Darling, You Can’t Do Both

An inspirational excerpt from the book by Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin

Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin made global news in 2005 for standing up to the infamous Neil French (the creative leader of their network at the time) who bluntly declared that female creatives aren’t cut out to be CDs at a Toronto event.

In this excerpt from Darling, You Can’t Do Both (Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved. ©2014), they explore the challenge of having kids and a demanding career –and how motherhood can make you better at your job.

Shortly before becoming a CCO, I was in a huddle at a Toronto bar with Kara Goodrich, one of America’s most awarded copywriters. We’d just spent the day judging Canada’s Marketing Awards, and I was showing Kara a picture of my young daughter. Looking at the photo, Kara suddenly got very serious. “How do you do it?” she asked. She wanted a baby but wondered if her value would drop when she became a parent. I was floored. This brilliant young woman was undaunted by creating world-class work that made millions for clients like Keds, Polaroid and United Airlines. She took her industry’s onslaught of accolades in stride, year after year. Any agency in the country would have killed to hire her. But one of the most employable people in advertising was completely unnerved by the thought of what having a baby might do to her career.

Professional women who go for the child often go on to discover that motherhood can make them even better at their jobs. After my tears dried back at work post-baby, I discovered this very big, pleasant surprise: the job felt so much easier than before. Having a tot actually helped me to do well at the top.

Far from hurting me at work, motherhood actually accelerated my career. Life after my daughter Lily was not a cakewalk, to be sure. But in many ways, it was so much better. I was getting the job done; there were no complaints that I wasn’t pulling it off. The quality of my work was often better, if anything. I think one reason for that was heightened empathy—a side effect of motherhood that hit even me, someone not famous for the quality. The woman who can virtually feel her child’s pain can also relate more to the emotions of co-workers and clients. I was more sensitive to the feelings of others, including the target audiences for the products I was tasked with selling. If women make something like 80 percent of all purchase decisions, it seems obvious that being a mother gave me an edge in connecting with the moms.

Another new development was that I had a much greater interest in the well-being of others. For many a new parent, having a baby means not only wild interest in said baby but more concern for all babies. In my case, even great big ones that were not much younger than me: my co-workers. If I had mentored before, now I was that much more committed to helping people along. My interest in the success of others has only increased over time. I enjoy their wins as much as my own.

Becoming a mom magically shifted my orientation from me-me-me to my child and others around me. Survival of the species stuff, I suspect. I became infinitely more patient. No new parent can get through the day without patience for crankiness, crying, neediness, tantrums. Before baby, impossible to imagine coping with, but after baby, taken in stride. Okay, taken in stride-ish. At work, this newfound, deeper-than-ever well of patience was not just virtuous; it meant better coping skills.

Janet says one of the biggest benefits of parenthood for her was that it put work in perspective. If it was possible to take the job too seriously, she did. After her son, Devin, arrived, she stopped wanting to cry after every lost battle; she found her tendency to overreact and wear the hair shirt in response to failure evaporated. A little bit of distance gave her clarity. The detachment sharpened her judgment.

I wish I’d had the revelation sooner that having children can make women better at the job. And more than that, I wish this reality were accepted as common knowledge. I’m happy to see more and more press like this, which appeared in Forbes: “For working mothers, as for effective leaders, agility is a critical requirement. Agility means possessing strong self-awareness, emotional intelligence, flexibility, conflict management, listening and communications skills. It also means being acutely aware of how others process and respond to our own actions and behaviors.” And I’m also glad more and more senior women are speaking out about the value that motherhood adds to their careers.

Many women say that motherhood took their time management capabilities—a foundational skill for any leader—to a whole new level. There’s nothing like having that second full-time job to bring incredible focus to the work that happens in an office. There’s no choice: the working mom must learn to excel at time management. There are fewer hours in the day for work, so every hour really counts. You start to spot the stuff that can wait, can be delegated or wouldn’t be worth the time.

Kara Goodrich took the baby plunge; her daughter is now in her teens. Kara found a way to make life work at home and on the job thanks to the boss she followed to BBDO New York, David Lubars. He was very supportive in working out a situation that allowed her to continue to deliver fantastic work but also gave her the flexibility she needed to do the job of mom. Kara stresses that it’s not all as pat as it sounds. She’s a creative director, but she’s set boundaries for herself and, at times, has decided to cut back on some of the duties that would necessitate more hands-on availability than she can responsibly assume. She loves her work more than ever, and some days, she feels the sting of hitting her head on her self-imposed ceiling. But the lack of personal regrets far outweighs the occasional professional ones. She has great success on her own terms.

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