A few weeks ago, when Elizabeth Warren said she was fired from her job in 1971 because she was pregnant, she opened the floodgates. Thousands of women took to social media with their own stories of how they were sidelined, overlooked or outright fired from their jobs for having babies.
TV journalist Soledad O’Brien tweeted: “My anchor job when I was pregnant for the first time was given to another anchor. Had to get a lawyer to deal with it. That was in 2000.”
New York Times reporter Katie Rosman posted, “Was pregnant, and the mom of a toddler, when I met with publishers to try to sell my memoir. Was asked by one male pub exec how I planned to write a book amid all that mothering. Told him I’d probably use my brain to think of the words and my fingertips to type ‘em.”
But Katie and Soledad are both looking back from a more comfortable place in their careers. They navigated the obstacle course of work and early motherhood before the transparency and rage unlocked by #MeToo.
But what about the new generation of working mothers? The ones who haven’t built up a career’s worth of credibility to protect them when they speak out about discrimination. Or the ones who are just on the brink of considering motherhood, terrified of all the ways in which their career could go way off the rails, and of the sacrifices they expect will be demanded of them. Or what about the ones who already feel sidelined and overlooked at work just because they are young and female and for whom motherhood feels like a luxury they can’t afford — with the weight of student debt, sometimes literally?
It sounds funny to say that many young, hungry, ambitious women are afraid of babies, doesn’t it? After all, what’s so scary about those cute, cooing, gooey-soft bundles of awe and joy?
Frankly, a lot. Just read the headlines. “Pregnancy Discrimination Is Rampant Inside America’s Biggest Companies,” says the New York Times. “We still punish women for getting pregnant,” reads a recent headline at QZ.com. And even more directly: “The ‘motherhood penalty’ costs working moms $16,000 a year” is the headline of a Mother.ly article that goes on to say the pay discrepancy between working mothers and men is persistent “despite the fact that millennial women are getting college degrees at higher rates than men, proving that we can’t educate ourselves out of the motherhood penalty.”
But the news stories only give a broad look at what’s going on. And so, over a couple of Big Life Dinners at my home, a dozen young women shared exactly what scares them about having babies now. [Author note: as per the regular rules of my dinners, I have promised to omit names and identifying details so the participants feel safe to be as candid as possible]
Here’s the bottom line: Millennial women are afraid of losing control — of their jobs, of their finances, and of their freedom to craft a career that they love.
This anxiety is different than the quiet resignation that was expected in Warren’s generation and even different than the one that my GenX friends and I dealt with. I spent my 20s and 30s laser focused on building my career. It wasn’t until I was nearly 40 that I felt secure in my career and my relationship to even think about kids. And so my fear was whether I would be able to get pregnant when I was ready. I wasn’t even thinking about what would happen to my career — maybe naively. One GenXer who built her career before having children, put her finger on our anxiety, “I pushed down all my desires and wanting a baby because I didn’t know if it would be possible.”
But millennial women have spent the last decade rewriting the rules for their own success. Coming of age in the wake of the recession, the easy affluence of the early 2000s was suddenly out of reach, jobs were impossible to find and college wasn’t a sure thing. But rather than wait until the economy right-sided, this generation of millennials took control. They got side-hustles, started their own businesses and asked for raises and promotions (often before their GenX and Boomer bosses were ready to give them, hence entitled). But it was all about creating a new dynamic of success — one in which they could move up and move around and not be vulnerable to any one company.
And yet, as they begin to think about building families, they feel vulnerable again.
One woman whose wife is expecting their first child in just a few months, revealed that she’d been strategizing about how to leave her steady job for months, but she was worried that if an employer found out she had a newborn at home, she wouldn’t find a new role so easily. “I’m worried that I’ll be less appealing as an employee,” she said. And while she has an entrepreneurial spirit, the idea of being all-in on a new venture gave her pause. “I’m also worried that I’ll lose my hustle.”
Of course, motherhood makes you re-evaluate where you’re putting your time and energy, but what if you’re not ready to loosen up the reigns at work?
Before children “I want my first baby, my business, to be fully secure and shored up,” says a founder who is still vacillating about whether or not to have kids.
And for all their disruption in the workplace, millennial women haven’t found a way to make peace between the always-on hustle-culture they created and the demands of pregnancy and early motherhood. “Pregnancy been really humbling for me because I am a workaholic, who loves to work around the clock and just go, go, go. And I just can’t anymore,” said a pregnant founder whose baby arrived just a few days after our dinner. And despite all the safety nets she put in place at work so she could take 8 weeks of maternity leave, she was still anxious that the company she’d invested a decade in building might fall apart without her constant attention. “I’m just scared because, like, it’s my baby. And I babysit it all day long every day.”
That fear of losing a sense of purpose isn’t just for founders. An ambitious new mother explained that she grew her career by saying yes to every opportunity that came her way. But after a years-long struggle to get pregnant and now with a two-month-old at home, her North Star has shifted.
“I want a successful life and big career, but I also want it to feel meaningful and purposeful. I’m just not sure exactly what that is now,” she explained. “Obviously, I have a child now, and financial responsibilities, and so in some ways it does feel a little less blue sky, but also urgent for me to figure it out.”
For other women at the dinner, the urgency has become frantic. They are shoring up their career with side-hustles and consulting projects. They’ve made financial models and spreadsheets—anything to give them a sense of control should the financial rug be pulled out from under their feet again.
A seven-months-pregnant woman explained it this way: “The discrimination that women/pregnant women/new mothers face in traditional workplaces is well documented so that’s not news. It just means we have to be prepared — whether that means being our own bosses or piecing together alternative ways to support ourselves. Just generally not trusting that any partner, any company, or any social safety net will be there to provide for us,” she said. And then she puts her finger on the real millennial truth: “We are on our own.”
Ann Shoket is the author of The Big Life and is the former editor-in-chief of Seventeen.