express the size of a foetus. It’s a vernacular I’m gradually coming to terms with, as more of my friends become pregnant.
In recent months, conversations about morning sickness, breast pump paraphernalia and nasal aspirators (Google it, if you dare) have booted out Love Island goss and tequila-prompted regrets. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remote working, flexible hours, fortified savings and lack of anything else to do during the pandemic have encouraged many women in their late twenties and early thirties to start their parenting ‘journey’ earlier than planned.
As a result, the sudden influx of pregnancy announcements and photos of Marshmallow Man-looking newborns on social media has made others of us question, not only if and when we’d like to have children, but the sacrifices we’ll have if we do.
I’m at a point in my life when motherhood is no longer a distant dream, but a goal within grasping-distance; I have a good enough salary, I’m in a long-term relationship, my partner and I own a flat in north London, and we’re looking towards the next milestone as a couple. Like many of my friends, babies – all squishy and wonderful - could naturally follow suit. But I’m also ambitious and laser-focussed in my career.
At 29, I’m on the cusp of reaping certain professional benefits that I've been grinding towards since I edged through the door into journalism. I'm next in line to be head of my department, and qualified enough to potentially make a big move elsewhere. I've started building a video reel too, and so it's not unrealistic to think I could fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a high-flying editor with TV presenting gigs on the side.
It's entirely possible, but it would take a bit more time. And with the niggling reality that my fertility is poised for decline and my biological clock's tick getting increasingly deafening, I feel like I'm reaching a pivotal moment when I can choose either motherhood or fulfilling my career dreams.
I'm not quite of the generation that were inculcated with the 'have it all' myth. I know that 'having it all' usually requires certain privileges, like inherited wealth, an enlightened partner, the ability to hire nannies and wrap-around care, or an office that supports flexible working. But I am still, perhaps foolishly, keen to try and 'have as much as I can'.
I am conscious that my ability to chase my ambitions with any degree of speed or focus has hit a sweet spot that won't be matched once small, attention-requiring humans are in the picture and I'm distracted, older and potentially quite tired. So I have entered something that my friends and I have begun to call 'The Middle Sprint'.
The middle sprint involves a period of rapidly and doggedly pursuing career goals in the hope of achieving the sort of seniority, salary, stability and exposure that you crave, before taking leave to have children. It means creating a sturdy place to come back to; ticking off some of the things you might not have the same level of energy to achieve further down the line.
The way I see it, if I want to have two children before I hit 40, I need to have my first by 35, so that gives me just over five years to put pedal to the metal. Five years to put in extra hours, freelance in TV on the side, take some big risks and make the chess-like manoeuvres that it might take to get my editorship position of dreams. Five years to make certain that I maximise my chances of being able to afford the childcare that would let me pursue my career again later. Five years of hard grind... to ensure that, eventually, I might get to have some balance.
It occurs to me now, as I'm on the starting blocks, positioned for this mad dash, that even in 2021 the discrepancy between men and women at this stage of life is stark. For men, career progression can be gradual. For women - or at least women who want children - opportunity is sporadic and short-lived.
Of course, this isn’t to say it’ll be impossible for me to return to the workforce and rise up the ladder after having children. But it’d be naïve to think that I would do so without professional or personal sacrifices neither shared nor suffered by my male counterparts. And my concerns aren’t unfounded.
A paper published by the US Census Bureau in 2018 found that for women who have children between the ages of 25 and 35, the wage gap between them and their male counterparts never recovers. Never. More depressingly, research shows that women are more likely to take annual leave, reduce their hours, decline a promotion or quit their jobs altogether to care for their families.
Regardless of the advancements in employment laws and shared paternity leave, biological and social factors burden women with more responsibility than men. Whether it’s the physical demands of pregnancy, breast feeding, birth and hormonal fluctuation, or the fact women shoulder more than three quarters of unpaid care work, it’s no wonder some women ‘leave before they leave’, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In.
It's probably important to acknowledge that climbing as high as you can in a career isn’t everyone’s idea of success. One of the good things to come out of the pandemic is that people have recalibrated their life goals, begun to value time spent in gardens rather than offices, left jobs or used redundancies to consider new avenues. For some, striving to have enough to make ends meet, while also having the time for family and friends is more important than a six-figure salary with the word ‘chief’ in the job title.
However, I can’t help but think that questioning the definition of 'success' is yet another juncture that women arrive at more frequently than men. And if work/life balance is the goal over landing a position on the board, it's still imperative to have worked hard enough in the years before becoming a mother to be in a position to negotiate this kind of request. Sadly, flexible hours and a four-day week aren't often afforded to entry - or even mid-level jobs.
The demands of motherhood aren’t a problem, so much as a fact. And I’m sure the joys of my babies will outweigh the negatives tenfold. But whether we want to admit it or not, becoming a mother stalls your career. So in these middle years before the pitter patter of tiny feet, I'm steeling my own feet, blistered and bruised from a 10-year career marathon, for a Herculean sprint towards the finish line.
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