Last week Catherine Zeta-Jones performed at the Oscars when she was eight months pregnant. What a surprise that behind her Hollywood glitz is a working mom who challenges workplace stereotypes.

Image is so important at the workplace, and the image of a pregnant woman does not scream workplace success. In fact, the image of a pregnant woman usually induces quiet musings about whether she'll ever work again after the baby comes.

Hollywood is the extreme of this problem, because in Hollywood, one's job is to look good. But Hollywood is also the crowd that sets the tone for what is socially acceptable, so it's a big deal that Catherine stood in front of the most important audience of her career and did her job: She sang a song.

Working through one's pregnancy is difficult enough, but Catherine's job is to look sexy and confident. Whether or not she did look sexy is up for discussion (the ranks were divided at the Oscar party I attended). But Catherine did make serious progress toward making people comfortable around working women who are pregnant. And her presence on stage should make the world a little more comfortable with pregnant women wielding power.

My own version of fat Hollywood happened one week before my baby was due. An editor called me to say the magazine (not Bankrate) needed a photo of me. They wanted to set up a photo shoot that week. I went ballistic. I said no way. I reminded the editor that I was forty-five pounds overweight. I vowed to never answer the phone again until the baby came.

But I did answer the phone again. And again. Because the editor called relentlessly. When I could feel myself starting to cry (it happened all the time during the pregnancy), I agreed to a photo session a week after my baby's due date.

The baby came, and in the biggest rip-off of my life, I lost only five pounds during delivery.

The day of the shoot was day three of no sleep, and day four of no shower. The stylist called to ask me to bring shirts in three different colors. I said, “I have one shirt that fits, and it's dirty, and I'll be wearing it.”

Ever since then, I have admonished myself for going to the photo shoot before I lost the pregnancy weight. But now I'm thinking maybe I wasn't so stupid — in the ideal world all women would feel comfortable being their fat, pregnant selves at work.

Take note, though: Catherine made a point of mentioning her hormonal imbalance during her acceptance speech. She mentioned hormones to make sure everyone knows she is not JUST fat, but fat because she's pregnant. Surely a publicist advised this tactic, and I think it's a good one. For better or worse, people perceive fat and pregnant as much more acceptable than just fat.

Recently, I told my editor I lost all my pregnancy weight, and I asked if we could take new photos.

He said; “I think you look like a babe in your photo.”

When he told me that I thought to myself, “He is full of crap.” But that was before the Oscars. I thought Catherine looked good. Fat. But confident. So maybe I exude confidence, too. If only I could write a caption below my photo that mentions something about hormones”

Weaknesses are hard to beat, so if you’re really serious about making a personal change, I recommend a career coach. But be careful, because a good coach is hard to find. I learned to find good coaches by enduring bad ones. I also learned that when you find a good one, you can change in ways that will surprise you.

The first career coach I ever hired was someone who my boss recommended. He gave me the guy’s phone number and I called.

The coach’s voicemail message closed with, “Have a wonderful and life-changing day!”

I told my boss I could not work with someone who was so positive about change that he was a psycho.

My boss said, “This guy is renowned for working with famous business women.” (My boss dropped the name of a woman who worked with this coach. I am not going to tell you this woman’s name because you know her, and to this day I still question her judgment.) But the name-dropping worked. I wanted to be famous. So I agreed to meet with the guy.

He told me that most women he worked with needed to learn to be more assertive. He said, “I can tell you would be responsive to that sort of training, because you’re wearing a skirt.” Then he winked at me. So for my first lesson in assertiveness, I fired him.

My second coach was someone my boss read about in a newsletter. This coach told me I needed to appear grounded and stable as a leader. Her vision hit a nerve: I had catapulted up the corporate ladder, and some days I wondered what I was doing there. I thought I was wondering privately, but the coach showed me how my demeanor gave it away. “You walk like you’re on air,” she told me. “Your bounce belies giddiness and your swinging arms look impetuous.” She showed me how to walk so that I looked grounded and stable. The most interesting thing she taught me was that if I could change how I walk I would change how I felt. I wouldn’t have believed that until someone forced me to try it.

Later I saw a coach speaking at an entrepreneur’s conference. I hired her to help me handle board meetings. I learned not to smile so much. She pointed out that women smile a lot and men don’t and it makes men nervous. To soften the blow, she smiled at me. She told me my sweater was cut a little low, which made me happy since I never thought I myself as a woman with cleavage. But for the most part, her thing was public speaking, and I am definitely better at keeping an audience’s attention because of her coaching.

So here’s my advice on choosing a coach: Interview a few, because each coach has a different approach, and not all will be right for you. To get a sense of the coach, ask, “What are you best at doing with your clients?” If you like the answer, do a short trial session. If you ask someone what he or she is best at and they won’t give you an answer, it’s because they’re not good at anything, so hang up.

Recommendations from a respected friend or co-worker are a good bet. But, as you can see from my experience, a recommendation isn’t foolproof. I have had good luck going to a bookstore and perusing the careers section for books by coaches. If you like a book, you will probably like the coach who wrote it. Many coaches speak at conferences, so go to listen to a few if you’re on the prowl. One career coach I know routinely recommends my columns to her clients, so how bad can she be? If you absolutely cannot get up off your sofa, then get a recommendation from the career coach hotline: (239) 415-1777.

Enlisting the help of a coach may seem like a high-risk move — after all, a bad coach is really bad. But you also take a risk by not getting help to address your weaknesses.

 

It's 10pm and Donna and Richard are talking schedule. The question is: Who has to take the kids to daycare in the morning. Richard says he has a 10am meeting. Donna has a 9am meeting. She wins. He has to take the kids to daycare.

The kids are ages two and five. The older one will complain about going to daycare. He will want to stay home. He will demand to know why can't someone stay home with him. It's good that Richard will be dropping him off. The complaints kill Donna, but Richard will tell his son to suck it up and get in the car.

It's a small win for Donna, but she faces difficult work/family balancing questions, so small wins matter. This is not a column about how Donna worked out everything perfectly in the end, because she hasn't. But this isn't about the end — this column is about what it's like when the work/family balance first feels off-kilter. What to do about it so that you increase your chances of having a happy ending.

Donna and Richard both work at an entertainment company that you know, and they both have career paths with a steep upward slope. Richard thinks daycare is a fine way to cope with their busy lives. Donna thinks daycare is too long a day for their kids. But the problem is that both parents would rather work than stay home with their kids.

Donna tried to keep her fast-paced career after she gave birth, but she had to make adjustments. One of the first things to go was the long hours. Then the mentoring; She couldn't be a mom at work and at home. Then she convinced her boss that she should be a strategist rather than a day-to-day manager, so she got rid of management responsibilities for 15 people. She is still torn. Other mothers at her office tell her, “Go home. Be with your kids. I don't remember my son when he was young. Don't let that happen to you.”

Donna's husband has made adjustments too. He used to work 80-hour weeks. Now he works 50 hours. No one at work tells him to go home and be with his kids.

When Donna suggests that the kids would be happier with a parent instead of daycare, Richard says, “If you think someone should stay home, then stay home.” But he says she's being too hard on herself. “We're at home all weekend,” he assures her. I ask him why he doesn't want to stay home and he says, “I couldn't do it. I can't provide the structure daycare provides.”

[When they were first married, Donna announced she wanted to be the one with the high-powered career, and Richard was supportive. Now, though, with Donna's guilt creeping in, she has put family before career and Richard has put career before family. I put it this way to Richard and he says, “Well, yes, that's a crude way of saying it.” Then, ten minutes later, he says, “Kids have a way of making you see what your real priorities are.”]

I ask Donna and Richard why she is torn and he is not. She's not sure. She says they have different ideas of parenting. “He watches TV while he reads Goodnight Moon.” Richard says he thinks “it's a chemical, woman thing.” He has five sisters. Each of them ended up staying home with children even though that wasn't their plan.

One reason Donna has been able to rise through the organization is because she is good at presenting to the boss what needs doing in a way that gets her what she wants. Right now she wants to test out working part time, so she is maneuvering to get the type of responsibilities she can do from home. But these aren't the type of responsibilities that gain big promotions. So she doesn't tell her boss exactly what her plans are because she wants to leave room to put herself back on the fast track quickly if she wants that.

It's a careful dance she's doing, and she has enlisted lots of help. Donna has a friend at the company who she trusts enough talk candidly. And she has cultivated a mentor, outside the company, who has already done this dance and can provide guidance. She talks openly with her husband and her sisters-in-law, who have decided to stay home. But Donna's problem persists: she thinks a parent should be at home, and she doesn't want to be that parent.

“It's embarrassing,” she says. And then she asks me again to be sure not to use her real name. I am sure Donna is not alone; many parents would rather work than stay home with kids, but for the most part, it is women who experience guilt over this predicament. I have a feeling, though, that Donna is a step ahead of a lot of women because Donna is not saying she HAS to work, she is saying she WANTS to work.

There are no quick answers. There are couples where the man is willing to stay home with the children. There are couples who cut back on both careers to care for the children. But most couples have a man who doesn't want to cut back on his career, so it is the women who are weighing these decisions. Donna does not have answers, but she's taken a lot of steps to give herself breathing room to get to the answers. For those who are flailing — in the open or incognito — we can all learn a lot from Donna. She is unsure, but she is unsure in a dignified, unfrazzled way, and that may be the best we can hope for right now.

My friend Liz just got an offer to be director of a groundbreaking, high profile, psychology program. It's a lucrative, five-year contract. Liz is 35 and single and has tons of time to devote to her career. But she's not sure if she wants to take this offer because what she really wants is children.

Like many women in this age group, Liz spent her 20's and early 30's building her career. She has lots of experience meeting men she can manage and very little experience meeting a man she can date. (Conversation we had when the last guy stopped talking to her at dinner: Me, “Dump him.” Liz, “But you said talk isn't constant when you've been together a while.” Me, “Three weeks is not a while.”)

Her current job would be great if she had a guy lined up for kids because she could work part time, which would allow her to stay on her career path and spend a lot of time at home. But alas, there is no guy lined up. Her current job is good for online dating, too, because she can work from almost anywhere so she can conduct a broad search across county lines, (and because she can peruse Match.com from her office unnoticed.)

But Liz is antsy to have a child and even with the Internet, dating is not a fast process. So she is thinking of taking things into her own hands. She has contemplated telling a boyfriend that she is using birth control when she is not, and getting pregnant that way. But she can't get past the conversation she'd have with her teenage kid:

“Mom, why didn't my dad stick around?”

“Because I tricked him into having a kid.”

Liz has two, non-boyfriend options: buying sperm from a bank or buying a baby from Asia. Both options cost about $30,000, which is a good argument for taking the new, high paying job. The ongoing cost of childcare – which, for a single mom in her neighborhood, would be about $400 a week — is another good reason to have a high paying job. Her current job would not provide enough income to fund this baby venture.

But once she's the director of the program, she couldn't work part time, she couldn't move, and she probably couldn't even find the time to date. So for Liz, this job decision is loaded. It's the decision between holding onto the dream of a spouse and kids and a part-time job, or giving up the dream for more practical measures and going the child route alone.

Liz calls me every day to discuss her life, which has become somewhat like a horse race. She tells me that this month's boyfriend might be in love. “He took me to his parent's house for dinner.” She thinks it'll be a really good sign if he takes allergy pills so he can sleep over in her cat-infested bed. “Then marriage is a real possibility.” Last week, she got herself another month to make the decision about the directorship. “By then, maybe I'll know.” But she sighs a deep sigh, and we both know that when it comes to giving up a career for a family (or vice versa) really you never know.

My husband and I always thought he'd be the stay-at-home parent, so I am shocked that I am the one changing diapers all day.

When we were dating, I was making a solid, six-figure salary in the software industry. I had already founded two companies and cashed out of one. He was a video artist and traveled to festivals all over the world showing arcane art on activist topics. He planned off-beat things to do on our dates; I would pay for them.

I was rising so fast in my corporate career that a business magazine paid me to write about my ascent. I ended up making as much money writing as my husband made at his day job. People asked me if I resented having two jobs and subsidizing my husband's career as an artist. Actually, I didn't mind at all; I loved to work, and he agreed to stay home when we had kids. I thought I was one of the lucky women who could blast through the glass ceiling and have kids because I had a husband who would take care of our home life.

We planned to get pregnant at a time when I would not disrupt my career, but in September 2001, our designated family start-date, both my husband and I got laid off. I got pregnant anyway. As my belly grew, I continued my freelance writing career while he volunteered in non-profits, and we lead a bohemian life with corporate savings. But by the seventh month, I missed the structured, team-oriented atmosphere of work. I was editing my resume the morning I went into labor.

When the baby arrived, I planned to get a full-time, office job right away, but after only a few weeks of sleepless nights, my husband got a job offer. He wasn't even looking, really,— he was doing things like soothing diaper rash and assembling the breast pump. But one of the people he met through volunteering got him an interview at a top-notch human rights organization. The job offer was for his dream job, so we decided he should try it.

Now I would be home with the baby, alone. For those of you who haven't had a baby, let's just say that going to an office is about a thousand times easier than dealing with a newborn. With a newborn there is no schedule, no break, and no performance review to let you know if you're screwing up. So naturally, I wanted to be the one with the job. I tried to be happy for my husband. I tried not to hope that he would hate his job and quit.

During my first week as a stay-at-home mom, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't write and I couldn't figure out how any adult can stay home all day with a baby who can't talk. So I hired a babysitter for a few days a week and I went to an office to write and look for a full-time job. But I never got around to the job hunt because I missed the baby while I was away — I missed his smile and the way he stares at his hands like he's not sure if they're his.

People often describe their family life in terms of earning power: The spouse who has the higher earning power is the one who works. This is logical, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Here are the great myths about pregnancy: Women can put it off until they establish themselves in their career. Women can control the reproductive system. Women can make a grand plan. Forget it. I'm pregnant now, and I know.

I'm pregnant now, and I waited until I had established myself in my career. I climbed up the Fortune 500 ladder. I started two of my own companies. I told myself the whole way up, Thank god I don't have kids, and I worked long, long hours.

I didn't get married until after my second company went under, and I could leave Los Angles and live with my husband in New York. I told myself I would get settled in a new job, and then have a baby. And just as I got settled, I got laid off. So after fifteen years of carefully planning my career and my family life I was old enough to be in the high-risk pregnancy category (35), and out of work in a recession.

To get back to where I wanted to be in my career before I had a baby, I would have to find a job (average six months) get settled (let's say six months) and get pregnant (at my age — average six months). But that would mean having my first child at age 37 — if I had average luck with pregnancy and the job hunt. If anything went wrong — 38, 39, who knows. Let me tell you about the risks of having a baby at 35: 1 in 169 chance the baby has Down's syndrome; 1 in 200 chance that the test for Down's syndrome kills the baby. And the odds get worse every day I get older. People did not tell me these odds when I started a company at age 32 in LA instead of getting married in NY. People said, “You have time, you have time.”

Now, fearing that I might wait too long to be able to carry a child, for the first time in my life, I risked my career for my family. And wouldn't you know it, blowing away all statistical odds, I got pregnant in a week. I felt lucky, I felt excited, but I also felt scared: I was laid off and pregnant, facing a six-month job hunt, where I would get a job, work three months, and then take maternity leave. Needless to say prospects are looking dim.

What I want to tell you is that my grand plan didn't work. I grew up thinking that women had everything: I had access to education, I had access to the pill, I had access to money and jobs. I felt that society easily accepted my choices to be single, to focus on my career. Everyone told me “don't worry about kids, you'll have time.” I thought I was in control, making choices, but there are so many factors that I could never have controlled. I thought I was so smart, so organized and driven for waiting. But I'm not sure if waiting got me all that much except a high-risk pregnancy.

I will have a pause in my career. I think it might take me a while to get back on the fast track after I have a child. Maybe two. I am not sure why a pause in my career now would have been any different than a pause in my career at any other, earlier point in my career. However I am sure that the pregnancy would have been easier if I had done it earlier. I am not sure what a solution is, but I am sure that the way women today meticulously plan their families and their careers means that women leave themselves open to the inherent unpredictability of volatile markets and high-risk pregnancies.

Don't get me wrong. I'm really excited to be having a baby. But as the first generation of women who had access to career planning and family planning, I'm here to tell you that nothing came out like I planned.

Each time in my career that I have ignored sexual harassment aimed at me, I have moved up the corporate ladder. For example, the boss who once pulled all senior management out of the company’s sexual harassment seminar because he thought it was a waste of time — and patted me on the butt as he left the room — has turned out to be my most reliable cheerleader (and a very impressive reference).

In my first eight days of my job at a financial software company, I was sexually harassed six times by my new boss. This list does not include his sexual harassment of me during the interview process, which I chose to ignore, since it was my first interview at a respectable company in six months.

Maybe you’re wondering what, exactly, I regard as sexual harassment. The easiest conversation to relay is this one:

Me: “Thank you for setting up that meeting; it will be very helpful.”

Boss: “Big testicles.” (He then pretends to squeeze his genitals.)

I had no idea what he meant by this comment, but it is short and easy to relay to make my case.

Here are some other choice moments:

When he took me out for lunch on my second day on the job, he told me he once fell in love with a woman as tall as I am but was intimidated by her height, so they just had casual sex. I said nothing in response.

But I knew, from a legal perspective (and also a moral one) that I needed to tell him his comments were unwanted. So that afternoon when he said, “I want to hug you, but it would be illegal,” I said, “You’re right.”

Each night, I relayed some of the best lines from work to my husband. He was stunned. He couldn't believe these events actually happened in today's workplaces. I told him this was standard. He told me I should sue so that we could go to Tahiti. I told him I’d probably settle out of court after three years for about $200,000, and I’d be a pariah in the workplace.

I told my husband that his very hot, 27-year-old boss gets hit on as much as I do. He said he saw her at work all the time and this never happened. I told him that OF COURSE men don’t harass women in front of other men. After all, it’s illegal. Men are not stupid. But I suggested to my husband he was perpetuating the myth that harassment isn’t widespread.

In fact, 44% of women between ages 35 and 49 report experiencing sexual harassment at the workplace — even though almost every company has an explicit, no-tolerance policy. A national survey shows that 21% of all women report being sexually harassed at work, while a Rutger's University study indicates that for knowledge-based workers, the percentage can go as high as 88%. Yet when women leverage the no-tolerance policy their names are plastered over the business pages, and they are blacklisted in their industry.

So the best way to change corporate America is to gain power and then wield it. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and work your way up. Unfortunately, this means learning how to navigate a boys’ club. But when you know the system, you then are clear about the root of its problems, and you know how to initiate change.

In this spirit, I hatched a plan to rid myself of my harassing boss. Originally, I took a job in business development, even though I hated selling to clients, because it was the only place with an opening. I told myself that the members of the management team were so smart that I would learn to love sales from them. After weeks of harassment, though, I thought management was so smart that if I explained why I wanted to be moved to another department, they would see my request as extremely reasonable. I figured they would be grateful for my low-key approach to this sensitive problem, rather than resentful that I had been hired to work in biz dev and then asked to be switched to a department with no openings.

I was right. I was moved into marketing, which I prefer. I received a more prestigious assignment and gained a smarter boss. Had I reported that I had been sexually harassed during the interview process I would not have gotten the job. Had I reported the harassment to my boss's boss without presenting a plan for solving the problem, I would not have received a better assignment. In fact, if you have a strategy, enduring sexual harassment can be a way to gain power to achieve your long-range goals.

Epilogue: Eventually, my boss was fired. Officially for low performance, though I have always fantasized that it was for rampant harassment.