On Love: View from the Chicken Coop

Ok, both Tara Hunt and Mona Nomura have taken up the tricky topic of “love and greatness” and now it’s my turn. I feel compelled as a feminist, a geek girl, and as the only one of the three of us to be married right now, to offer a different perspective. I will note from the outset that in their essays  greatness is narrowly defined as “career greatness” but even with that definition I believe you can have both things – it’s just tricky, a lot of work,  and there’s definitely some luck involved at any given point in time.

And this is just how I see it: remember, your mileage may vary.

So here’s what I grew up with: My mom was one of a handful of women in her medical school class – back when medical schools were considered progressive for letting women in to be doctors AT ALL. She married in her 20s, had me in her late 20s, at a time when she actually had two years off from working by default (they were living in a foreign country and only Dad had a working visa for that timeframe). It got harder later.

The advent of the microwave (yes, there was actually a time BEFORE microwaves) and the rice cooker (no Asian family should be without) made her return to work after the birth of my youngest sister manageable.   All of us girls learned how to measure out and wash the rice and turn the rice cooker on 45 minutes before dinner would be done. We learned to put the meat and veggies in the microwave at various times before the dinner would be done, so they’d be ready for when the parents got home. Dad left his work promptly at 5 to get home at 6pm.  Mom – because she was re-entering the workforce – might be slightly later but she came home to a meal (however lame culinary-wise, it was healthy) ready to eat.  We kids branched out and learned how to make spaghetti, chicken in the oven, “real” dishes from Betty Crocker cookbooks, but I’m talking about when we were too young for the real stove, the microwave was the Latchkey Kids’ Friend. We had a latchkey babysitter too, btw – she made sure we didn’t burn the house down with our cooking experiments.

So what do you see there? Training the kids, having a reliable sitter, and technological kitchen marvel = ad hoc way to make both parents get what they want out of their careers.  As Mom put it to me once, “we just made it up as we went along.”

Mom and Dad are still married btw. Their marriage set a high bar for me in terms of what I expected from dudes – support of a strong woman’s career choices, a man who knows how to clean (my Dad is an exacting housekeeper and himself trained me to scrub floors), and a setup where both people liking what they do for their jobs.  Mom and Dad would shoo the kids away from the kitchen and “talk medicine” (their version of shop) after dinner.

My choices – because of the generation I’m in - were different from my parents.  For one thing, I’ve had more than one career (not just technology) and all my jobs were the ones where it’s easy to be workaholic.  I married late (at 40) and when I did, I married someone 9 years younger than me (who works in my field so we can talk shop, who cleans like a fiend – Freud would no doubt have something to say here).  I’m unlikely to have kids at this point; I have cats and chickens.  I have succeeded at taking mostly “linchpin” jobs (see Seth Godin’s book of the same name) and well, linchpin jobs demand a lot of passion and a lot of time. I have an artistic side that doesn’t get enough time – it wants to be a linchpin all on its own and it doesn’t pay enough.

I wanted to get married all along in there, mind you. I was thinking I’d get married after college “sometime.” But the relationships weren’t right, or the relocation issues weren’t right, or as Mona points out the career achievements weren’t right (too early for everyone to sacrifice their career for a love relationship we were still learning how to have).  Mine was the generation who had kids later in life, or, (gasp!) after 40 even. Having the biological clock ticking can force many women who want kids as a primary goal, to accept career regression and/or settle for a lame dude just so they hit that date. It's a personal choice but I promised myself I was never going to do that.  I could always adopt if I wanted kids later.

And boy, you just can’t time when the right partner will show up.  I won’t lie to you – being single that long while people marry and marry around you, can suck really hard.  There were definitely people I saw get married early out of general fear of being alone (they got divorced later). The world at times seems built for couples and married friends can have “couples amnesia” or “couples denial” about what it was like to be single.

Guy CEOS of startups don’t talk about it much, but heartbreak is also tiring. There’s the heartbreak of your startup not working out and the heartbreak of your relationship not working out, and in tech, they can come at the same damn time and they hit on similar but different fronts.  I remember one tech job where I left on lunch break, sobbed my eyes out, and then came back composed and kicked ass.  I did this ritual for several months. You do what you have to do.

But there were also “career moments” I wouldn’t trade for anything. One joke I had with myself after a breakup was to ask myself, “if I won $100 million in the Lotto right now, would that make me feel  better even though X dude is gone? “– and frankly, sometimes it would. Why? Because with that set of resources, my life would so clearly leave the plane it was on currently and rise up to enable a lot of other dreams I had.

Complex, interesting, GREAT people don’t have just one dream.  Love is important, but no life is one-dimensional, and love itself is more dimensional than just romantic love. Except maybe in that stupid Twilight series. And if you want a bloodsucker or a lupine spouse, you have other issues going on.

(And no, I’m not going to trade my husband for a Lotto ticket. That’s how you know!)

To Mona and Tara (and anyone else struggling with the personal vs. the professional, male or female) all I can offer is my empathy and faith: the struggle to have what you want out of a career and out of your relationships  maybe looks like a mess right now but it doesn’t have to be forever.  It's just this snapshot in time.

Totally agree, pressures are harder on women because they have kids and historically men haven’t been used to women being the powerhouses of the relationship. Right now, there’s an inequity in how that all shakes out for men and women’s time.    For men and women, it can be daunting to find that right partner and sometimes you just don’t have time for it cause too much is going on, or the right folks are not out there – yet.  When it’s not working out, it seems like an OR choice. Love OR Greatness. But once it works out – and I believe firmly it will – then it will be Love AND Greatness. Everyone deserves their shot at both.

Keep the faith.


Comments (4)
  1. Mona says:

    Oh Betsy. Wow. I don’t even know what to say or how to start. I don’t even have the words — or don’t even know how to articulate everything that is going through my mind (and heart.) So the best thing to say is: thank you so much for sharing a different perspective. This post will forever be bookmarked in my browser, mind, and heart, as a reality check, that yes, it can work.

    My heart is still smiling.

  2. Tara Hunt says:

    Great post and congrats! You found a man who is supportive of your career AND loves you like crazy. Color me envious! (but I know you deserve it!)

    Ultimately, I’d choose that…I’d have both! But without any great prospects on the horizon, I’m super happy that I chose career/changing the world (plus a dog for the cuddles!). I really wish that more women would set their bar higher. In fact, there is this awful book out right now that promotes the idea that women should settle because, well, otherwise they are going to grow old and crotchedy alone (I’ll find the title). Shudder! That’s why so many women don’t get the double choice – they have settled for a relationship that takes a great deal of time and energy to keep up, keeping them away from meaningful work.

    Thanks for weighing in. Now I’m hoping that at 40 (approaching quickly), I will find the same balance of the two. 🙂

  3. Kathy Sierra says:

    While I’m VERY encouraged by your post (and take on the topic), Betsy, this whole discussion going on is very disheartening. I’ve put it in the same category as the whole "women-need-to-be-more-aggressive-at-self-promotion" thing and all the endless debates on women in tech and the calls for women to become more "visible". It’s the reason I’m rethinking the social media world right now.

    I think we’re doing a damaging disservice to young women by promoting this whole notion of mapping "greatness" to some exhausting level of "getting out there" that requires, of course, mass quantities of social networking, conference circuits, and high visibility. Because once you’ve made THAT leap, well then of course it’s just a small hop to the "can’t have a relationship" and "can’t change the world without sacrificing your kids" conclusions. Wrong, illogical, awful.

    This is, in my opinion, bulls***.

    If I were just entering the tech world today — as a woman — and I believed these messages, they’d have surely sucked the joy and soul from it. I entered tech for the MOST important reason: I loved it. Not to "change the world", not to be famous, not to "achieve greatness", not to represent Women In Tech, not to be a role model. I did it because I love technology, and I love making things. And I believe it is in the context of doing what we truly love that we are best able to Make A Difference.  

    We claim we want diversity and then even MORE narrowly define the attributes necessary to be a woman in tech. You can’t just be a woman, no you must also be an aggressive self-promoter, highly visible, a social networker, a role model for all women, interested in "greatness", motivated primarily by personal career success (while referring to it as "changing the world"), and of course — as this discussion suggests — willing to sacrifice love. This is so very sad. Sad because it’s a self-centered, depressing bar we’ve set, but even MORE sad because it is simply not true.

    OK, rant over 🙂  In any case, I loved YOUR take on it!

  4. Jacquelyn says:

    "We claim we want diversity and then even MORE narrowly define the attributes necessary to be a woman in tech."

    My pointer just keeps pointing to this.

    Self-actualization, which for me really is the goal, is based on experiences and self-reflection- relationships often being a profound experience. And I am finding that a good partnership also provides me more resiliance and capacitance.

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