When we, two ambitious friends from college (class of '93––rock on), set out to answer some burning existential questions about how motherhood and other factors had affected our career trajectories, we decided to survey a few other college friends. Those initial conversations sparked others, and ultimately we interviewed 43 women we'd graduated from college with. More than two-thirds of us had become mothers, and the effect motherhood had on our ambition was a recurring topic in our interviews.
Many of our friends wanted to be "present" parents, but also wanted to continue to develop their professional lives, and nearly all of them talked about that difficult, often exhausting juggle. One thing we learned is that ambition is not contained in a neatly packaged box labeled career, but bleeds into all aspects of our friends' lives, including marriage and, of course, parenting.
Read on for 10 more truths we gleaned about ambition, and remember that however you're doing this, you're not alone.
1. Marrying or partnering with someone who is equally invested in the job of parenting is integral to your career success.
For our friends, Sheryl Sandberg's advice held up: the most important career decision you make is whom to marry. Our friends whose spouses prioritized our friends' careers equal to or higher than their own, achieved more traditionally successful careers. And these women didn't end up in equitable relationships by accident. They took their own career ambitions seriously, and demanded their spouses do so too. That meant when it came to balancing parental duties, things like staying home to take care of a sick kid or packing lunches didn't automatically fall to them.
2. Talk about the division of labor with your spouse.
If you don't talk about it, it's not going to happen. Our friends who have ongoing, open discussions with their spouses about who will do what, who revisit that conversation frequently, and who are willing to speak up when they feel the burden is unfair or derailing their careers or health, typically end up with more egalitarian household divides, and with time left to devote to building their careers. On the flip side, women who shy away from these conversations end up doing the majority of childcare and domestic labor.
3. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
Figure out the pieces of child-raising, household-running, and life-organizing that you can assign to someone else, pay someone else to take care of, or simply let go. That may mean you stop buying houseplants because that is one more thing you don't want to do, that you hire someone to help clean your house once a month, or that you ask your spouse to take on all parent-teacher conferences at school.
4. There will be some things that you simply cannot, will not, want to delegate.
They may be large things (researching all the summer camps, forever!) or small (cutting fingernails), but they will feel so essential to motherhood that you won't be able to give them up. These are your non-negotiables. Figure out what those things are, be okay with owning them, and delegate the other stuff.
5. These non-negotiables around parenting may change over the course of your parenthood.
One year you may feel that meeting the school bus is integral to your day. Other years you may find that need slipping away, replaced by other things that suddenly feel important, like semi-weekly breakfasts with your tween, or regular attendance at swim meets. So prepare for change, frequently re-evaluate the way you spend your time, your children's needs and your own.
6. If you are ambitious at work, you are also likely to be ambitious in parenting.
That juggle will be a challenge long-term, but know that the way you choose to balance the two today isn't the way you will balance them for the rest of your life. Some years you may want to direct more of your ambition into hands-on, very-present parenting, and other years you'll be able to pull back the helicopter and truly kill it at work. The choice is yours, and the way you decide to divide your time will fluctuate over the years.
7. You will be tapped by your children’s school for more volunteer opportunities than you can possibly take on.
It is okay to scale back work to take these on, or to pass on them entirely. Think about what's important to you, what feels right, and don't let anyone guilt you into doing more than you can realistically fit into your life while still being the kind of mother and worker you want to be.
8. Ambition is not a straight line from point A to point B for every person.
Your ambition trajectory may take detours, and may ebb and flow in the years you are also busy being a hands-on mother. So don't worry if your ambition recedes during particularly intense periods of child raising. It can and may resurface later, fiercely so.
9. Having children may radically alter your ambition, or do nothing to change it at all.
Most of our friends, once they had children, felt an innate need to be present with and for them, which meant they couldn't be as hard driving in their careers as they'd been pre-kids. But we also saw women whose ambitions stayed the course after they became mothers. They just kept on keeping on. It wasn't always easy to predict the directions our friends' ambition would flow, so just know having children changes your ambitions in unexpected ways.
10. Women will usually be making the pediatrician appointments. All of them. Forever.
One-hundred-percent of our friends with children make the pediatrician appointments, whether they are Opt Outers, Flex Lifers who share domestic duties somewhat equally with their spouses, or High Achievers partnered with stay at home parents.
You can be ambitious in your career and also be a mother—plenty of women are able to do both––but it does require some compromises. Remember that there's no one right way to be an ambitious woman and mother, and that however you're doing this, you're not alone.