I’m thrilled to feature a guest post by Jennifer Brody. Jennifer and I met virtually, through an online writers group. Her story is nearly identical to mine in the sense that we have both now chosen balance in our lives over sexy Hollywood careers. I’m happy she’s letting me share her story and her nuggets of wisdom! This piece was originally published at JenniferDawnBrody.com.
By Jennifer Brody
The latest controversy lighting up the blogosphere is this Atlantic article by former top foreign policy adviser Ann-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Here’s a brief excerpt on the premise of the piece:
It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.
Slaughter goes on to tell her very personal story about trying to work in Washington D.C., while commuting from her home in New Jersey and raising two teenaged boys. Even with a very supportive husband who was willing to take over primary childcare responsibilities during the week, she found the task impossible. She resigned after only two years to return to academia, where she holds a tenured professorship at Princeton. Academia, it turns out, is far more family friendly for one simple reason:
It allows her to set her own schedule, even while teaching a full course load.
The workplace is not a female-friendly place, especially if said female decides to start a family. You can argue with my point (and there are exceptions to every rule), but in my experience this still holds true. As long as you’re working for somebody else—and thus beholden to their schedule—then you will never be able to control your hours.
That is not conducive to raising children. Children are not something you can slot into a few hours at night and on the weekends. They are more demanding than any boss (or so I’ve heard).
Even though women now outpace men in earning advanced degrees, the top ranks of government and corporations are mostly bereft of women. Why is this?
When I started working in Hollywood as an assistant, I was fresh out of college. Marriage and family were the furthest things from my mind. I could devote myself wholly to my job (by which I mean to whomever I was assisting at the time, be it the A-list director who liked to blow up everything that moved on screen and some things that didn’t, or the studio head working crazy hours on a movie that would eventually earn a record-breaking 11 Oscars).
I had no regrets about this time I spent at the office. Normal office hours were 9am-7pm. I often worked much longer, as the hefty overtime paychecks I accrued will attest. This didn’t include the time I spent at night and on the weekends reading scripts and writing coverage and notes. Or going to the theater to see as many movies as possible. Or meeting other assistants and executives for breakfast/coffee/drinks to network almost every day of the week.
How much time was leftover? Very little.
I was fortunate enough to be in a long distance relationship that I’d nurtured through college. It was already on solid ground. He was in law school (demanding) and on his way to becoming a litigator at a big law firm (more demanding). Our schedules conformed to each other. In fact, he often worked longer than I did. So somehow, I was able to do it all. For a time.
As I rose through the ranks (I left my studio job for a start-up, largely because there was no real path to promotion for most women at the fraternity-like company), I began to think more about the work-life balance. Or rather, the lack thereof. I was now a vice president—a title that many of my friends envied—and actually producing moves and receiving credit on them. I’d just turned twenty-seven. I should have been happy—thrilled—over the moon with joy!
But I wasn’t. And I didn’t entirely know why.
My boyfriend was now an attorney, and we lived together. We both worked all of the time. I couldn’t even contemplate getting a dog (I’d grown up with a house full of pets and desperately missed having furry companions). That’s how much I worked. As my thirties loomed over the horizon, marriage was at last on my mind, and its usual accompaniment, children. This was also true for many of my girlfriends.
If I couldn’t even fathom getting a puppy because I considered it neglectful to leave it home alone all day, how could I consider starting a family? Was leaving my hypothetical children at home with a nanny or in daycare all day, while my husband and I both worked long hours, neglectful too? Would I be comfortable with such a compromise?
Everybody has different answers for how they balance their lives. Some have husbands and boyfriends and significant others with less demanding careers, freeing them up to be the primary caregivers. But that wasn’t happening in my world. Despite my demanding job, my paycheck still paled in comparison to my husband’s.
We could live off his salary by itself—we could not live off mine.
I know this is a high-class problem, but it didn’t change the reality of it. If I wanted to have more work-life balance—and the down the road possibility of starting a family—then I was going to have to make some changes. Transitions in life are rarely smooth, and this was no exception. I didn’t just skate into a new career path. I crashed and burned and exploded into one.
Here’s how it went down.
Crash and Burn:
Around 2008, the economy crashed, taking my start-up company with it. We were backed by a investors, and when credit froze and everything went to hell, they pulled out their money. My whole department was shuttered. On the upside, I was paid out of my contract and received unemployment benefits. I did look for work, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore.
The entertainment business was irrevocably changing before my eyes. It was becoming harder to have a sustainable career. I couldn’t stomach the thought of sacrificing all of my time to a demanding and unrelenting job. I wanted a husband. I wanted a puppy. I wanted to be able to have it all. So I made some sacrifices. I decided to make changes. I decided to become a writer.
Writing had everything I loved about working in film development—creativity, story, character, working with talent. This way, I would actually own my ideas, not give them away to my company and other writers. Better yet, I would be able to set my own schedule (though it would be grueling) and have more control over what I wanted to do. I could still be in involved with the entertainment industry, albeit from a different angle.
I could get that puppy (and I did—meet the Adorable Monster).
And down the road, I could see myself both writing and raising a family.
The Writing Life:
A few years later, I’ve written my debut novel (currently on submission to publishers via my fabulous agent). It’s called All Worked Up, and believe it or not, the book deals with this very issue of the work-life balance. I also wrote a romantic comedy script, completed my second book, and launched a food blog called Domestic Divas, which is read by more people than I could have ever imagined would care about—let alone cook—my recipes.
This isn’t to say that life is perfect. As a writer, rejection is ever-present. I toil long hours alone with only my crazy thoughts (and yes, the Adorable Monster) to keep me company. There is nothing like writing a novel—the blood, sweat, and tears—but also the joy at creating something that is uniquely and wholly yours. I look forward to the day my work goes out to the larger world. I look forward to being a published author—and maybe even a produced screenwriter.
I’m taking babysteps. I’ve come so far, but I still have a ways to go. I have faith that I’ll get there.
I also got married (finally) to my paramour of more than fifteen years. Yes, he’s still a lawyer. Yes, he still works long hours. But now I’m more available to take care of our home and our dog and our lives, not necessarily because I work less (writing a novel is more work than anything I have ever done), but because my schedule is far more flexible. Married life suits us.
We haven’t had children—yet.
I would like to finish editing my second book and get more established in my new occupation. But I know that if we decide to start a family, then I will have the flexibility to do it. That I won’t constantly feel torn between my career and my personal life. That I will be able to set my own hours and find that work-life balance that was missing for so long.
That I’ll be present for my children. For my husband. For us all.
It’s Not All Sunshine and Roses:
Sure, I still miss my old job sometimes.
I had dinner with a friend who is still in the Hollywood trenches the other night, and her stories about meeting famous writers and flying all over the world to work on films made me feel more than a little nostalgic for my glory days. And for a second, I found myself thinking:
I could go back to Hollywood. I have a great resume—I know a lot of people. And I still love movies. I could always go back.
But she also talked about her long hours, about not having time for dating, about having to cancel plans and stay at the office until 3AM. Because of the demands of her job, I hadn’t seen her for more months than I could count. And this is not to say that it’s not worth it for her. She adores her job more than anything. She lights up when she talks about her work.
We all make our choices. We all make compromises. We all travel down different paths.
I made my choice—I chose balance over career success.
Was it worth it?
Yes, I’d have to say, yes.
But ask me again in a few years.
The Only Way to Really Have It All:
1. You have to be able to control your own schedule. This is a rare privilege in the working world. How can you accomplish this? You must be at the very top of your field (the CEO of a company) and thus able to set the schedule and agenda from the top down. Or an entrepreneur where you work for yourself (similar to my first point). Or self-employed/in a flexible career.
2. You have to compromise. This does not mean forgoing a career altogether, but you my have to tailor your choice or career to your needs as a parent. For example, Slaughter chose to return to Academia, instead of remaining in a powerful government position. That is a compromise, but not a soul-crushing one. I chose writing over being a Hollywood executive.
3. You need a supportive partner or a lot of outside help. This can mean many different things. Your significant other works long hours, so you can stay home. Or they help with the childcare, so you can pursue your dream job. Or you both work, but also both make time for your personal lives. Or your extended family and friends all pitch in to help out.
4. Erase the word perfection from your vocabulary. There is no such thing as doing it all perfectly. Life is perfectly imperfect. It’s a messy, sweaty, sordid affair. If you strive for perfection, you will always fail. Just do your best—that is all you can ever do.
5. If you can’t make a change, make the most of where you are. Even if you can’t make a change, do your best to set healthy boundaries at your current job. Learn when to use the word, “No.” Believe it or not, you will often get more respect for this. When you are at work, be present; and when you are home, turn off your PDA when you can and be present, too. There’s nothing like an iPhone to come between you and your partner/family.
Jennifer Brody is a graduate of Harvard University and a former film development executive. A/k/a The Domestic Diva, Jennifer cooks and writes in Los Angeles. Follow her on the Domestic Divas Blog, at JenniferDawnBrody.com and on twitter at @jennifer_brody.