Is Motherhood Incompatible With Start-Up Culture?

The job success vs. motherhood trope may be decades old, but that apparently doesn't stop investors from giving moms running businesses the side-eye.

Jun 14, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

A few weekends ago, my grandmother and I got in a rollicking argument over lunch about my resolution to never reproduce. 

“I’m way too selfish,” I told my grandma, who was so busy gaping at me that she nearly forgot to glare at my nose ring. “I can’t imagine dealing with it.”

“If you don’t have kids,” she shot back, “You’ll die old and alone someday.”

“That’s a horrible reason! If I end up old and alone, at least I’ll have plenty of time to write!”

She whirled, pointing her fork toward my mother. “What if your mother had never wanted kids? Huh? What then?”

I glanced at my mom, who was somehow managing to smile beatifically and roll her eyes at the same time. “I…probably…wouldn’t know either way? Because I’d be nonexistent.”

My mom patted my hand, saintly. “It’s true,” she said soothingly. “You’d have no idea whatsoever.” 

But really. I never, in my whole life, want to have children. Don’t want to spawn them directly post-uterus, don’t want to foster, don’t want to adopt. It’s not a cutesy “I can barely take care of plants!” thing, either, although that’s also true.

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I don't have high hopes for this guy.

I do feel way too self-involved and disaster-zoned to devote myself to the care and feeding of a tiny, angry human. Believe me, if you’d grown up with my mother, you’d probably feel the same way.

It’s not that my mom did a bad job with us. On the contrary: she’s actually one of the kindest, most warm-hearted people I know, her feelings about my armpit hair aside. It’s just that I watched her take care of me (and my brother, grandmother, aunt, various strangers who lived in my basement, and, half the time, my father) unflinchingly my whole life, effectively putting her ideal career and aspirations on hold to do so. I’m sure that lots of women, many of whom write for this site, can have both their dreams and their kids; I just don’t think I can be one of them.

But can you blame me? My first “grown-up” job has been in the Silicon Valley, where moms at work are about as common as seeing someone read an actual paperback on the CalTrain. In my immediate circle of colleagues and friends, I can only think of one woman with a child. Several people have spouses or domestic partners, but the general consensus is to “Wait until the economy gets better, then maybe take a few years off for baby-making.”

From a San Francisco tech perspective, anything that slows down one’s fledgling career even for a few breaths might be a death sentence, including having kids. We’re already knee-deep in the hyper-masculine “brogrammer” trend: as far as I can tell, it really doesn’t help to draw attention to one’s own maternal instinct.

The uniqueness of this phenomenon comes, I think, from the combination of a neverending economic recession and a culture that increasingly values what the New York Times loves to call “die wunderkind.” Popular media hasn’t taught adults my age to value the long-term arc of hard work and slow ladder-climbing that our parents slogged through. Au contraire, in an age where YouTube celebrities can make a cool few thousand off of filming themselves falling off of skateboards, lots of people in my generation want to get famous and get rich fast. Then, they think, it’ll be time for a baby.

And they’re in good company. An Ohio State University study showed that college-educated women are frequently waiting until their late thirties and early forties to have children, a trend that's been certainly aided by medical technology but probably at least partially prompted by career insecurity earlier in life. 

Considering the difficulties that new mothers face in the United States, it’s really no surprise that women seem to be opting to put their careers chronologically first. The U.S. is one of the few developed countries with no nationwide maternity leave plan. Sure, lots of private companies will hold one’s position open for her until she’s able to return to work, but a whole lot will also decide that it’s easier to hire someone whose extra-curricular socializing is limited only to her duvet. 

What’s more, women who do have kids and seek to further their careers often face the ingrained prejudice of investors. This weekend, the Times ran a story about mothers who run start-ups and who therefore find it difficult to attract capital.

Such investors are clearly used to seeing the kind of white-guy 20-something Zuckerberg-expy whom Aaron Sorkin movies have taught us to fear and respect. The sight of a woman who’s able to care for a child and pursue career objectives is apparently only horrifying and confusing them, albeit behind closed doors. 

One of the featured women’s spouses even says, “I think there are a lot of challenges for women because V.C.’s are thinking: ‘Uh-oh. When are those women going to get pregnant? When are they going to get distracted?’ I think that kind of stuff is pervasive, and it’s unfortunate.”

Of course, it frustrates the hell out of me that women’s children are seen as a “distraction,” while I’m sure men’s children are -- well, to be honest, probably just seen as their wives’ distractions. And I’m extremely impressed by the women whom the Times profiles. But I think it’s worth noting, too, that although the women featured in the article are clearly capable of caring for families and running their businesses, all of them have the financial resources to hire help. As the Times says:

These women say it takes a village — a community that includes nannies, in-laws, friends, supportive spouses and baby sitters — to make it all work. Living within walking distance of the office also helps. (Ms. Fleiss often goes home for quick visits during the day.)

If women work just as many hours and just as hard but for less capital, I imagine that village full of helpful child-rearing assistants gets a bit under-populated. The women in the Times article have the good fortune of supportive spouses and large amounts of discretionary income. What about those of us whose careers don’t project us getting on the Forbes Billionaire list? What happens if we want to reproduce?

For someone in her early 20s, like I am, the constant, pressing specter of unemployment is a real source of anxiety. Anyone who came of job-hunting age in a recession probably knows the feeling well: the endless cover letters, the continually lowering of standards, and the rapidly dwindling bank account numbers. I don’t know how it is in other job markets, but this seems like it’s especially difficult for anyone who wants to write for a living in any capacity. 

So at this point, the idea of having children and then hopping into a digital media career is almost laughable to me. I can barely take my eyes off my homepage at work before one of my company’s competitors has “scooped” me on a news development or Internet meme. Even though I’m sure my individual company would support my decision, I can’t imagine splitting those attentions with an infant as well. And if I ever wanted to change jobs, my wider professional environment doesn’t exactly seem to be eager to jump on the onesie-knitting train. The thought of giving up my dreams for a child, even one I would love, is genuinely terrifying.

Of course, the career versus mother trope is decades old. But it’s still difficult -- prohibitively so, in some cases -- for many women to find a balance between their careers and their children. And it’s not a great sign overall that an industry where the pay gap between genders is actively shrinking also apparently makes it nearly impossible for women to lead sustainable lives as mothers and businesswomen. 

I wish I had a prescriptive solution, but it’s obviously not that simple. I just hope that those of you who can pursue careers and take care of families continue to do so. As a bonus, it’ll show smarmy investors that children aren’t so much a “distraction” as another important facet of any employee’s life. Maybe, using mentors like you guys (and my mother) as an inspiration, I can even consider trying the old juggle myself.

Well, probably not. I wasn’t actually lying about that whole “can’t even take care of a plant” thing.