The XX Factor

Redefining Ambition

I think there’s a connection between Jess’s post on Meredith Vieira leaving the Today show, and Rachael’s on the McKinsey report that many middle-aged working women lose their ambition – and I think it’s a spot of good news. As Rachael pointed out, the common assumption is that it’s hardest to balance work and family when one’s children are little. But in reality they continue to need your attention just as intensely the older they get. As they pass through grade school into middle school, you not only want to help them negotiate the shoals of school and friends, but you start realizing how quickly they’re growing and how brief your time together is.

That may be a reason why many women supposedly ratchet down their ambition in middle age. Maybe they are feeling, “Hey, I’ve accomplished a lot, I’m happy with where my career is, but right now I can’t put in the hours to propel me to the top because I want to see my kids grow up.” As Jess writes, Vieira, a mother of three, left the prestige of hard news reporting with all its relentless travel obligations, for the softer realm of chat shows. But I agree with Jess that this move made her an even bigger star. I have a friend who was quickly climbing the editorial-management side of a big newspaper just as her children were heading toward their teens. She realized the hours needed on the job were incompatible with seeing her kids, so she made what was a wrenching decision to step off that track. Instead, she has become hugely successful as a columnist.  She, too, might have answered the McKinsey survey that she was “less ambitious” than she had been in her twenties and thirties. But she certainly isn’t less successful.

So it’s possible that in middle-age this generation of professional women – the first in big numbers to make it – are not stalling in their careers, but instead redefining success and ambition. It’s also possible that as today’s young women start their climb they will figure out ways to have the family life they want while continuing to make it to the top. (And from the perspective of the mother of a high school student, at a certain point it does get easier. What my daughter wants most from me now is a ride and cash.)