I have a colleague from college, a black woman, who is extremely successful in her profession. She has been an innovator in her field, and some of the most newsworthy successes in her profession are due to her. After speaking to her a few months back after not having spoken for decades, we started catching up on each other's lives. She said that if she could give one piece of advice to young black professional women, it would be this:
Plan for marriage and children as meticulously as you plan your career.
My colleague is approaching fifty and she's single with no children. Mind you, she's not some tragic case wallowing in pity, but she just didn't envision that she wouldn't have married and had kids. Like many women in our generation, she thought that if she just put her effort into her career, all the other things she wanted -- marriage, children -- would simply fall into place. She thought the career part was the hardest part of one's life to get in order. Finding a suitable mate and producing kids, well, not so much.
Before you start creating visions in your mind of this woman, let me just say she's very pretty. She's also kind and well-spoken and funny. She'd be the perfect person to be a wife and mother.
Simply put, I think my generation of black women got it wrong when it comes to work/life balance. I know many black women from college who are single, and within that group are many who have not had children. I'm not saying that marriage and children are the holy grail for black professional women. What I'm saying is that if you even harbor a thought that those things are or might be important to you, you're going to have to make as much of an effort to achieve them as you make in achieving your career goals. Unlike what my colleague thought, achieving career success does not mean that love, marriage, and children will just, as she thought, "take care of themselves." They simply don't fall into place because you are a successful professional black woman.
I didn't value marriage and children during my early career years. In fact, I started devaluing marriage and family early on in life, starting with my own mom. I remember how my mother, She Who Is Exalted (SWIE), used to say that the one job she really wanted was to be a stay-at-home mom. I, riding high on feminism, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, pre-teen hormones, and way too many choruses of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," informed my mother that she lacked ambition. Why would anyone want to be a stay-at-home mom, a job that my pre-teen self had decided required neither qualifications nor skill? I told my mom that if education was so important, as I was always told by her, why didn't SHE go back to school, get her high school diploma, go to college, and get a better job?
"Because I've got six kids to raise," she responded dryly.
My mother was a saint. Any other black pre-teen telling her mother that she "lacked ambition" would have had the taste slapped out of her mouth, or at least would have been in need of some orthodontic work.
What I saw from marriage and children as a child was constant struggle. I saw my mom and dad trying to pay the bills, keep us fed and clothed. I couldn't understand taking on so much responsibility when you didn't have to. From what I saw of my parents' marriage, a husband was just another human to feed and clothe. What was the point?
With age comes wisdom and discernment. I know now that there's a lot more to marriage and children than struggling to pay the bills. Maybe if I had realized this earlier in my career, I might have had some impetus to try harder at finding a mate and having kids earlier.
Anyway, I just thought I'd pass along my colleague's advice. If you even think you might want marriage and children in addition to your career, you're going to have to work at getting them.
And, quite frankly, I'd be more than happy to be a stay-at-home mom right about now.