Figuring out where you fit


I realize that the last time you heard from me, the Farmer was running me over with his tractor. But it was just a fight. Today I feel like I fit on the farm. When I am getting along with the Farmer, the whole farm feels enchanting – even a goat standing on top of my car and probably putting a dent in it.

It’s reframing: When you feel like you’re in the right place, you can reframe the bad stuff to feel like good stuff. I learned this from all the counseling I went through after being at the World Trade Center when it fell. Now that it’s almost the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I field a phone call each week from a reporter writing a story about how 9/11 affected the survivors, and I always talk about reframing.

I’m starting to think where I fit, in terms of my career, is saying what none of us wants to hear, and then reframing it so it feels good.

I used to get upset about people thinking I’m an idiot. For example, when I was writing on Yahoo Finance, I wrote along side Suze Orman. And people would write such hateful stuff about me and Suze (imagine the most offensive gay slurs you can think of) that it was part of someone’s daily tasks to delete awful comments. I used to think I got those comments because I was writing for the wrong audience, or not connecting with people, or something that signaled I was not in my right place.

But I’m thinking that the job of annoying people is actually a good fit for me.

Last week I wrote a post for BNET about how diversity is bad at the beginning of a startup. I did not think this was particularly controversial topic because I am talking, in this article, about a very short period in a very specific type of company: the time between the seed round and the A round of a startup. Those companies are mostly founded by men, and men would increase their company’s chances of survival by not partnering with a women.

Really, this is not news: Diversity is bad for small companies. I published this research four years ago, with not much fanfare. But now, when I apply the research to a specific type of company, I get killed in feminist diatribes on blogs like Jezebel and Built in Chicago.

But so what? I think I’m right. And I think I’m right that most women don’t even want to be a part of the founding team of those startups because those companies are high-risk ventures that ruin your personal life. (I blogged about that — originally for Tech Crunch– here.) And guess what? Tons of men and women told me I was wrong. But I did not get one criticism from one woman who is CEO of a venture-funded startup while she has young kids at home.

I got tons of complaints from women who are pregnant and say their passion for startups will be undaunted by having kids. But really, this is what they wish. These women wish they fit in everywhere. Women wish they were being pushed out instead of just stepping to the side. Women want to feel they can do everything, but we can’t.

Look, we know the baby boomers failed at work-life balance. We know it doesn’t exist. So let’s just start talking about things that are real. You can have a rip-roaring career in a great big city or you can have a goat on your driveway climbing on your car. You can’t have both. You can have kid-centered days or you can have career-centered days. You can’t have both. Let’s just stop lying to ourselves because it’s not helping anyone.

All we can do is reframe. We can say that we are so lucky to have all these choices. We can choose what we want, we just can’t choose everything.

It is real that twentysomething women need to worry more about having kids than a career if they want kids. It’s not pleasant or nice or encouraging to say, but it’s true. It’s true that reporting sexual harassment is old-school and stupid. It would be great if we could take down every lecherous boss, but we simply cannot. It’s true that everyone would rather have a miscarriage than an abortion. Someone has to talk about this, and I like that it’s me.

I think I fit where people want to hear the truth.

I am settling into my role of the bearer of bad news. I have found, in my personal life, that if I face everything, even if it’s bad, then at least I have a chance at making it better. This is true for women at work, too. So let’s get going.



107 replies
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  1. Bridget
    Bridget says:

    I am about to turn 30 and have come to the same conclusion you did. You can have whatever you want out of life but you can’t have it at the same time. I’m starting to learn to take whatever life presents to me and go with it. Change is inevitable and the best gift we can give to ourselves is to be open to change. So as I change my career path and as the idea of motherhood looms over me, instead of driving myself crazy by thinking I can wrangle the unknowns, I just have to accept the known of right now and go with it.

    And to your point of reframing: Is it possible that men also want things they cannot have because priorities are taking them elsewhere? Allowing this conflict to be more than just a woman’s issue frames women to appear less like victims of circumstance. Sure women might not be able to easily balance a career and motherhood, but let’s celebrate the choices we have that didn’t exist a mere 50 years ago. It hasn’t even been a full century that women were given the right to vote. These discussions are all part of progress!

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    This is right on. When you fit, you see differently. When you don’t fit, it doesn’t matter how things appear. You can look at your situation and tell yourself over and over again how thankful you should be but if it does not fit, then you will be unhappy–and just more guilty-feeling because there are other people who would kill to have what you have and you suck because you don’t appreciate it more.

    I wish I knew what to do with that insight though. I have never been successful at consciously reframing a situation–except to just make the best of it in the short term. It is easier to think of situations that others found unbearable, but I did not see it that way because it was part of something larger that I fit.

    Reframing is different from sacrifice…it’s not that you agree to put up with a difficult situation for awhile to achieve a goal. It’s more like how IF you love to run AND want to run a marathon, you WILL get up early and run some runs at 4am to do 18-miles because it has to be done. On that run, you think about how cool it is to go from dark of night to sunrise on an epic run through the worst conditions, whatever they are…you reframe adversity as a heroic challenge and then you just do it.

    But you can’t make that run happen by planning to be tough. You can set the goal, but then you have to FIND the thread of passion that will sustain you. That is the kind of thing the pulls us all along on great accomplishments. It is hard to find but once found, easy to do.

    • chris Keller
      chris Keller says:

      @ Dave:

      I want you to know you lifted me up and I, in turn, passed your wise words about reframing on to others who need them in my circle.


  3. karelys davis
    karelys davis says:

    haha! I read the Jezebel post and I laughed. Also, it made me ashamed of being feminist the same way when Christians act stupid in the name of God makes me embarrassed.

    I love this post.!

  4. Kristi
    Kristi says:

    "Women wish they were being pushed out instead of just stepping to the side. Women want to feel they can do everything, but we can’t."

    I think this line nailed the whole subject. I'm mid 30's, fighting the good fight in the boys club and guess what? It sucks! It took me a long time to realize that I just don't want to fight anymore.

    My female friends run the gamut from boomer to early 20's and across the country. I find them all fascinating because each of them old or young still experiences that same tug of war. The smart ones acknowledge it, own it, and accept the choices they've made. I believe the new feminism is opting out. Does it make ones choice better than the other? I don't think so. What's critical is we have the choice.

  5. Paul
    Paul says:

    I’m confused what exactly you mean by “reframe”. You use the word a lot, and give examples, but I’m not sure I get it. To me, “reframing” is just a way to lie to yourself about the fact that you’re lying to yourself. Which, strangely enough, is exactly the opposite of what you do when you write. You may reframe things a lot in your own life and in your own mind, but the brutal honesty that I see on this site is anything but. That’s why you’re so good at annoying people. People love to lie to themselves, and they hate it when someone points it out. Rather than your role being someone who reframes difficult truths into palatable lies, I tend to think of you as more of an honesty doctor who gives people a truth injection whether they want it or not.

  6. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I like this post. Put it on your bathroom mirror as a self-reminder for your “questioning” days. It can scream at you that on a clear day, you remembered that you were where you belong.

    As for your critics and fights with the farmer: know that everyone has both — but your choosing to hear them can only help to keep you grounded, seeking and questionning. These are all important ways to do some checks on what you really believe in and are committed to. Seems to me, these are healthy roads to real happiness.

    On committments: I agree with you. We want to believe we can do it all, but we can’t. So, decisions are required. But, decisions mean facing the down side (and almost every decision that matters has one!). Some people (maybe your critics?) would just rather not.

    I wondered if that was really the essence of the advice embedded in your post today: a stern reminder on making and owning the decision of how to live your life/career, and the subsequent role of checking your committments that will sometimes require reframing to make the down side or bad days less so?

    As Sinatra sang: “That’s life!”

    Be well!

  7. Sandra Pawula /Always Well Within
    Sandra Pawula /Always Well Within says:

    It’s such a relief to know you are happy when you have good days. My heart feels wrenched when you seem so unhappy.

    This is wise: “I have found, in my personal life, that if I face everything, even if it’s bad, then at least I have a chance at making it better.”

  8. joanna
    joanna says:

    I agree that it’s difficult to do both exceptionally well. I have a career and raised children (my youngest just turned 21) and I always believed I could do all, be all, but what I found was that something is always sacrificed. My children couldn’t do certain activities when they were younger (like girl scouts or join a sport team) because I always had to work, at least until I got into management. I was never a “PTA” kind of mom, but I always tried to be present when it was important. Also…the idea of reframing does work. I call it “flipping” a situation. It got me through a bad 1st marriage and horrible divorce…and I survived the terrible teenage/young adult years using this frame of thinking….it worked for me because things could always be worse than they are.

  9. Erika
    Erika says:

    I’ve been criticized by my friends and family (my “loving” mother to be exact) for choosing kid-centered life instead of career or even better- both, career/kid centered life. You’re right, it doesn’t exist. I always thought there is something wrong with me if I can’t do both. Thank you for clearing it up.

  10. Florence
    Florence says:

    Penelope, I find I struggle with your categorical generalizations, whether about education or generational attributes or what women and men “want”. It feels to me like we’re talking in some fuzzy inbetween land — neither concrete enough about individuals nor grounded enough in broader social/economic realities.

    I am fascinated by the use of “the truth” here as a rhetorical tool in identifying your role. And by implication our roles as readers and commenters as receivers of your “truth”. There is one “truth” that you know and that applies across the board? And you know when you are in possession of it? Or is there what’s true for you today?

    Because some studies about startups suggest homogeneity is better early on — is that the truth? In the land of science –even social science — there’s an awful lot of replication and analysis and argument and back and forth before anyone would accept such conclusions as anything near even “theory” let alone “truth.” How many different variables can be controlled in discerning causality for what works and what hasn’t in startups, of whatever kind?

    I am dubious about your free-wheeling use of “the truth” as if there is an objective one when it comes to these huge complex social/historical issues. There are tons of opinions, no doubt. Some of them informed by experience and/or wisdom. But don’t let’s call them “the truth.”

    That some women in some places right now are struggling with work/family balance and that some men (even most) have not yet signed up for equal responsibility on the home front does not say to me we’ve found a truth about men and women. It says to me we’re in the middle of a long process. Women getting the vote, black people getting the vote, gay people getting to marry and on and on — these were and are very long complex, unevenly evolving social processes that don’t shed a whole lot of light right in this moment on the “truth” of individuals’ lives. Except maybe to tell us that the truth is one very elusive prey.

    My husband does both more childcare and more paid work than I do because I got sick from the stress of trying to do too much of those things for years before. There are a thousand variables that go into the precise work/family and division of labor balance between me and my husband. And we’re both happy with the balance right now. It will change later.

    Single parents, blended families (which we also are), gay parents, grandparents raising kids, joint custody arrangements of wide variety — these are all now more common family arrangements than ones that set one man’s and one woman’s desires up against one another. Parents who are dealing with chronic illness, who are also taking care of ailing parents while raising small children, who are going back to school for midlife career changes while raising small children — these are all parts of people’s stories that add complexity to the man/woman/home/work simplicity. People working happily part-time from home, people structurally unemployed for a long time, people working three jobs and raising children with no partner. Anyway, I think the world is a lot more complicated than what fits into the tidy generalizations that are being called “the truth” here.

    I hear that we may identify with certain parts of what Penelope calls the truth. That it’s really tough to run full bore at a high-achieving job while being the primary caretaker of young children. Yes, very tough. Not impossible, not never. Very tough for most of us.

    What is the “it all” that we’re after that we can’t have all of? Is it to work 100 hours a week AND be with our children 100 hours a week? Is it to make a huge amount of money AND be relaxed enough to be emotionally present for our kids?

    It does seem most grownups are helped by having priorities. But they need to be more specific in my mind than “it all”. Do you need to earn six figures to be happy? To feel okay about yourself? Do you need to homeschool your kids because you can’t find better options (that’s my situation)? Do you need to tend to your health because you grew up with certain physical vulnerabilities (to stress, to disease, to whatever)? Is having a solid, happy, genuine, intimate relationship with someone more important to you than kids or jobs or income?

    We make choices all day, every day. Those choices are based on priorities whether they are explicit or unconscious. Where we give our attention and our energy moment to moment is an expression of our priorities — of our own “truth” if you will.

    Anyway, the quick and easy generalizations are a little frustrating for me. So much is interesting in here. So much emotional frankness and willingness to put your experience to use for other people. So much generosity of spirit in that sense too.

    I can’t follow you though into the land of vast generalizations and the idea that your role is to tell everyone the hard “truths.” They may be your hard truths. They may be hard truths that some other people also identify in part with. But I don’t think you have the bitter but necessary medicine that applies to everyone.

    I think the gifts you have to offer here are ample enough without having to claim “the truth” as your calling.

    Best to you.

  11. Cat
    Cat says:

    @ Florence – I think you are over-thinking this blog. This is more Redbook/Cosmo magazine to Pioneer Woman’s Good Housekeeping. No much space for nuance nor complexity. But writing is great. Drama is not bad either.

    • Florence
      Florence says:


      I think I need someone like you in my daily life. Your response to my long-winded over-wrought rant is pitch perfect.

      I’ve been struggling over whether I’m a good “fit” to read this blog and I think the answer’s “no” except that there is much here that I love, including so many of the commenters.

      You may be shocked to learn that you’re not the first person to suggest that I over-think things. :-)



  12. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    My husband and I did not want children because we were focused on our careers and other volunteer activities. I think we gave back to your community in more significant ways than having children. In fact we donate to charities that help underprivileged kids. If you decide you want to have a great career, but not children, don’t expect your community or relatives to understand your decision. Professional women are not taken seriously at all no matter how many awards they win or large paychecks they earn.

  13. Heather
    Heather says:

    I continue to love your blog and reading this post just makes me even more. I’m a mom of three (10yo daughter and twin 2yo sons) and I work at a financial services company and I completely agree with this post. I have my career days and my kid days. Both are rewarding but I won’t devote myself 100% to the company when I have to run out for an ice skating lesson for my daughter. I’m OK with that. I have no guilt of where I need to be. I just try to figure out what trade-offs I am willing to make. I can’t say things are “balanced” just that sometimes things have to take a back seat for a little while. I do love that me and women today have choices. I don’t give into the “Mommy Wars”. I have friends that work full-time, part-time, from home, stay at home moms. I don’t care. We’re all facing the same lives day in and day out providing for our families in one way or another. I also have friends that have no children and I never ask when they are going to. For two reasons, one I suffered infertility to have all my children and I put myself (and DH) through hell trying to get them here, second I don’t feel having children is a requirement in this world whether you are married or not.

    Thanks for keeping it real!

  14. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Florence has a valid point to make, I believe, re: generalizations. However, believing in Penelope as I do, I am guessing that if she was dealing with an individual, she would individualize her career advice. In fact, I know this to be the way Penelope operates, because I have been the beneficiary . . .

    Heather, above, ends her response by saying “Thanks for keeping it real!” which is, I believe, what we all understand to be the meaning of “truth”. We could have a Socratic or biblical discussion about “What is truth?” but . . . well, it would be endless.

    Last point: having “it all”: To me, this means success and prosperity and satisfaction in the areas of love and work. This is Freudian–and also Penelopean. Am I being simple? It seems to me that this is an acceptable generalization . . .

  15. JML
    JML says:

    My husband stays home with our toddler. We made the decision that he would stay home because I have good benefits and an upwardly mobile career and he has a career that easily lends itself to freelancing. He also just seems much better suited to stay at home because he is at his best when unstructured, whereas I feel as though I’m going to lose my mind. That said, a year later it still tears me up inside to have to leave my son everyday. Although I am so thankful that my son is home with his dad, to me it he’s still in “daycare”. I think that moms mostly just want to be with their kids. So even when choosing career, it can still be really hard.

  16. Valter
    Valter says:

    Penelope said “I think I fit where people want to hear the truth.”

    I love you Pen. :)
    Thank you for your honest speaking, and keep on going.
    The world needs more truth.

  17. Niche ATMS Bonus
    Niche ATMS Bonus says:

    I’ll in no way forget about your publish on Yahoo about executing the downward puppy from the bathroom stall. Can not recall your position, but will by no means forget about the visual.

  18. TJ
    TJ says:

    i totally relate to this. i’m a 30 something female who made a choice to let the uphill run that was my career reduce to a moderate incline for awhile. i still work, i still have a nice title and a paycheck, but i’m watching my peers get promoted over me. i made a choice to step aside and yea, it would have almost been easier if someone pushed me there and i didn’t have to admit to myself i opted out. i said i was ok with that. i thought i was, but i was not. the problem is between my ears – it’s the desire to have it all. my employer is not the problem, they have to operate and they have the right to choose the individuals who are producing the most valuable work. they don’t owe me anything and in turn i prioritize the things that are important to me.

    the truth sometimes isn’t what we want to hear. once we accept that we can not be everything, we must decide what makes us happy. so cliche but so true.

    i’m glad someone is saying it because the party line is typically bullshit.

  19. Cloud
    Cloud says:

    The only problem with your hard truths about women and work and kids is that you seem to completely ignore the possibility that men might have a role in all of this. At least in this post- I didn’t take the time to read all the posts you linked to.

    In my experience, if you have two committed parents who are both willing to sacrifice a little bit at work in order to have a meaningful life at home, then both parents can continue to have reasonable career success while the kids are little.

    Of course, I am not a C-level executive and neither is my husband, and neither of us want to be right now- so maybe I’m agreeing with you. But we both continue to advance in our careers without ignoring the kids. It seems to me that you are making an assumption that the kids are primarily the mother’s responsibility, and while that may be the most common situation, it is not the only possibility. My own personal hard truth for young women who want “it all” is that you need to choose your partner very carefully- and the qualities that matter most may not be what you think matter when you’re young and in love.

    I actually feel like I have “it all”- whatever that means. I certainly have a good career and a happy family life. But that is only possible because my husband is pulling his fair share of the house work and child care duties.

  20. Ana
    Ana says:

    ahhhh…now I see. After reading your blueprint blogpost and now reading this one.
    This is all about you.
    It has nothing to do with telling the truth as you see it.
    It’s about your ego, thinking it’s doing a grand service to human kind.
    whatever gets you through!

    Best of luck with that

  21. Art
    Art says:

    It’s about time someone said that a career and a family are not compatible.  But like all absolutes there are always exceptions.  I’m sure there are people who right now are thinking “yeah, but I know so-and-so and she has a great job and her kids are alright.”  Yes it happens but rarely.  Solar eclipses are about as common.

    Problem is that we hear these stories about someone who can make a career and a family work and then we feel like losers because we can’t even get one of the two to work, let alone both.

    The truth is that for most of us there just isn’t enough time in life to do a good job of both parenting and a career.  And this applies to both men and women.  My career hasn’t exactly taken off like a Saturn rocket and while this has hurt my ego, it has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my kids and watch them grow up.  It would have been great to have been a corporate fast tracker as well, but that would have happened at the cost of my relationship with my kids.

  22. Art
    Art says:

    It’s about time someone said that a career and a family are not compatible.  But like all absolutes there are always exceptions.  I’m sure there are people who right now are thinking “yeah, but I know so-and-so and she has a great job and her kids are alright.”  Yes it happens but rarely.  Solar eclipses are about as common.

    Problem is that we hear these stories about someone who can make a career and a family work and then we feel like losers because we can’t even get one of the two to work, let alone both.

    The truth is that for most of us there just isn’t enough time in life to do a good job of both parenting and a career.  And this applies to both men and women.  My career hasn’t exactly taken off like a Saturn rocket and while this has hurt my ego, it has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my kids and watch them grow up.  It would have been great to have been a corporate fast tracker as well, but that would have happened at the cost of my relationship with my kids.

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  25. Senait
    Senait says:

    I doubt you’re even reading comments on posts this old but I have to say this anyway: this post should be put in the feminist hall of fame. What you’ve written is the most revolutionary thing a woman could say in the 21st Century.

    We really can’t have it all. And I’m totally OK with that. You need to accept what it is you want and proceed with that knowledge. So much of the feminist movement today is stalled because women, in my opinion, are stuck at this crossroad. And we can’t move forward because we are not armed with the truth. We’re kidding ourselves about what reality can/should look like if we remain adamant careerists to the neglect of our family life and kids.

    Penelope, all I have to say is PREACH. This is the truth and we need to swallow a lot more of to reach any kind of progress. And double thank you for reminding me it’s okay not to fit in. It’s okay to speak the truth and not fear the backlash of communities. Women like you remind me to be honest about what I truly want and to OWN IT.

    *cyber hug* lol

  26. Senait
    Senait says:

    oh, and as for men picking up their share of the household burdens so women can enjoy a career outside of the home – it seems relationships like that are rare.

    it’s nearly impossible to assign parenting responsibilities right down the middle. life doesn’t work like that. one parent will almost always take on the greater responsibility. and that’s usually the woman.

    not to mention, men have better chances of securing higher paying jobs in the workforce and sometimes – it just makes sense from a tactical point of view, to have the men go out and work if he has a better fighting chance of making more money.

    and all of this really has to do with our misguided assumption that men and women are truly equals in society. they are not. it’s absurd to think that a women has equal earning power as a man. now, i’m not saying we shouldn’t bother to work or challenge the status quo. but if we do want a family and kids, we have to recognize that men and women have different strengths. that’s a part of good parenting and strategizing. if you can’t do that – then parenting takes a back burner to marriage politics. and that’s just unwise living. in my opinion.

  27. Ellen Chamberlin
    Ellen Chamberlin says:

    the only stuff I can’t relate to in this blog is the advice about when to have kids, there are some women (and probably more men) who don’t want kids (at all, ever). all of the advice is pretty excellent though. even the advice that resonate since I don’t want kids.

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