We need to talk more about Melinda Gates

I took my son to a Lady Gaga concert.

I could tell you that. And I could tell you I take at least one kid on every business trip I have, and they are sick of it, so I tried to make Seattle fun by adding Lady Gaga.

My son loved the spectacle. Even from nose-bleed seats. He loved dancing in the aisles. And even though he told me he didn’t want them, he finally admitted that he loved that I brought ear plugs, too.

Should I tell you I went to Seattle and saw Lady Gaga with my son? Or do I tell you I went to Seattle because I’m using Infusionsoft on Quistic and it’s a mess and I needed a hands-on lesson from my co-worker? I try to stick to stories like the Infusionsoft one, because then you think of me not as a stay-at-home mom, homeschooling my kids, but rather as a content marketing expert and a serial entrepreneur. And you will listen when I say that Infusionsoft is the wave of the future of content marketing and you need to stick with me to find out stuff like this.

Do you ever read magazines like In Style?  It’s my go-to in-plane reading. It’s pages and pages of famous people answering one-line questions in ways that encapsulate who they want to be. A question for Lady Gaga is what did you do last weekend? And she’ll say she did an art class with kids with cleft lips because she wants people to associate her with outcasts and underdogs. For Jessica Alba the answer to every question is her business The Honest Company.

It turns out that this sort of shallow Q&A also happens in Fast Company: What are you loving this week? And Ivanka Trump answered that she loves the app ETA because “It’s a life saver when I have to rush from a meeting to pick up my children.”

Ivanka wants us to know she’s a working mom. She wants credit for balancing work and family, because when it comes to women competing for the admiration of other women, this is what matters most to most women.

Great. Because I don’t have a chance in hell of convincing you that I’m Sheryl Sandberg, so I like that maybe I am looking like Ivanka, doing the great balance thing. Maybe I am doing okay. Ivanka is so beautiful. And I like how smart and grounded her husband is.

But I don’t believe Ivanka uses ETA to pick up her kids after work. She has a car service, and nannies, and there is no way she does the picking up herself if she knows she’s going to be late. And she implies her kids are at daycare, but they are likely with a nanny who can bring the kids to Ivanka if Ivanka’s running late.

So it’s pointless for me to want to be like Ivanka. She starts to sound dishonest because she doesn’t talk about what she gives up.

It’s times like this when I wonder why there is so little discussion about Melinda Gates. I have been stalking her for more than a decade. I remember where I was standing when I read in the National Enquirer that Bill Gates was dating a woman who works at Microsoft and has an MBA. I remember when I read she didn’t want to talk to him at Microsoft because it was too awkward and it would ruin her career. I remember when I heard she was quitting.

Melinda quit a very promising career to raise her kids. She waited and waited until they grew up enough, and then she went back into the workforce, distributing money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today, if you are trying to get funding from the female condom initiative, you have to get past Melinda on the technology front before you can be considered a candidate for funding.

But she does not work full-time. Not even close. In a rare interview – with Vogue – she says: “I want to be such a huge part of the foundation. But my kids are not going to be this age forever.”

She speaks the language of quitting, of giving something up. It’s the language of having to make hard choices instead of having it all.

She is a model for how to give up her work and have kids. She’s a model for making tough, adult choices.

The role model for today’s woman should be someone who talks about what she gave up. I like that Arianna Huffington talks about how she gave up her sanity to run AOL and raise two daughters. I appreciate the discussion of the gut-wrenching loneliness her daughters felt growing up. But Huffington’s candor only serves to make me certain I want to be associated with women who gave up the work part of their life, not the kids part.

Its hard for me to write “gave up the work part of life.” It kills me. Like maybe I’m giving up too much.

I need a role model who can show me how to be proud and unapologetic for my choices. Melinda doesn’t justify her education to us. She doesn’t justify that she’s not using her MBA while she raises kids. She trusts herself that she’ll figure something out when the kids are grown up.

The role model for me is probably someone who is smart, driven, and clearly spending lots of time doing the day-to-day monotony of being a parent. My role model doesn’t need to make everyone understand why she’s still great, even though she’s home with kids. My role model will be at peace with herself, because that’s what I want for me.


92 replies
  1. Cathy Hawley
    Cathy Hawley says:

    I love your candor and honesty. I have done this balancing act for 20 years now and feel mostly good about the choices I’ve made. And always a little guilty for anything I’ve missed with my kids. Only time will tell how well I’ve done – I’ll have someone ask them in a few years….I like that you keep the conversation going and help people think through the choices they are making.

  2. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I remember Ivanka Trump from Born Rich (2004).
    I liked her very much since then. It seems she works hard. Even though she doesn’t have to.

    I was mulling over some thoughts after watching the movie “The Internship” and came to the conclusion that you homeschool because even though you’re putting your kids in that very high track to success you refuse to sacrifice them to the system of schooling. You’re in a completely different bubble than most of us regular people are. I’m thinking at best we hope our kids are happy and well adjusted and not sacrificed in the process. We haven’t seen kickass career models in the family so that’s hard to even shoot for when you believe you have to give up everything and an arm for it. It becomes not worth it.

    I think you’ll find role models if you’re creative. But not perfect role models. For example, Melinda married a genius that allowed her to continue with high profile work after she was done raising kids.

    That’s a bit more of lottery than good planning and choices. I can’t remember if they were married already when Gates hit his stride. But a lot of regular women go on to do important work (to them) after the have raised kids. They are not high profile and they are not the profile for tech or entrepreneur magazines.

    So you may just have to believe and remember that for ages people have been adjusting to this. And it’s rough at all stages. But they do it. Knowing you, I predict that when you are ready to go full force with work again and not have to be a full time mother, you’ll start at a much higher level than most of us. You have and will always be in the loop of what’s new and important. You’ll have much better contacts than the dental assistant that scaled back to take care of her kids. You’ll always be doing work sort of part time like hanging to a raft. Not really building but not completely letting go and drowning.

    Everyone has been doing it for ages. It’s just that they’re not women in business with magazine interviews. But there they are. With high jobs and lowly jobs and everything in between.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Karelys, (sorry I misspelled your name in my weird rant below)
      I just went on a mini crash course on the Trumps trying to figure out how the kids, seemingly, turned out well in spite of everything.

      I agree that hard work seems to be her thing. The work ethic and competitive drive instilled in the Ivana/Donald kids seemed to counter balance their environment. That and the heavy influence of Ivana’s Czech parents.

      I haven’t checked up on it, but I think Melinda’s marriage was a whole lot more strategy than lottery. As I recall, he was at the top of his game and they have an arrangement in which he can still see an ex-girlfriend once a year or so. I’m too lazy to google it, so I might be spouting nonsense, but that’s my story!

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        So yeah, he was already famous and onto something by the time they got married.

        What I was trying to say is that a lot of these people marry before they hit their stride and so that’s why the spouses/family are in a much better position to do all these strategic career moves. But that’s very much like a lottery because you can’t really predict the future.

        Most women that take time off for kids go back to work and they end up doing better than before. But it doesn’t look like role model material because they didn’t start way high up. If you start higher up, take time off, then you’ll return and can go even higher up.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to seem nitpicky. It’s just that, since this blog post was specifically using Melinda as a role model, the particulars as to whether her choice was strategic or not seemed relevant to me.

          I think a lot of people have married future doctors and lawyers specifically for perceived future security and lost that gamble.

          I think it can be pretty hard to find the right balance between the, probably mistaken, beliefs that “love conquers all” and “money can buy happiness.”

          Both partners being secure in their earning power certainly can ease things as far as options go, though.

          • karelys
            karelys says:

            I didn’t take you as nitpicky. I wasn’t sure myself whether or not they married once Gates was actually making money and famous. It seems that was the case.

            It’s still a russian roulette thing but much less so.

            I just feel like a lot of Penelope’s advice to success hangs on a lot that is out of personal control. And a lot of things are out of the person’s control for sure. But there are the core building blocks for success that I think should be considered and if they are not part of your control then what in the world!? the person is just gambling.

            Penelope’s Melinda role model doesn’t work for her because Penelope is not married to a Bill Gates. So if she takes time off to raise kids she may come back and grow even bigger than where she’s at now but she won’t be at the level of Melinda Gates.

            Sometimes you just have to give up marrying someone that really fulfills you so you can get financial security. She doesn’t talk about that trade off but she talks about marrying a breadwinner very often.

            Since we’re talking about the major sacrifices in parenting (career v. kids) I think talking about the sacrifice in romantic relationships is relevant.

            Then we’ll talk about the sacrifice of high powered career v. being healthy and having good friendships.

            Everything good requires a major sacrifice. It’s a given. We’re over people pretending there’s no sacrifice of the major things. Being strategic about marrying someone rich will require a certain sacrifice. And it won’t be small. The other option is to marry someone you love and that you know you can build a good life with and then if that person becomes rich then it happens. But that would be playing lottery.

  3. Ava
    Ava says:

    We don’t need role models, we need to listen to our gut and we need to stop letting others judge.

    If you want to stay home with your kids, then do it. If you want to be Sheryl Sandberg who seems to have been proud to rip her crying kid off her leg because she had to catch a business flight, then do it.

    It is your choice and only yours to make.

    If you want to not have kids and work really hard, you can do that too.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. Of course, this is how we were all raised to think. However implied in the three-cheers-for-choices routine is that you don’t have to make huge sacrifices.

      So Gen X and Gen Y women are steeped in language of we can do anything, but we have very little understanding of what women give up in exchange for the choices they make.

      I don’t think we need anyone giving us permission to choose anything. We all know we can choose anything. But what does that mean, for real? That’s what I think we should talk about.


      • Dannielle
        Dannielle says:

        Maybe we should talk about women who work two or three jobs and have no choices. This feels like a very first world problems/elitist article.

        • Marisa
          Marisa says:

          You write off a significant question that affects a large number of people simply because it is “first world.” It sounds, by that, as though you think this is unimportant. That it is trivial because it does not concern life and death. That it is unseemly to discuss questions of raising children when so many thousands of children die before their third birthday. That it is gauche to wrestle with choices which affect our families when we ought simply to be thankful we have families. That it is crude to discuss whether to have a career since the majority of women don’t get the option.

          Most of us reading this website are first world citizens with first world problems. Are we not allowed to talk about them? Should we be ashamed of them? Should we refuse to work on solving these problems until the rest of the world’s problems are solved to our satisfaction? And how will that help the rest of the world, for us to live half-formed lives and refuse to manage our choices and relationships with integrity and honesty?

          • Dannielle
            Dannielle says:

            If I am to be honest.

            As a reader I want Penelope to stop feeling sorry for herself because it is boring to read already. It’s narcissistic.

            As a mom I hate being in the same kind of boat that Penelope and a lot of us are in. That is we feel shitty about ourselves no matter what we do.

            As a White person reading about what’s going on in Ferguson I hate myself for worrying about my self esteem when other moms have to worry their kids won’t live to see 18.

            When other moms who are treated as less important never even see their kids.

            Stuff like that.

  4. linda clark
    linda clark says:

    from a mom who gave up full time teaching’s security to part time teaching ghetto:
    we chose to invest in husband’s phd & profession SO we could have children. i’m 66 and kids are grown and gone. i only regret i did not focus more on my children.
    NO EDUCATION IS WASTED OR GOES UNUSED. motherhood requires it all.

  5. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    I don’t want to be with my children all the time, so I’m not a stay at home mom. My children may suffer some , welcome to real life where everything isn’t exactly how you want it. I don’t consider this a bad thing.
    I don’t want to be at my job all the time, so I’m not at the top of the food chain in my career. Oh well. I still feel that I’m a useful person and enjoy what I do.
    If I gave up being a surgeon it would be like giving up being a woman. It is who I am. If work is part of who you are, embrace it.
    I don’t want to be Sheryl Sandburg or Malinda gates or Lady Gaga. Why do you?
    You honestly don’t seem to enjoy the day to day drudgery of motherhood, why be a martyr for your kids? Is it any better than those who are martyred for their careers?
    Every time you do anything you’ve just not done a billion different things. Are you really going to spend your life worrying about those billion different things rather than enjoying the one you choose?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re right. I don’t enjoy the day-to-day drudgery of taking care of kids. There are two bestselling books about how no one actually likes it.

      Stumbling on Happiness and All Joy and No Fun. They are both great books about why parenting is not rewarding on a day to day basis.

      But we do it anyway, because we love our kids. So each person decides how important spending time with their kids is.

      In terms of large demographic trends, we have a generation of latchkey kids rebelling against having had two parents working full time. I am part of that generation.

      I am also part of the contingency of women who is much much happier going to work every day than cooking for kids every day.

      But I don’t think having kids is about being happy day to day. Not having kids is about being happy day to day. (Read those books if this makes no sense to you.)

      For me, having kids is about something else. I’m not totally certain what it is. But I guess that’s why I’m writing this blog. To figure it out.


      • Kristen
        Kristen says:

        I’ve given this a fair amount of thought. What is so great about having kids? It’s certainly not the drudgery or the loss of control over your own happiness. Once you have kids they hold your heart which is an incredible amount of power for someone to have over you. I am successful. I made that happen…my work, my luck, my success. But now my children’s success (and happiness) effects me as much as my own but I have very little control over it…maybe none. Argh!
        But here’s the thing…the relationship. Relationships are what make us happy and successful and the relationship we have with our kids, good or bad, are the most intense ones in our lives. That’s where the payoff is, in the all-consuming relationship. And homeschooling makes that relationship even stronger.

        • Frances
          Frances says:

          Hmm, I don’t know if the relationships we have with our kids are the most intense. I’m in a wonderful long-term relationship with the most passionate, kind, loving man I’ve ever known. It’s so intense that sometimes I cry ‘happy tears’ at the thought of growing old together. We haven’t decided yet if we want kids, but I do feel that the constant love and affection we give each other is unparalleled to anything else I have ever experienced, or maybe ever will. If I have kids I expect that relationship to be strong, but I actually wouldn’t want anything to be more intense than the romantic relationship I already have. Maybe that means that I shouldn’t have kids after all, so that nothing changes our dynamic? Or are the two types of relationships so different that there is no competition between the two?

          • Marisa
            Marisa says:

            I don’t know whether it’s possible for your relationship with your man to stay this way forever. Not to say it won’t be great forever, but it probably won’t be great in exactly the same way forever. People grow. Besides, in my experience, it’s very difficult for humans to maintain intense emotions at their peak over the long haul. We simply aren’t built that way. Doesn’t mean the love and intimacy diminish–just that our emotional responses wax and wane.

            For me, being a mother and being a wife are very different relationships. In some ways, I’m closer to my son. I grew him inside me; is there anything more intimate than that? In other ways, I’m closer to my husband. We discovered one another out of the millions; chose each other and committed ourselves to each other. He understands me better than anyone.

            And sometimes love like that is the very reason you want to have children. To create something together & use your love to nurture other little lives.

          • Frances
            Frances says:

            So, in that case, is the relationship with your child only the most intense one if they are your biological child? What if you adopt your children? You didn’t grow them in your belly – so is the relationship still ‘intimate’? All I know is that I have been with my boyfriend for 10 years and our relationship intensifies every day. You are right when you say ‘people grow’ – he has grown into an incredibly brave, mature and loving person and I have grown because of the love and encouragement he has given me over the years. I’m still undecided on whether or not I will have kids but I am confident that I am not missing out on any intense relationships or a loving and satisfying life experience if I choose to stay child-free :)

          • Marisa
            Marisa says:

            I was speaking particularly about myself and my own experiences. I have not adopted, so I can’t say from my own experiences what that feels like. I would imagine that there are plenty of biological moms who don’t actually feel that close to their children, even though they carried them for 9 months. And adopted moms, of course, who feel as close or closer than if they’d birthed the child. For ME, growing a new person inside me was profoundly intimate and intense.

            I was merely responding to the part of your post that seemed to say you ought not to have children in order to protect your current, intense, romantic relationship. My purpose was to encourage you to feel free to make the decision about children based on more elements than just the protection of your partner relationship, knowing that these types of relationships weather storms much greater than the stress of children and are flexible enough to accommodate any number of life choices.

            From your last remark, it sounds as though you already feel this way and I misread the intent in your original comment. Certainly many people live wonderful, fulfilled lives without children. In fact, that’s sort of a horrible burden to place on children: that, by their existence, they complete your desire for intense relationships. If they do, then bonus.

            I hope you don’t feel obligated to apply other people’s comments about their own kids to your personal decision to have children. Neither, of course, should a single person read about your romantic relationship and infer that s/he can never have a complete life without a similarly ideal partner.

  6. Freshman Parent
    Freshman Parent says:

    As a working Mom who dropped our eldest daughter off at college yesterday for the first time…. It was so much harder than I ever imagined. I promise you, when that time comes, you won’t be wishing you’d spent more time at work.

  7. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    Hi! I can be your role model! I am a SAHM with no career, no ambition, not even a blog! Just, you know, hanging out with toddlers, baking cookies and going to the park.

  8. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    Seriously, I love your blog. I love the bit in this post about the choices. Thanks for doing this so that people like me don’t feel alone and crazy.

  9. Carina
    Carina says:

    Just want to be sure I understand; are you saying that Arianna Huffington’s daughter developed an eating disorder and a drug habit as a teen because her mother was so focused on her career? Is this meant to be a cautionary tale of mother/parents prioritize career = lonely/emotionally neglected child = drug problems?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t think we can say there is for certain cause and effect here. But we can say for certain that Arianna would not do things the same way if she did it again. And her new book is a cautionary tale to not think doing things her way was a good idea.

      Her daughter’s new book is about loneliness.


  10. MBL
    MBL says:

    I like this piece overall, but am not a fan of the tone used for your counter-examples.

    Everyone puts forth what is important to them. Lady Gaga is very much a champion of individualism regardless of how society pegs one.

    Jessica Alba promoting a company (that I hadn’t heard of) that supports a healthy non-toxic home environment for kids and donates to families in need? The nerve!!

    Ivanka is beautiful (quite true) but she’s also pretty brilliant and savvy. And her husband is bright too (but seems to have made poorer business decisions than his wife) but is also quite good-looking–more so than the link indicates.
    Thanks for the reminder Karyles, I knew I liked Ivanka, but couldn’t remember why I had such a good impression of her. It was Rich Kids. She seemed so very grounded. Miraculously so given her lineage.
    Of course she uses nannies to manage a work/life balance. But perhaps she uses ETA to see if she can get to her kids in time or needs to make other arrangements. (which she is fortunate enough to have the means to utilize.) To me, it doesn’t make her seem less sincere. In hudsonmod.com/what-ivanka-trump-wants/ interview (from a fangirl who uses a lot of periods. A. Lot.) Ivanka seems sincere, in control of the interview, and very diplomatic; but also notes that she is fortunate to live close to the office so she can run home to see her daughter between meetings. True, flaws aren’t revealed, but that isn’t her style. She does make it clear that she is very driven and willing to put in the time because she loves it. To say that a 1 line blurb in a “what do love this month” article makes her untrustworthy seems kind of short sighted. I found another article from just before the birth of her second child in which she stated that she worked 16 hour days and saw her daughter before work and for an hour and 15 minutes in the evening before going back to the office. And that she doesn’t hold herself up as a role model. She really, really loves her job and makes her choices accordingly.

    Your “thing” is honesty to the point of self deprecation. And it works for you because you repeatedly state that you need to do that because of your past. That people find it endearing and brave (I do) is a bonus. It also lets people cut you some slack when you post conflicting facts. Or, if they are called out, you ignore them and move on and your image remains intact. But to cite one and declare that you are untrustworthy would be unseemly. I just assume you have a good reason for doing it and keep reading.

    I’m not sure why the examples have gotten to me, but…they have.

    But sure, let’s focus more on Melinda Gates, but not at the expense of other women.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, maybe it’ll make you feel better to know that I used the examples of women who are great at managing their brand. I like all three of them. I don’t think I ever said anything to the contrary.


      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Speaking of brands and management and Lady Gaga…

        I was positive that her image and vision was her own, by how it’s packaged and sold.

        Then I came across this article about Troy, her previous manager and his experience that helped him help her launch her career…


        talent- I give her the credit, branding- it goes to him

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          That’s a great link. Thanks. I’m fascinated by the idea that people who want to be the front of a brand rarely have all the talent needed to steer that brand. And the people who are great at steering a brand are so often behind the scenes.


  11. redrock
    redrock says:

    Everybody makes choices in life, it would be absurd to think that all of them will be the perfect choice in hindsight. So, yes, nearly everybody has kinks in their life and regrets certain paths they have taken. But it really is not so simple – kids can be lonely and grow up deeply unhappy and disturbed with a SAH parent and homeschool nirvana, or have only an hour with their parents a day and become wonderful adults. Not having children is not a choice made for one’s own happiness – it is governed by much more complex life situations and not just the self-centered choice for day to day happiness.

    Fifty years ago there was no choice – no work without a husbands permission, no access to many colleges, and many more no’s. It is good to have choices, now each of us has the incredible luxury to make those choices. Those generations before us worked hard to open a wide range of opportunities to women, we should not complain about having them at our disposal. And, men also have to make choices, life is not only about the SAHM versus work or how to combine it.

  12. Caralyn
    Caralyn says:

    Being a homeschooling SAHM is difficult. It was quite easy when the kids were little. Do it for five years with toddlers, no problem. Sixteen years in and it’s way harder. Life is exciting with kids, and monotonous. Teaching the fourth kid to read (the third with diagnosed LDs) is challenging, but so worth it.

    I quit university halfway into my degree…sometimes I worry how I will be employable when the kids are gone. I’ll be either in my late 40’s going back to school (after teaching for what feels like a million years), or working at a low paying job. Not sure what the future holds.

    Would love to mentor you as my personality type is the kind that’s perfectly designed to be at home with the kids..and would love you to mentor me in figuring out what life could possibly hold for a career. Well, a women can dream…

    • Deanne
      Deanne says:

      Hi Caralyn- I’ve been a homeschooling SAHM for the last 19 years, and I also wonder “what’s next” for me, seeing as how I haven’t been in full-time contact with the working world for so long. Homeschooling brings its own challenges and rewards, none of which I’d change for anything!

  13. Nan Skovran
    Nan Skovran says:

    While claiming to be Catholic, Melinda, via the Gates foundation, pushes birth control on women in 3rd world countries. The women don’t want it and the Church to which she belongs believes that use of birth control is a mortal sin as the procreative act is meant to create children and married couples are supposed to be open to children.

    Melinda isn’t giving up anything; you don’t marry a multi-millionaire and plan to continue working in a serious way. You just don’t. Distributing money via the Gates foundation isn’t serious work; she’s giving money with strings attached, following an agenda and trying to get others to also buy into it.

    Most third wold women still believe in having babies; they still have a high mortality rate so many of their children don’t make it to adulthood.

    • Hope
      Hope says:

      Your comments ignore the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Is it better to bring babies into the world and leave them orphans than to use a condom to stop the spread of AIDS?

      Also, FWIW, about 99% of Catholics (besides you, I mean) use birth control in some form.

      I suggest the good the Gates Foundation does far outweighs the perceived evil in your position.

  14. Monica
    Monica says:

    Thank you, this is healthy, and truthful. No,you can’t have it all, like they keep telling us, and not all things that you can give up have equal worth. I gave up my sanity once, and that did not work out well. And my opinion is that nothing is worth giving up parenting time, although this is something that I tend to keep to myself until AFTER I’ve been hired. And then I cash in my chips, with apologies to those who were naive enough to believe that anything- even something that I’d call my passion- would be more important than my kids.

  15. Debra
    Debra says:

    I’m missing part of the second to last paragraph. “She trusts herself that she’ll…” I want to think you mean she will use it later, but maybe you meant she will see later how she is using it now.

  16. Shandra
    Shandra says:

    My mom gave up her career and stayed home with my sister and I. And she pushed us to be top-achieving in school in order to justify her choice. She still (I am 43) refers to us as her life’s work.

    And you know what? It totally messed us up. We are both successful in our ways (my sister particularly in terms of corporate success; I am doing pretty well in a creative field, although I still get shit for not doing a PhD) and yet we each have struggled a lot with feeling like the burden of the whole world was on our shoulders, never feeling like we are good enough, and we have lousy relationships with her.

    She is not interested in who we are really. This is not just because she made the choice to stay home. But I do believe it is partly because she made the choice to stay home when she would have been happier doing something else, and because she didn’t have the perspective that we are not a life’s work, we are not a measure of achievement, we are _people_.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really appreciate you sharing this perspective, Shandra. I worry about it all the time, for myself. Like, I tell myself, will I still be okay that I spent 20 hours a week driving to cello lessons if my son decides to quit cello? To me that’s a good test if I am over investing.

      But I also wonder if a lot of people who live through their kids are lying to themselves that they gave up their career for their kids. Very few women actually have a solid career by age 28, when most are deciding to have kids. So then a lot of people who stay home with kids give up the POSSIBILITY of a career, but they never really found something they want to devote themselves to besides kids.

      I hope this is not too cynical. This is usually something I’d ask my editor to check before I publish. I am getting braver. Or dumber or maybe brave and dumb are related. Or maybe that is also just more cynicism.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I can’t tell if you are stating that they tell themselves this after the fact or before. If you mean after they quit, then I would actually take this a step further and suggest that some people consciously decide to stay at home SO they can say “If only…”

        But maybe you already said that.

      • Shandra
        Shandra says:

        I think that is an excellent test.

        In my mother’s case, she definitely had a career underway, but it is true that the same issues that made her tough as a SAHM might have torpedoed her. And she might have messed us up in other ways.

        But I do think that for her, having more to focus on would have been good. I don’t think I worry about you about that because you do have other work and this blog and other things my mother did not have or did not try to have.

        For me, I work outside the home ’cause I do think I might repeat the pattern…but I am sure I make my own mistakes too. I hope I can let my kids be themselves.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I find myself questioning the root of my desires often.

        If I dislike where they come from and think I should change it then I do.

        I wanted a career since I was very young. Perhaps to feel powerful (since I come from such a traditional, men>women, environment). Perhaps to prove myself since skating through life on being beautiful was not my cup of tea or my genetic lot.

        I like to work hard but I am tired of working hard sometimes.

        I think building a career is a sanctified way of building monuments to ourselves. And raising kids and relationships is a celebrated way to sacrifice yourself (but still get adulation from it). I am always careful to not try to turn my kid into my monument.

        If something is causing so much strife, why don’t you question what you want and why you want it? Why don’t you make sure that those desires and that impetus stems from roots that you approve of.

        I used to want to have a career because I wanted security. Then I figured out that there’s no security. It’s just smoke and mirrors.

        The best safety net, in my opinion, is to build a network of people that can help you catch you and get you back on your feet when crap hits the fan.

        That’s it.

        It’s always and has always been about people.

        I had no career set up. I had no clear focus before having kids. I thought I did and then it changed.

        Right now I am focusing on living a life I love and being happy because being happy protects you from depression. And I’ve had the bad kind.

        I am focusing on cultivating relationships and sowing and planting good things in people. That is my best safety net, I’ve found out.

        And that doesn’t compete with raising and sharing with a happy family.

        • Susan
          Susan says:

          I love this comment! Spot on. Actually, all the comments on this post are excellent and thoughtful. What a great conversation. Thanks, all.

  17. brenda
    brenda says:

    I get really tired of hearing about how rich people made such a hard decision to quit work. What’s so hard about that? I’d give anything to quit my lousy job and stay home with my kids.

  18. dcline
    dcline says:

    > And you will listen when I say that Infusionsoft is the wave of the future of content marketing…

    I think it kind of dings your credibility when you link to pages with sentences like:

    …I don’t work for InfusionSoft, but I am a certified “Infusionsoft Sales & Marketing Expert” and a referral partner.

  19. Mimsey
    Mimsey says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    Many women, probably most, don’t have a high powered career, and don’t have the luxury of “choosing”, because they must work to make ends meet. My heart hurts for them and the painful sacrifices they have to make.

    The assumption that all kids will be ok as long as they are supervised by a responsible adult is just plain wrong. Kids have different temperaments and emotional needs, and what works just fine for one child could be terrible for another.

    Everyone’s situation is different, and every woman should make the arrangement of work vs staying at home with the kids in a way that works best for her family.

    I quit a great job at a premier investment bank to raise my son. It was tough financially, but I know I made the right decision for me and my son. That isn’t to say there weren’t times when I sorely missed working and longed to go back, but I was and am certain that whatever I might have accomplished at work would never come close to being as important as raising a child.

  20. Greg
    Greg says:

    It’s really nice you had a choice in whether to work or not, but many mothers to most mothers in this day don’t have a choice as to whether they work or not. They have to work to help fund the family. They do it to make sure the kids have food, clothes, a home and one day college. We now live in an age where both parents have to work to live. So when you hold up your choice as a badge of honor. You just make the guilt of those who don’t have that luxury feel worse then they already do.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      When I first stopped working outside the home, we didn’t have money. My husband didn’t work. Our family was on public assistance on and off for a couple of years.

      I had a baby when I was uninsured, and the conditions were so bad that my hospital bed kept slipping down when the doctor was sewing up the episiotomy.

      I tell you this because it’s so easy to assume that everyone who quits working outside the home has a lot of money hiding somewhere.

      I didn’t have money hiding. For a while we had no money. I told myself that I would be very poor for a little while I figured out how to work from home. It was worth it.


  21. Karo
    Karo says:

    This post makes me sad. I wish Penelope was my friend. Living the life I am makes me realize how fake and insecure the women are with whom I interact. They would never so openly discuss complex life choices. All they do it sugarcoat their decisions no matter what they may be.

  22. Satya
    Satya says:

    I want to pipe up with my dream, which I haven’t achieved yet. But I feel so driven toward it that I won’t ever stop trying.

    Call it crazy, but I want to have a successful online business I run from home that allows flexibility in my schedule. It doesn’t have to be so big that I must travel for meetings or let it take over my life. It just has to provide a living and allow me to apply what I’m good at.

    I don’t want to be with my kids all the time, but I want to be there for a lot. And I want to adjust what “a lot” means on the fly. I know other women are doing this.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for piping up, Satya, because I think most moms who are at home have this dream. Because Pew Research shows that most moms would like a part-time job. And most part-time jobs are home-based businesses.

      The hardest part of this is having the patience to grow the business to something that really does feel like a business. I’m not sure about what percentage of parents are actually able to do this. I wonder…


    • Meg
      Meg says:

      Satya – you’re the Satya of Unfolded Note right? Since you piped up, I just wanted to say I’m a subscriber and have been watching as you’ve launched this creative consulting business online and have been thinking I ought to tell you that I, as an observer who doesn’t know you at all, am so proud of you for doing that. I adore your writing and think your resources are great. I hope it’s working out for you and you’re able to turn it into a business – I’m rooting for you over here. In fact, I just bought your book because it sounded dumb to say I’m rooting for you if I haven’t bought anything. People, check her out: http://unfoldednote.com/great-mail/meyerlemons/

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I just did check out Satya. Thanks for posting the link.

        Immediately after reading The Coffee Can I threw out an unopened, fairly expensive can of whole bean decaf that was taking up room on the counter by the coffee maker. We seldom used decaf but I had it just in case. In fact, I gave up all coffee 8 months ago though my husband still fixes some on the weekends.

        I don’t think I was saving it for the Apocalypse like Satya, but I clearly didn’t need to keep it. The expiration date on the bottom? 03/05/10.

        Nice site.

        • Satya
          Satya says:

          This made me smile. Hooray for clearing! Glad I’m not the only irrational coffee hoarder out there though. (Or placenta hoarder, if you’ve been reading my other posts.)

      • Satya
        Satya says:

        Yes, that’s me. Thank you so much for your support. I’m still figuring out how to actually earn an income, but experimenting as part of the process. I hope you enjoy my book!

    • Becky Miller
      Becky Miller says:

      You’re the one with Unfolded Note, right? I heard about it here from Penelope, and I’m glad I signed up. I hope you’re able to monetize it and turn it into the business you want! I think it’s fantastic.

  23. Hannelene
    Hannelene says:

    Love this post – thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly. I still struggle most with how I introduce myself. Oh, I’m a mom, but I used to be a banker… I have to stop myself from saying that constantly. No regrets, just nervous about being perceived as “just a mom”. Ridiculous I know.

  24. Marisa
    Marisa says:

    Some rambling thoughts, in no particular order:

    You’ve made a really tough decision to stay home with your kids. I know it was tough because you’re an ENTJ. It was an easy decision for me, an INFJ. I’m blessed to have the option. I think it would have been easier for you if you hadn’t had the option.

    I don’t know whether you’re like this, but I have an ENTJ friend who used to wish he lived in the pioneer days. He’d say, “Because then I’d know for sure absolutely what had to be done, Just keep my family alive and well.” The clear goal with the clear measure of success, no matter how difficult. No peripheral issues to muddy the water.

    I read a post of yours recently in which you recommended people not do what they love, but do what they are. Career advice, I know, but I couldn’t help thinking of it when I read your post today. These high-powered career women are doing what they are–doing what comes naturally, following their personality types. I think their choices were easier because of that. You are not “doing what you are”. At least, not directly. Oddly, I think you have more in common with the woman who longs to be a SAHM but who continues to work in order to support her family. She, too, is sacrificing “doing what she is” in order to do what she knows is best for her family. In both situations (yours and the SAHM wannabe), what the woman “is” conflicts with the role the family needs the woman to fill.

    Several people have commented that the conversation needs to be about women who cannot afford to be home with their children, but I’m saying that the conversation already is about them. It’s about women who give up good things that come naturally in order to do what is best for their families.

    G.K. Chesterton has some interesting thoughts about how men (or people in careers) have to sharpen themselves and be the very best possible & compete at one particular thing. They have to “give their best” to their career in order to succeed. Women (or homemakers) have to diffuse themselves and be tolerably good at a myriad of things. They have to “give all of themselves” to their home and family. Chesterton stresses that the only way a person is able to give this much, this completely, is if s/he is “protected” from the stress & mindset of competition.

    I find it interesting because I have internalized so much of the discourse surrounding careers and misapplied it to my attempts at homemaking. I find myself mentally evaluating my homemaking skills as though in competition with others. As though I’m applying for position as homemaker. Sometimes I hear an undercurrent of something similar in your posts. You arguing with yourself about giving up what you’re really good at–competitive things you can win–to do mostly stuff you’re not good at. And to keep doing it for a long time, over and over, without obvious measures of success.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      “In both situations (yours and the SAHM wannabe), what the woman “is” conflicts with the role the family needs the woman to fill.”

      I find this part of your post so so good! Well, the entire comment is great really.

      Maybe the conversation ought to shift from “we all are doing what we deem best for our family even if it’s not true to ourselves. But it’s always temporary. You can always change the course.”

      I think that the discussion to be had is “what do you do when there’s a lot of sacrifice and your mind is clouded so you don’t know if you’re taking steps in the right direction?”

      I think this applies to all. Single parents, poor working parents, rich parents, etc.

      I think Penelope’s beef is with everyone that pretends that you can have it all, or worse, that you can have a high powered career as a woman and that your family won’t be sacrificed.

      But that’s such an old argument and it’s so boring.

      I am furious that I didn’t have the good fortune to learn the lessons I’ve learned in my 20’s much earlier in life. I would have been in a much better position financially and career wise. But this is my lot. I don’t want to waste energy grinding my gears. I want to move forward and make something happen.

  25. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    It’s impossible for anyone, male or female, to live up to the notion of “having it all.” There is always more we could do than we can possibly do. All I can do is feel comfortable with how I’ve allocated my (all too finite) time. In the end, we all have only 24 hours a day to invest.

  26. Michelle R
    Michelle R says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I am a stay-at-home mom who also has a Masters in Accounting. I chose to stay at home with my kids and it has been such a blessing! Now, my kids are getting older (but all still living at home and in school) and there is sooooo much pressure to go back to work outside the home. I feel guilty for being at home. But I feel my kids need me just as much now as when they were younger, just in a different way.

  27. Becky Miller
    Becky Miller says:

    “The role model for me is probably someone who is smart, driven, and clearly spending lots of time doing the day-to-day monotony of being a parent.” <—- That's why you're one of my role models, P. Because this is what I'm watching you doing, and I'm learning from you.

  28. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    Just another perspective. I wish my mother had a full time job outside of home. She is the kind that gave up the possibility of a good career to be a stay home mom of two. She ended up precisely the opposite of a the women described to be content with tough sacrifices. She explicitly said she would rather have a career than to be a housewife if she can go back in time. One of the reasons is because both my sister and I did not become the person she imagined to be no matter how she tried to shape us.

    A career is dynamic and always changing (albeit changing in ways that can screw you up) but there is only so much parents can change in their children. Don’t even mention the society’s policies or public education.

    When parents’ aren’t happy with their children’s pre-determined disposition and their life decisions, they won’t necessarily say they regret having children but too many have said if only they could go back in time.

    Although I will attribute my case to personality differences. My mother must be hyper focused in the things she do. When she finds that no ones necessarily appreciates the fact that there isn’t a single dust in the house she respond bitterly with “Just you wait until you guys fail in the society for being sloppy.” Of course that isn’t true. Society doesn’t weed people out if they aren’t perfect in managing their own homes. And she has been strict on all aspects of my life because she’s afraid if she couldn’t perfect a child, she fails. She hasn’t grown up as a person by being a mother. Kinda like Betty Draper’s childishness.

    On the other hand I hated helicopter parents. I could clean and cook by myself at a young age and I specifically instructed my parents not to bring camcorders at my school play etc. In fact I have been happier if they didn’t attend activities I’ve chosen. Certainly I have broken their hearts because I said I want to be on my own as much as possible.

    If my mother had a career I could see how she and I would bond because she would definitely become a lovable mentor. Her personality fits in the workplace and she would have an easier time sharing wisdom on how the times are always changing and how life is full of fulfilling challenges.

    Domestic life hardly ever evolves for people who aren’t rich, but if I can change one thing I pray that the society stops blaming parents who aren’t with their children all the time.

  29. MBL
    MBL says:

    Is it just me, or does it look like Z, the fashionisto, does NOT approve of what he sees in that top pic?

  30. Naz Laila
    Naz Laila says:

    What about Anna Quindlen as a role model for you Penelope. I know she quited her jobs a few times but ended up achieving a lot in her journalist career as well as in her creative writing.

  31. Joseph Jameson
    Joseph Jameson says:

    This was a really gratifying read. As a father it hits so close to home knowing what it does to my wife to raise our children, and hoping that she knows I value that she’s done so. I agree with the role model of Melinda Gates, less so with other celebrities. Having the money to afford someone else to raise your children is not the same as raising them yourself. I think that mothers who take time away from their successful careers to care for their children deserve a larger spotlight.

  32. R
    R says:

    The role model for today’s woman should be someone who talks about what she gave up.

    This sentence really struck a chord with me, Penelope. I’m 32, married, an ENFP. I love people and love hanging out with kids. I’d like to have a child or two of my own, especially one who resembled my husband in some way. But I also LOVE to create: to chase dreams, come up with ideas, and release them into the world. I find it intensely fulfilling, and I am great at it. And I’m not sure I can do both of those things at the same time. Based on your posts, I’m not sure that you would agree either.

    So, the question I often ask myself is: am I willing to give up 5 or 10 or 20 years of peak creative time in order to be a mother? I’m not sure the answer is yes, as much as I enjoy the company of children. I may well feel a twinge of “what if” if I get to 45 and don’t have a child. But I might also feel that twinge if I get to 45 and never really got to know how far I could go. On the other hand, I am aware that my husband and I could probably be perfectly happy following either path: following our creative and entrepreneurial dreams to the max, travelling the world and surrounding ourselves with fascinating people, or parenting a child or two and making family our focus for a decade.

    But it makes me sad, just as it does you; that I probably can’t be a parent and also pursue my dreams with full force. Because wouldn’t it be nice if you could do both?

  33. Logan
    Logan says:

    Melinda Gates, as accomplished and philanthropic as she may be is someone whom I don’t think represents a role model for young women, unless that is simply to marry a billionaire. I say that quite respectfully. Obviously marrying a billionaire comes with responsibility- starting charitable foundations and all that jazz, but one might as well say, her identity is infused with that of her husband’s achievements.

    I don’t know her personally, so I really can’t comment on her likability, but she has a very off-putting persona; sort of a nervous, anxious, insincere person and it appears from watching her TED videos that her prime objective is to make African women infertile. She talks of her “greatest” achievement as making the world produce less offspring via forced and available birth control.

    I’m probably being overly judgmental, and I haven’t married a billionaire, so my words may be filled with sarcasm, but hopefully my fiancé and my goals would extend beyond a vanity charity foundation that appears to be more of a viable business model that escapes paying taxes than truly attempting to help those around the world. Of course, the public at large likes to laud a woman for marrying the richest man in the world, but honestly, she looks terribly unhappy.

    But I’m probably being naïve.

  34. Lisa Gray
    Lisa Gray says:

    I really appreciate this conversation. I did not consciously “give up” a career. I was a teacher when we moved because of a better job for my husband, and there was no work that I was trained for to be had. This coincided with having a one year old and what I “gave up” was my willingness to let someone else raise my kids. I did not have the drive or passion for the career I had chosen and guess what? I found out I did not want to do it all. I had another child and post partum depression and things stacked up and there I was. Now my kids are 13 and 10 and things happen- like unforeseen medical issues- one for each child. Though I am not happy day to day with the drudgery of children, you can bet I am satisfied that I am the one managing all of this and not having to find out ways to get out of work, especially hard in the field of education. What I gave up was having something for me, but I get tired of hearing people complain about how busy they are and are seeking balance when there is none. We all give up something and for me, it was finding a career that filled me up. I wanted kids and it was (no surprise!) harder than I imagined. I started writing to save myself and later became an activist on issues that matter to me and for now, it is good enough because it fits into our lifestyle for now. Sometimes it can make me crazy- but it is a crazy of my own making.

  35. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    I’m an example of a kid that benefited from a stay at home Mom. My Mom worked part-time and spent lots of time raising me and my sister. She was obsessed with having a good relationship with us, and with all of us having strong relationships with one another. She made the everyday mundane stuff fun. Neither of those things come naturally to me, but I have good relationships, in part, because she taught me how.

    Though, like Shandra, both my sister and I felt pressure to be perfect because of her commitment. And, ironically, her focus on us sometimes pushes us away. Sometimes, it’s too much.

    I remember being surprised as a kid that my friend’s Moms weren’t doing all the fun things we did. I think it made me grounded and well-adjusted, but I don’t think it made me achieve more. In fact, if anything, I had less drive to prove myself.

  36. Annie Kip
    Annie Kip says:

    Penelope, I really applaud your willingness to talk about being a mom as well as an entrpreneur/business woman. It is so hard to strike the balance for ourselves and trust that people will not write you off for caring too much about one job or the other – women are often the hardest on each other! I really appreciate it when respected leaders like you – and Melinda Gates – share their process of figuring it out. It helps all of us know that we can find our own way to make all of our interests, passions, responsibilities, and commitments fit together. Thanks!

  37. jessica
    jessica says:

    Here’s what I’m banking on. Having my kids young, then in 20 years time opening my eyes and making myself some options of how to next spend my time. In 20 years there will be another world of technology to depend on too, greater increasing odds of personal/professional success.

    In the back of my mind, in a few years time, I plan to start the roots of ‘something’…to build on as the kids get older.

    I’m lucky in that I don’t need to work (thanks hubs), but at the same time we set ourselves up like this…and we both came from nothing.

    So while the kids can be monotonous, it’s the post reminders on here that it goes way to fast to remind myself to stay present and be grateful that one day it won’t be like this and they will have moved on. I will need to move on and I think I have the confidence that when that time comes I’ll be able to figure it out.

  38. Deanne
    Deanne says:

    For the last 19 years, I’ve given up a full-time career to homeschool our children. I do contract writing, but it’s not the same as a full-time “career.” I wouldn’t change a thing, but I too, wonder about women who let us think they have it all. I’ve been asked if there’s ever a chance I could return to the work world and know what’s going on; I’ve also been asked when I “last used my college degree,” a question I found particularly insulting. No easy answers, are there?? Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      When I last used my degree? Hmmmm, there was this freshman communications class titled “How to talk to stupid people without resorting to violence.” Oh, by the way, could please excuse me for a moment? I need to take some deep breaths.

  39. Heather
    Heather says:

    I love this post. I’m still working and have three kids, but I know I make a lot of decisions at work to make my time more available for my kids.

  40. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I have 2 kids, aged 2 and 3. I’m an ENTP, so you can imagine how I feel about day-to-day drudgery. I am a SAHM. Yes, it kills me too.

    We moved cities to be near family in a place with low cost of living so we could do this. My husband got a flexible job too, and I use that flexibility to retrain for my next career, the one I’ll theoretically do when my kids are a bit older.

    There are things I can’t do now, but will be able to do in 5 years. Easy. I can delay gratification for a few years.

    Then there are things I worry I will never be able to do because I don’t know if I would choose away from my kids for 70+ hours a week. (I know exactly what career I want and am suited to and the research is that the average working week is 70 hours.) I don’t know if I would choose that and I also know I will regret it if I don’t follow that path.

    Actually, what I really worry about is that the day will come when I will decide to be away at work for 70 hours a week. Hopefully my kids can come on business trips with me.

    • R
      R says:

      A genuine question for you, Penelope, and some of the other women in this thread. If you are an ambitious woman, is it better (or at least more rational/practical) *not* to have kids?

      I get that once you DO have them, they become your top priority, and curtailing your professional desires for 5 (or 15) years might be a sacrifice, but it is one most women – and even most people? – are happy to make. Love is more important than money, after all, and even more important than impact and intellectual stimulation.

      But given the sacrifices involved, if you are a professionally ambitious woman, do you think it is more *rational* not to have kids? (And I say this as a fluffy bunny ENFP – ha.) I mean, it would be nice to be able to thrive doing both. But what I’m hearing in Penelope’s post and the responses to it is a few professionally stifled moms who love their kids but wish that they were doing more with their careers, and a greater majority who never really liked their jobs that much in the first place, so giving them up was a small sacrifice.

      But what if you really LOVE your work? Is it better not to have kids then? Or are kids so amazing that once you have them you’ll realize that even the work you once really loved pales in comparison?

  41. Anjuan Simmons
    Anjuan Simmons says:

    I think my wife would be a good role model for you. She has a PhD in business from Texas A&M and teaches business classes at Sam Houston State University. She’s a tenured professor which shows she’s smart and driven. But, she doesn’t teach during the summers so that she can maximize the time spent with our kids. She’s even been the homeroom Mom for all of our kids when they were in kindergarten through 1st grade. She keeps her class load light, does research she’s passionate about, and invests in our children’s daily lives. Being a college professor is a great option for her because it’s a flexible job (other Moms at our kids’ school often think she doesn’t work because she is so present at school activities) that has the reward of teaching young minds.

    Anjuan Simmons

  42. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    Great article. Such a rich discussion here that has obviously struck a chord with many women.

    I want kids. I want a successful career. I want it all. But I realize that I cannot, at least not all at the same time.

    I don’t know what I’m chasing, I just know that I want to squeeze every inch out of this life before I’m gone.

  43. Suki
    Suki says:

    I just love this post. Tous court. We women just have to remember, that nobody is red carpet smart more than 2 % of their time. The remaining 98 % is trying to cope with life.

  44. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Wonderful post. My whole adult life I feel like I’ve been giving something up (graduate school/certain job offers/working outside the home) for the pleasure of keeping the most important things (my time, independence and ability to change direction/living in the place I want to live/being home with my daughter while I work remotely).

    That being said, I’m trying to create something that could allow more parents to give up less. I’m forming a coworking and childcare cooperative with other parents. Shared office space in one room, childcare in the other rooms, parents rotate in and out of the childcare environment 1-2 hours per day. Penelope, if you ever feel inclined to move to North Carolina, you could join us!

Comments are closed.