“Okay, are we ready to start?”
4:30 pm on dreary November day in an insurance company board room, circa 1998. Bad suits, cheap cologne and teased hair. All except for the VP who had his suits custom made at Harry Rosen – when you’re as tall as he was, there really is no other option, he told me once.
Sarah, a mid-level manager, spoke up: “Larry, just a reminder that I have to leave in 15 minutes.”
“Why?” the VP asked, though he knew the answer already.
Larry leaned back in the only large leather chair in the room: “Ah right… Daycare…” he replied, drawing out ‘daycare’ as if a word was physically able to leave a bad taste in his mouth. “Well, okay then, let’s get going because Sarah has to leave in 15 minutes and god knows we’ll come up with an answer to this supply chain problem in that time, right?”
Dripping sarcasm aside, Larry had a point. We weren’t going to find a solution in 15 minutes and we really needed Sarah in on the meeting: she knew this part of the business better than anyone.
“This meeting was scheduled a week ago, so it’s hardly an emergency. Your staff…” she flicked her eyes towards me… “told me about it this morning. You know that I have to leave at 4:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is NOT my fault.” Her face was turning red with the effort not to lose control of her emotions. Because this wasn’t the first time this exchange had taken place, or some variation of it. I was staring resolutely at the table in front of me.
“Well, this is the only time everyone was available, right Nina?”
I nodded in response, still not looking up.
He nodded with me: “So let’s quit wasting time nattering about nothing and just get on with it then. I’ve got a dinner at 8 that I don’t want to be late for.”
A bridge too far in Sarah’s world: she picked up her notepad and walked out. The walls were glass, so we all watched as she marched back to her office, threw the notepad in, grabbed her coat and purse off her hat rack and walked straight out to the elevators.
“Wow” someone else said – I don’t remember who – “That’s a first.”
Larry snort-laughed and shook his head and we all chortled along with him sycophantically.
He kept his composure, but I’d seen the look in his eye before. Right before someone got fired the month before.
Rachel, one of the two female AVPs stuck her head in the door, an eyebrow quizzically raised: “What was that all about?”
“Daycare” Larry replied.
“Ah.” and with that, she was gone. Enough said, apparently. Rachel had a nanny.
Larry turned to me, the most junior of junior business systems analysts in the room: “Did I hear that you just got engaged?” That’s what he said. What I heard, rightly or wrongly, was: “Are you going to be next having kids and being a pain in my ass?”
“Yep. Last week. But the wedding won’t be until next year.”
“Good” he said. “I mean, congratulations.” No exclamation point in his voice. At all.
That was the moment that I decided that I couldn’t have kids and continue working in the corporate arena. My “career” had never been important to me. I did what I did because I fell into it after I graduated from university with an unfocused and basically useless arts degree. It was a good job that paid reasonably well but it was never my passion and the fact that I did well in it spoke more to my competitive nature than any real desire to figure out the business processes that would build a new system that would allow claims adjusters to handle claims more quickly. You probably tuned out during that sentence. I know I did.
It wouldn’t be any great loss to me to leave that world so I went home that evening and told my fiance that we couldn’t have kids unless we found a way to do it that allowed me to stay home until they were school aged. This was my dowry. I came to the marriage with a requirement instead of gold or money, but I was clear.
It took us a few years to figure out a new path. We tried a few fledgling and, frankly, odd ventures along the way. Gourmet pet treats was one business. That lasted about as long as my patience for rolling out hard, tacky dough did. We looked at a failing bookstore and entertained the idea of a B&B. We cast about daily for an option, any option, that would provide our exit from corporate. Tom found a monthly community newspaper for sale on the Internet. It was perfect: we could work from home and both be a part of the business, not leaving one of us to toil unhappily in corporate hell.
Our first freelance staff person was a young mother. She was to work from her home, calling to book appointments with businesses for Tom to go in and sell them advertising. It didn’t take two weeks before I was complaining that she wasn’t up to the task because of the extended “breaks” she took during the day to deal with her young son. I was becoming “those” people before my very eyes and it frightened me. Of course I took my business seriously. It was MY business. Of course I couldn’t expect someone working on commission to take it as seriously. But I did. For a while, I was frustrated by the knowledge that she put her baby first in her life. When I think about it now, I’m embarrassed. I have no excuse except pure, unadulterated selfishness. I wanted the business to succeed so that we could have the life we wanted and be damned who got squashed on our way to that point.
Time and experience have calmed those feelings. We had a baby. We sold the newspaper. We got a divorce. Interestingly, I heard from one of my old colleagues a while back. She told me that Sarah quit shortly after I did and was running a pottery shop in a small town somewhere. She had two more kids and was, as far as anyone else knew, contented in her life. I felt better, less guilty for my sycophantic chortling, for my hubris and selfishness. We all land somewhere. It may not be where we planned originally, but it’s somewhere.
This creative non-fiction piece came about after I read the “I’m Sorry” piece in Fortune: http://fortune.com/2015/03/03/female-company-president-im-sorry-to-all-the-mothers-i-used-to-work-with/ — the story has been altered from reality but there are significant parts that did in fact happen. And I’m sorry too.