Alumni Column: Why Being a Working Mom Works for Me

Christine J Chao

My book club recently read The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts. The book’s premise is that many of today’s women have become economically dependent on their husbands, and this phenomenon is the “feminine mistake.” As my Book Club is comprised of both working moms and stay at home moms, we enjoyed a spirited discussion. The book was particularly interesting for me to read because it articulated many of the reasons why I decided to keep working after my two kids were born. 

And guys (as in males) – before you blithely move onto the next article; recognize that this issue may affect your future wife, which means it affects you too.   

Let me preface this column by saying that there is no solution that will work for everyone. I fully acknowledge that everybody’s situation is different and that each of us needs to do what is best for her and her family. I think the biggest takeaway from this piece is that we all need to be supportive of each other’s choices.

By way of background: after Colgate, I graduated from Columbia Law School and married Jos Shaver (another Colgate ’86 grad). I practiced corporate law with one of the large Wall Street law firms before moving in-house initially with FedEx (in Hong Kong and London) and subsequently with GE (in CT).  My sons, Ben (11) and Tyler (9) were both born in Hong Kong. I returned to work after my maternity leave truly not knowing whether or not I would continue to work. But to my great surprise, I learned that working was worlds easier than staying home with a newborn. While extremely cute and loveable, infants are not particularly intellectually stimulating. They are also physically demanding (as in you are so perpetually fatigued, you could sleep standing up).

At the back of my mind was also the fact that I wanted to be financially independent. While I am supremely confident that my husband would never leave me for another woman, the fact of the matter is, he could get sick, become disabled, lose his job or die. I knew the chances were remote, but that remoteness would be of little consolation if any of those tragic situations occurred. 

Another concern of mine was the implicit message I am sending my kids. I have a great story illustrating this point: As I mentioned, Ben was born in Hong Kong; at the time, I was working as the head of FedEx’s legal department in Asia. Coincidentally, all the lawyers and legal assistants on my staff were female. Ben came to visit my office periodically and of course everyone would come out to see him and chat. When he was almost three, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He came up with the usual list: police officer, racecar driver, firefighter etc. I then asked him if he would like to be a lawyer.   He looked at me as if I were daft, and exclaimed, “Oh, Mommy!   Stop joking! Only GIRLS can be lawyers!” But that’s not the end of the story.The curious thing is fast forward three years where I had a similar work situation in London, where FedEx had moved me. I wound up having an eerily similar conversation with my younger son, Tyler. I must admit I like the role model I am setting for them. 

One issue that I had never considered but which I think is valid is what Ms. Bennetts calls the “15 Year Paradigm” which concedes that the juggling act with kids is stressful, but points out that it really only lasts about 15 years (if you have two kids like I do).Yes, 15 years is a long time but not so long when you consider that your working life spans about 45-50 years. And I see evidence of this paradigm already. At 11 and 9, my boys are out the door by 7:30. They have afterschool activities and homework that keep them busy after school. Moreover, they are at the developmentally appropriate age where they would rather be with their friends than with my husband and me.

In recent years, there has been talk of women saying that they will work, drop out to have their kids and then return to the workplace. It sounds ideal, but the reality is that the barriers to re-entry are formidable, and I know this firsthand. When we decided to leave London and repatriate to the US, I quit my job at FedEx (all FedEx’s lawyers are based in Memphis, Tennessee so I knew long-term employment with FedEx was no longer an option). I wound up being out of the workforce for nearly two years. At first, I enjoyed the novelty of not working — I was too busy trying to figure out things like what schools my kids should attend and what the heck TIVO was. But for me that novelty soon wore off, and I began a job search. It was a humbling experience – competition was steep: Why would anyone hire me when they could get someone similar who had NOT taken 20 months off? 

Lastly, for me, an ancillary benefit to working has been my discovery that working – and being good at something – is a boost to my self-esteem. I fully acknowledge that part of my identity is as Jos’ wife or Ben and Tyler’s mom – but I like having more than that. The result is that I am a happier person, which for us translates into a happier parent and in turn, a happier family.