Fortune magazine ran an article titled “The Welshman, the Walkman, and the salarymen,” which asked if the CEO, Howard Stringer, can fix Sony. At the end of the article, Stringer, who is married with two children is quoted as saying at company meeting, “I don’t see my family much. My family is you.”

GIVE ME A BREAK!!! I can’t decide which is more pathetic — that Stringer is living this life or that Fortune magazine is writing about it without any commentary.

How can there be no mention of the fact that he is neglecting his kids? What about the double standard we have in this country? If you are poor and you abandon your kids you are a bad parent. But if you are rich and you abandon them to run a company, you are profiled in Fortune magazine.

I now quote a government publication aimed at low-income fathers:

“All children need emotional and financial support from both parents. The campaign goal is to convey .. the importance of family life and to encourage fathers — whether married, divorced or single — to become involved in their children’s lives… Responsible fathers are men who actively share with the mother in providing physical, emotional and intellectual needs for their child.”

This standard applies to Stringer. Just because he’s rich doesn’t mean his kids don’t need to see him. How is he providing emotional support to his children when he is telling his employees that he has replaced his family with his employees?

Employees, beware: CEOs like Stringer have a negative affect on your own ability to keep your personal life in tact, because work-life policy starts at the top and trickles down.

When you are looking for a company to work for, look at the CEO. If he works insane hours, you can bet that you will be expected to do the same, on some level. And my gosh, if he refers to you as his family, run!

Women who want to have kids should make it a high priority in their early twenties to find a partner. This week’s Newsweek cover story, Marriage by the Numbers, says is okay to wait until after 35 to get married. Newsweek is revising the saying that a woman has more chance of getting hit by a truck than getting married after age 35.

But the article ignores one of the most pressing issues facing Generation X: Infertility. No generation of women has had more trouble with fertility than this generation who received the terrible advice, “Wait. You have time. Focus on your career first.”

In fact, you have your whole life to get a career. This is not true about having a baby.

Even if you are past your early twenties, or not heterosexual, if you’re single and want to have kids with a partner, you need to find one now. Take that career drive and direct it toward mating because your career skills will outlast your ovaries.

In case you think you’re waiting for “the right time,” there is no evidence to show when in a woman’s career is best to have kids. At any point, she is thrown off track. At any point when a woman has kids, statistically she will start to earn less money even if she takes no maternity leave whatsoever. There is no evidence to show that it’s easier to take time out of the workforce at a certain point in a career. People just plain don’t know.

Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told me in an interview, “Don’t wait until the right time in your career to have a child or it will never come.”

However there is lots of evidence to show that a woman’s biological clock takes a nose-dive at age 35. I know, because that’s when I started having kids. The geneticist showed me and my husband a graph of Down’s Syndrome and we nearly keeled over when we saw the cliff at 35. We had no idea. That Down’s Syndrome cliff, though, is a stand-in for everything, because a huge percentage of fertility statistics get bad at 35.

There is also lots of evidence to say that having kids at least two years apart is best for the kids. However there is a distinct advantage for first-born kids. They are richer, smarter, and as if that’s not enough, year after year 90% of Harvard’s incoming freshmen are first-born. You can mitigate the impact of birth order on your second child by having three years between kids.

If you start when you are thirty-one, you can have two kids, three years apart, before you’re thirty-five. But this plan does not take into consideration that about 20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage. This means you have almost a 50% chance of having to go through three pregnancies to have two kids, which means you should start when you’re thirty.

If you want to have babies when you’re thirty, then you probably want to be married when you’re twenty-eight. This is good news because if you marry very young you’re more likely to get divorced, but the statistics get much better if you wait until you’re twenty-five. For a healthy marriage, experts think people should be married two or three years before they consider having children. A reasonable expectation is to meet someone, date for a couple of years, and get engaged with almost a year’s time to pull off a wedding. So you need to meet the person at age twenty-four.

So this means that it may make sense for men to work full-speed ahead on their career in their early twenties, but women cannot afford that. Women need to make time in their lives to search for a mate in the same systematic, focused way that women have been searching for careers in their early twenties. And don’t tell yourself you’re waiting until you know yourself better. Getting to know yourself is a lifelong process, and after age twenty-five, waiting to get married won’t decrease your chance of divorce.

The good news here is that a large body of research shows that you will gain more happiness by being married than by having a good job. Yes, you should not have to choose between a good job and marriage. But this column is not about what is fair or what is just. It is about what is real.

You have a biological clock that does not pay attention to issues of social justice. You cannot control your biological clock and you cannot control the workplace. But you can control where you spend your time and energy, and you should look hard for a husband early on. Line up the marriage first, then the career.

 

In a moment of publicity genius, Salary.com compiled research to determine the value of a stay-at-home mom. The verdict: $134,121 a year.

And then the arrows started flying. The economists complained that the math is sloppy. (By the way, one of my brothers is an economist so I know that economists think everyone’s math is bad except their own.) The working moms who don’t make that much feel slighted. (They actually took time from their busy day to post petty, indignant comments like, “My friend says she spent a lot of extra money when she was home with her kids.”) And men are complaining that no one is paying attention to their contribution. (Take note: Men earn about 25% more than women in comparable jobs, so you do the math.)

But that is not the point. The point is that our society only values work that is paid, and people are not paid to parent, and that is a problem. The discussion should be about how to shift society so that parenting is more valued. That is what we should be talking about.

The Salary.com survey is a good way to start people thinking about how to value parenting.

I spent two hours this week writing an article about autism. My son was diagnosed with autism and I could write five hundred pages about dealing with the diagnosis. But then I reminded myself about specializing. About focus. Specialists get a lot of good things in this world, and people who dabble in everything get nothing.

Dabbling is fine, to a point. I mean, you have to dabble to figure out what you want to be a specialist in. But let’s be real. I write a career column. I have a book about careers coming out. I speak at universities about careers. I am not an autism writer.

So I trashed the autism article. Because it’s not going to help my career in a focused way. Sure, it might help in a haphazard way, the way playing basketball at the park helps your career because you never know what will come of anything. But the only way to reach focused career goals is to have focused efforts.

I stick to writing about careers because specialization is the ticket to freedom from boring and inflexible work. Let’s say you want to have every other Wednesday off to go to a yoga class. If you are a specialist who would be hard to replace, your boss will be more likely to say yes than if five hundred entry-level people can do what you do.

The more you need, the more this rule applies. Moving in and out of the workforce is easier once you’ve established that you’re great at a specific thing. And entrepreneurship is easier as specialist, too, because one of best ways to gauge aptitude is if that person has a strong knowledge base and network in the field of the proposed business.

You don’t have to specialize right away, but you should see your work path as a quest for specialization. View random corporate jobs as possible apprenticeships. You don't need to know what you’ll specialize in, but you need to be open to it when it comes. Specialization often creeps up on you, like a friend who you never expected to turn out to be a friend.

When I first started writing columns, I had no idea that I would write about careers. I was hired to “write about what it’s like to be a female executive.” I tried lots of different types of columns. I wrote about software development (my specialty at the time). I wrote about consumer products (definitely not my specialty). Those columns flopped, and so did most of my columns that were not, in some way, about careers. I learned by trial and error that I was a career writer.

It is always scary to specialize because there are so many jobs that become out of your focus. But there is good research to show that you will have an easier time staying employed if you specialize.

Specialization is also scary because we think we need to address all aspects of our personality with our work. But no work can do that. Autism, for example, is important to me right now, but it doesn’t need to be important in my work. In fact, work is sometimes a nice break from that aspect of my life.

My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a type of autism that occurs when someone has a very high IQ but a large deficit in social skills. His teachers taught him a way to leverage his specialty — memorizing — to learn rules for socializing that other people know intuitively.

I learned many lessons from watching him do that. One is that once you have a specialty, you can leverage it to add things that are not necessarily your specialty, but you still want to have them in your life. In that way, a specialized path is one of the most diverse and rewarding paths you can choose.

My husband and I both want to be home with our kids while they are young, and we downsized our standard of living enormously to do that.

I made a career change from software company executive to writer. This has been great for me. It’s a career that can grow big, but there is lots of flexibility for working around my personal life.

My husband ended his entertainment industry career and downshifted, slowly, first to the nonprofit world, which we found surprisingly inflexible for parenting, then to stay-at-home dad.

You know how you hear about the dads in the 50s who folded under the pressure of having to support a family with no financial help from a partner? I am sorry to say that I felt like that — especially living in New York City.

But, like most people who want jobs with flexible hours, my husband was not able to find one. And a standard job would mean leaving at 8 a.m. and getting home at 7 p.m. which are pretty much the hours our kids are awake. So, he had to choose between working nights or not seeing the kids. He chose working nights.

There are not a lot of options for working nights. Especially if you don’t have the talents to work at a nightclub. So my husband is answering phones at a car service. He takes down the time the person wants the car and some other information and a computerized system dispatches the car. My husband does the same thing, over and over again, for eight hours a day.

To give you a sense of his co-workers, the woman next to him slammed down the phone the other day and said, “The customers are so outrageous! This guy wants a car in a quarter hour. How am I supposed to know what a quarter hour is?”

In between calls, his coworkers play brand-name Internet-based games that my husband produced in his former career. He doesn’t tell anyone. He tries to fly under the radar.

But the customers, investment bankers at the most chic-chic firms in the city, notice something is different about my husband. Two or three times a week, someone will say to him over the phone, “What are you doing at this place?” One guy said, “Is this your real job?” My husband said yes and the guy pushed until my husband explained our situation. The guy said, “That would have never happened when I was your age. Men couldn’t do that.”

The hardest part about this life is that very few people understand what we’re doing. You can imagine what a conversation killer it is when someone asks my husband the great American question: “So, what do you do?”

Although I overheard one woman say to him, “Your kids are so lucky,” the best support system I’ve found is learning from other people who are thinking seriously about this topic.

I particularly liked The Bullshit Observer’s rant this week about how difficult it is to manage career aspirations and be a hands-on parent. He has some interesting statistics as well as insights like this one:

“American parents have two very fundamental responsibilities at war with each other every single day. Those who’ve chosen the path that goes up the ladder appear to have chosen not to be parents. Those who’ve chosen the path that leads to the diaper bin have chosen not to move up.”

One organization that publishes a lot of information on changing the situation is the Third Path. This organization helps couples move beyond the idea that one parent is the primary caretaker and toward a mindset of “shared care”.

Third Path offers mentoring to couples who are trying to implement a shared care arrangement in their home. Though this path is not easy for anyone, the stories of what people have gone through to make shared care work are inspiring.

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I interviewed for a job. I haven't interviewed for the last three years. Since my first son was born. I felt that awkward feeling that people describe when they break up with their long-term significant other and have to date again.

It was a writing job. Most writing jobs don't require an interview. You just send some writing and if they like it, you get the job. But this was a big writing job, so I had to interview. However no one seemed to care what I was like in person since they'd probably never have to see me. So everything was riding on a phone interview.

I tried to do all the things you're supposed to do. I dressed in business clothes because you sound different when you are in your pajamas and when you're in a suit. Even on the phone. I stood up while I talked to sound energetic. I smiled because I read that a smile changes your voice to sound upbeat.

I thought things were going well. I liked the interviewer and all the questions were easy. When I got off the phone, I started think about my greatness: Name in lights, bank account brimming.

By bedtime, I was a wreck. I thought of questions I answered poorly. For example, “Where do you want to be in ten years? Would you go back to executive management?” The obvious answer should have been, “No. I want to write forever.” I didn't say the obvious. I decided to discuss the fact that my income as a writer is about twenty percent of my former, executive income. And, like that wasn't enough, I started talking about my childcare arrangements.

For those of you who struggle with similar problems, do not talk about them in an interview. Such talk makes you look confused, on the fence, overwhelmed by kids. All of which were true for me. But I could have hidden my problems for a twenty-minute interview. I hadn't rehearsed. I talked off the top of my head. And such an easy question to blow.

Later that night, when I was lying in bed, my heart was racing. I told myself to stop thinking about the job. I told myself, There is nothing you can do now, and There will be more jobs. But that thinking never works when you interview for a great job. It never seems like there are more jobs.

So then I did something I learned in sixth grade. I made a list of things I did well. In sixth grade it was why I would make the basketball team next season. But this time it was why I will get a great job next time. I made my list. I put it on the fridge. I felt good.

Then my husband saw this list. He said, “Did you say this stuff to the interviewer?”
Then I felt bad about the interview again.

So what could I have done? There are no re-dos in interviews. But we can all learn from my mistakes:
1. Rehearse. Very few questions are unpredictable. There are plenty of books to buy that give you the questions and answers to memorize. Try, for starters, The Complete Q&A Job Interview Book, by Jeffrey Allen.
2. Make a list of off-limits topics so you don't go there. An interviewer can lead you to a topic, but your answer can lead somewhere else. Have a plan in place to make this happen.
3. Make a list of reasons you are great. Use it in the interview.

But guess what? I got the job. So here's another lesson: Get some perspective. It was very normal for me to not be sure what I want to do career-wise when I have two kids under four years old. I need to know what I want to do now, or how can I do it? But I don't need to know where I want to be in ten years. And I am thinking it might be an irrelevant question for today's workers, because in ten years most of us will be doing something completely different than what we're interviewing for, so why talk about it?

Anyone who owns a small business knows that if you don't reinvest in the business, the business dies. So why do so many people fail to reinvest in themselves? Even if you work for someone else, you are running a small business: The business of you. You provide a product and you have to market it and make it better and better so you earn more and more money.

If you put all your money into savings, you are like a business with a lot of cash on hand but only small potential for growth. If you spend all your money on fun and toys you're like a business run by executives who throw lavish parties they can't afford and drive the business into the ground. Your aim should be to save a little (for security's sake) splurge a little (for sanity's sake) and reinvest most of your money back into your business: You.

You the careerist that is. Here's what the business of you needs in order to expand: Headcount. Here's what you need in ascending order, depending on how much money you have.

Childcare — pay the highest rate in your neighborhood
The first thing you need to grow a career is to clear your head so you can think. If you have to worry about childcare, if you have to argue with your spouse during the workday about who is picking up the kid, you are spending time in ways that don't grow your business. Pay enough money for a caregiver who can do the job without you micromanaging.

Personal Assistant – $10 an hour
Take a look at your to do list. Think about how long each task will take, and whether or not a person can do it for $10 an hour. Your time is worth more than $10 an hour. So why are you doing tasks that you can pay $10 to have done? Don't tell me you need to do everything. If it's not integral to your life plan, you don't need to be doing it. Examples: Shopping, dry cleaning pickup, waiting for a plumber.

A therapist – $125 per session, but try to get your insurance company to pay
I'm a big fan of therapy. The more you know about yourself the more likely you are to make good choices for your career. Also, the problems you have outside the office usually pop up inside the office also. So go to a therapist to deal with non-work problems and your work life will improve.

Speaking coach – $300 per session
Charisma can make up for a lot of shortfalls, and good speaking skills gives you more charisma. You probably think you're charismatic already, but there's always room for improvement. People believe that a charismatic person is better to work with than a non-charismatic person. You'll also learn to speak in a way that makes people trust you and believe in your judgment. Scary, but true: This is teachable.

Publicist — $1000 month
Most people who are quoted by the press actually have publicists. For a CEOs publicists are a packaged deal with the job: A PR department. For other executives, and even up-and-coming managers, a publicist is someone you hire. Your name will get into the world and you will have an easeier time getting a new job, easier time making sales, and more justifcation for asking for higher wages. I know, you're thinking, how crass. But it's the way the world works. If you want to be noticed in your field, hire a publicist.

I bet you're saying, “Penelope is out of her mind. This is so much money.” But if you reinvest 20% of your cash back into your career, which is, in fact, very low as small businesses go, then this list starts looking reasonable. I have hired each of these people at some point in my career, and the return on investment for each easily exceeded cash output. Really.

Hey all you women! Looking for a way to look good at a party? Forget bragging rights to house with a picket fence. Forget a plastic-surgeried body that defies gravity. Here are the status symbols for a new generation:

1. A flexible job. This is practically a pre-requisite for being able to successfully balance work and personal life. Ironically, most of these jobs come from years of conniving and strategizing under the guise of being a power-mongering ladder climber. After all, most companies do not capitulate to flexibility until they have fallen in love with you for your performance and ambition.

2. An awesome nanny. Everyone brags about their nanny because if you don't think your nanny is great then how can you leave her with your kids?

But most nannies are not that great. Here is what a status-symbol nanny looks like: She never calls in sick, she can plan and execute a dinner without your input, she doesn't berate you when your kid has a cut from falling off the bed under your care. And longevity counts — if you can keep a nanny for more than two years, the implication is that you are a great manager.

3. A competent husband. Household competence, that is. Delegate everything you can to your assistant. But there are some things that would be heartless to delegate, like choosing a birthday present for your nine-year-old son. This is where a husband comes in. What if your husband knows so much about your kids that he remembers the birthday and decides what to buy, but also makes time to forage for it in the stores? That is real competence.

When it comes to a status symbol husband, you do not delegate to him so much as confer, and you make a similar amount of time in your lives for taking care of your home life. If you find this kind of husband, women will drool over him as if he were the captain of the high school football team.

4. A caffeine-free life. Sure, a lot of women do this during pregnancy, but as soon as the baby pops out, the caffeine ramps up. I don't know any non-pregnant woman who works in business and has kids and abstains from caffeine. Except for Sallie Krawheck, chief financial officer of Citigroup. I don't know how she does it, but she seems so stable and organized to live without caffeine.

I tell this to myself every night at 9pm, which is when I have to get ready for bed in order to get eight hours of sleep and wake up with my son at 5:30 am. But there's always one more very important thing that I haven't done. Sallie must do her very important things first thing every day. Which is what we all should do.

5. A reputation for helping. The standards for women have changed. The status symbols have changed. But all that talk of women “playing like men” is nonsense to me. Women have been helping each other forever, and now is no exception. The women we look up to are those who have a track record for figuring out how to leverage their power and resources to help other women. Give advice freely, mentor someone, share your experience at the glass ceiling so another woman can go higher. A fulfilling career requires that you give as well as receive.

There's a good reason that women brag about the stuff on this list: It's the stuff that really does impact one's happiness. This is a list of things that will improve your life more than a raise or a top-tier vacation. These are things that will pave the way for you to have fun during the day and rest well at night.

I had my baby last week. I'm tired. But not too tired to recognize management issues during labor. There were three management styles among the people who were in the delivery room:

1. The micromanager
That was me, ordering my husband around, even when the contractions were so strong that I couldn't stand up. I'm sure he wanted to tell me to shut up, but no sane man snaps at his wife when she's in labor.

One of the more harsh insurance company rules is that when you are in labor you have to call to get permission to go to the hospital. So my husband started dialing the phone. I said, “You are not going to be on the phone when I'm having the baby. Put down the phone.”

My husband said we wouldn't be covered and we would have the most expensive baby in New York City.

But no one at the insurance company was answering the phone, so I started troubleshooting: “Dial zero. Say you’re a doctor.”

My husband said, “I think I can handle calling the insurance company. You just worry about the baby.”

At some point I stopped harassing my husband, but not by choice, only because the contractions were too strong.

2. The coach
About half way through labor I asked for an epidural. At that point, I was in severe pain. For those of you who have not had an epidural, it is a totally magic infusion of drugs that numbs the body from the insane pain of pregnancy without knocking you out. The epidural is not small peanuts. It’s a shot into the spine. I had to sit very still, while coping with sharp pains, and I had to sign a form that acknowledged the risk of death.

Meanwhile, I was at a teaching hospital, so the attending physician (read: real doctor) was coaching the resident (read: still-learning-to-be-a-doctor doctor). Behind my back, literally, I heard the attending using the Socratic method: “How much are you going to use?” and “Why would you go up there when you already found a spot down here?” This coaching is not what you want to hear when it’s your spine, but I see how it’s preferable to say, me screaming at my husband about how to navigate a phone tree. And, frankly, the attending did a fine job because the pain ended.

3. The trusting, encouraging manager
When its time to actually push the baby out, the doctor finally comes in, ready to go. The doctor and nurse together were watching what looked to be about six machines simultaneously. And they were watching me, and the baby, whose head was visible by now. The doctor was definitely in charge, but she almost never gave orders. There was a clear and strong trust between the doctor and nurse that each person knew what the other was doing and that they were each doing a fine job. There was a calmness and efficiency that I wish I had throughout my life.

Which is what made me think, initially, about management. When I saw the doctor and nurse trusting each other, I trusted them. I didn’t trust the resident, but the attending was so respectful of the resident that I trusted that the attending would guide the resident to a good job.

And then there was me, micromanaging. In hindsight I see that managing someone so closely that they want to strangle you is in fact sign of weakness; because either you are meddling where you needn’t, or you are surrounded by incompetence. In either case, it’s a statement about yourself. Competent people are not surrounded by incompetence. Rather, incompetence attracts incompetence.

I think about that and I think of course my husband can function without me meddling. He is smart and capable. And this is how we should feel about people we work with, too. Or we should wonder why we are attracting incompetence. There is never one crazy person in a marriage and there’s never one crazy worker.

My excuse was that I was in labor. But you probably don’t have such a good excuse. So if you don’t trust the people you work with, ask yourself why. You need to either trust them to do their job, or trust them to improve with respectful coaching. If you can’t do either then adjust their job so that they will succeed. Or else you will not succeed.

Sidenote: It was a boy. We are thrilled.

I am pregnant. Due on June 21.

The last time I had a baby was not a great moment in the history of gender discrimination in America. For one thing, as soon as I announced I was pregnant, my editor at a business magazine fired me and recommended that I “try writing for women's magazines.”

I also got laid off from my corporate job right before I got pregnant, so I found myself job hunting when I was five months along. No one mentioned the pregnancy in the interviews, (after all, it would be illegal,) but I gave new meaning to “the elephant in the room.” And why, really, would anyone hire a pregnant woman when there surely are other qualified people who would not take maternity leave?

What I learned from that pregnancy was that there is no good time in one's career to get pregnant because there are so many things you cannot control.

But there are some things you can control, and this pregnancy I have tried to do better planning. For one thing, I have set up my life so that I can work at my home while I eat ice cream, and wear maternity pants that look like pajamas. And I thought I was a genius during my book auction when I went from publisher to publisher hiding a three-month pregnancy under a very-hip poncho, selling myself as an author who could get the book written quickly: “By June 1st” I'd say. And the publishers always said, “Great.” No one said, “Why? Are you pregnant?”

I finally told my agent about the pregnancy right before I accepted the winning bid. “I want to make sure I'm not doing anything dishonest by hiding the pregnancy,” I told her.

Before I tell you what my agent said, let me just say that I would never advise anyone to tell a perspective employer about a pregnancy. You are under no legal obligation to disclose this information. And it can only hurt you, so employers are insane to think anyone would disclose until negotiations are done.

That said, more than one woman has written to me that she feels guilty hiding the information. And I have to admit that I had that guilt, too.

But my agent said, “By all means, don't tell anyone yet!” She said, “Congratulations!” and “You have a right to get pregnant and work too!” I loved my agent as much for her reaction to my pregnancy as I did for her selling my book.

Then reality set in. A TV agent wants to represent me, but he can't work with me until I'm not pregnant. He doesn't want to tell me this himself, so my agent tells me.
“In July?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “When you lose the weight.”

I've gained 40 pounds and I'm not even done. And yes, it's my own fault. I admit it. I have not counted a calorie since the second month. But here's my point. Pregnancy is always a problem in a career, no matter where you are, no matter how much you plan.

The best thing I did this time, though, was to get myself into a situation where I would not be fired for being pregnant (yes, it's illegal, but it happens all the time). I also set up my life so that I can take things as slowly as I want to after the pregnancy. (The cost, of course, is that my family is taking a huge financial hit. But at least we have our sanity.)

For those of you who are trying to plan, flexibility is important. The more flexibility you have the better. But it's the kind of thing you have to build into a career way before the day you conceive. Essentially, I have been planning my current pregnancy ever since I got pregnant the first time, three years ago, and saw that starting a plan in the first month is about two years too late.

Pregnancy planning for careerists should begin before you even have a partner, let alone conceive. But most of the women who contact me about pregnancy planning are already pregnant. And to you, I say, the worst thing I ever did was think I could job hunt while I was showing, and the best thing I ever did was buy a poncho.