Work crept into her life, until life disappeared

As mommy wars swirl again, a new voice is heard

March 13, 2013|Susan Reimer

Erin Callan was the face of Lehman Brothers in 2008 as it battled insolvency rumors. Fresh, pretty, smart and confidently articulate, she worked feverishly to try to talk nervous investors out of jumping ship.

But when the company imploded in 2008, she did, too. After taking a couple of place-holder jobs, she disappeared. The most powerful woman on Wall Street before it all came tumbling down was only 41.

The New York gossips eventually found her in East Hampton, in what passes for a cottage in the woods there, taking spin classes and living on the cash-in of her Lehman shares, now married to a high-school classmate, a handsome New York City firefighter.

If you are going to fall, that's a nice way to land. If you are going to disappear, that's a nice kind of oblivion.

But Erin Callan has emerged from her seclusion with a piece this week in The New York Times, "Is There Life After Work?" just as the can-mommy-have-it-all debates are gearing up. Again.

Her essay has been characterized as a lament about never having taken time during her climb to have a child, but I read it somewhat differently. She says she could never have forged a work/life balance because she didn't have a life: "My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left." Her first husband slipped away, too.

She steps out of the shadows as two women who did take time to have children while rising to the top have been speaking out.

Sheryl Sandberg, No. 2 at Facebook, has a new book titled "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," urging women not to back away from challenges and added responsibility because they lack the confidence that they can do the job — or because they worry that the job might not accommodate a family life later.

And Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who famously took only two weeks of maternity leave, issued an edict ending work-at-home flexibility — immediately interpreted as a broadside to working motherhood.

These two women are worth many millions, and you can argue that money, not sex, makes the difference here. That is a class struggle, not a woman's struggle. But I venture a guess that if Mark Zuckerberg told everybody at Facebook that they had to come into the office because face time ignites creativity, it would be a different kind of conversation.

And if Google founder Larry Page said what Ms. Sandberg said, that she wants her 7-year-old son and her 5-year-old daughter "cheered and supported" no matter whether they decided to work outside the home or not, I think we would be having a different conversation here, too.

The fact is, work/family balance is unique for each family, each woman. For some, work is the balance that makes home life satisfying. For others, work provides the money for a decent family life.

Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500, but her marriage is bust. Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, but she retired to take care of her ailing husband. How would these women define balance? And would their definition work for you?

Of all the chatter, I found Ms. Callan's thoughts the most meaningful. She was not shot out of a cannon; her work "crept in over time," until those around her were not getting half of her, they were getting what was left of her. And it wasn't much.

She worked hard for 20 years, she said, and she is now spending time on other things. "But this is not balance," she said. It is sequence.

"I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life," she writes. "Not without sacrifice. ... but with somewhat more harmony."

She says that she might never have stepped away if the crisis at Lehman Brothers had not occurred. It was only after she had experienced the worst her work could deliver that she began to appreciate what is left of her life.

She is 47, she writes, and she and her new husband are hoping in-vitro fertilization can give her a baby.

But it isn't just about the baby, and I think Ms. Callan knows that. It is never just about the baby.

It is about life. The whole package.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She is available at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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