Will Having a Baby Slow Down My Career?

Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. Photo: MGM Studios

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!

I’m in my mid-20s and about to start my first non-assistant gig. My boyfriend and I have just moved in together, and with our recent job stability, are talking about getting married. We both come from big families and definitely want kids eventually. Everything is on track to work out like I always dreamed … but I’m freaking out! Every day I read a new article about how having children slows down women’s careers and how hard it is to balance it all. How am I supposed to have a baby (or two!), run everything by 45 (is that realistic?), and have any time left over to be a person? What’s it like? Is it as daunting as it seems? —Kate, Los Angeles

There is so much to address in this question that it’s taken me two months to think about everything I want to say. I thought about it so much that I have to write a second column for readers who are just slightly behind you, career-wise (more on the scourge of the 30-under-30 list soon). First, let’s look at the goals you lay out.

You want to have a baby and be the boss of everything in the next 20 years, and you think those are incompatible. They’re not. If you look at a lot of the women in power around town, most of them have kids and good jobs, so they’re doing it somehow. I can’t imagine it’s easy, but they have systems in place, like tons and tons of child care and choreographed schedules, which make it less of a mad scramble. And of course working and building a family are daunting! I’m on my second maternity leave right now, and I freak out every day about whether I’ve put a bullet in my career and whether my kids are going to be good human beings at, like, 35. But then I remind myself that all I can do today is keep hustling and make sure that they’re healthy, kind, and laughing, and repeat all of it every day forever.

There are a lot of horror stories out there about how having children slows down women’s careers. Even without kids, the statistics within entertainment are abysmal, and work environments hostile to women with families abound. Most jobs are still set up for a male wage earner who has a wife at home who can take care of the kids. Nationally, maternity leave and family support are an abomination, and there is still a long fight on the policy front. It’s all terrible! It’s harder to be a woman, and one who wants kids — that’s a fact. However, the only other option here is to … leave the business? Which leaves us a good woman down. We can’t lose any more women! I believe we are entering a period in which the noise we are making will be heard. But everyone needs to make noise. It’s going slowly, but as more women and minorities enter our workplaces — which is an inevitable shift — I do believe things must change.

By the time you hit 30, your OB/GYN will be showing you a fertility chart and telling you that you should think about having a baby and freezing your eggs. But if we pinned our family planning to peak fertility, we’d all have been pregnant in high school or something, and that sounds like its own kind of challenge. You’re treading a pretty conventional path in that you’re quite young and have a partner who wants to do this with you already, but I know many incredible parents who have done it much later, single-handedly, adopted, and/or used a surrogate. There are a million paths to building a family, and you have my permission not to panic about your eggs for a very very long time.

Panicking about financial stability is a little more pertinent because the costs of child-rearing add up. While, of course, children can be (and are) raised on any budget, Los Angeles is expensive! Unless one of you stays home, or you have family around who wants to provide child care full-time, you’re looking at day care or a nanny, and I don’t want to scare you with the figures, but it’s certainly an argument for waiting until you make more money. It’s also an argument for asking for raises every year before you really dive in.

You don’t mention where you work, so I’ll paint with a broad brush here. If the logistics are really worrying you, or you get closer to actually trying for a child, talk to your showrunner or producer or HR, whoever the influential body is. You might find that they are uncomfortable or woefully underprepared — most really have been, but many employers are feeling pressure to retain young women, so you might be able to set your own terms for reproductive health. If you work at a bigger or more traditional company, it’s not unreasonable to ask if they cover egg freezing and IVF, if you think you might need or want to do that. They might be weird about it because companies are just starting to cobble together reproductive and family policies, and it’s not like big corporate insurance plans are super family-friendly. But to be honest, women in the business should be asking for (and getting) everything right now.

If you become a guild member, research what is covered in terms of family planning. Wherever you work, ask for X months of maternity leave (six in a perfect world, but three is standard, and four even better) with an additional month or two of working from home. Of course if you work around an aggressive production schedule this might not be possible, but hopefully your bosses are supportive enough to accommodate your needs. Again, employers need to retain women. Have your partner talk to their job about family leave, too. If you work on a studio lot, you might have access to a great day care on the lot. In addition to HR or your direct boss, is there anyone at work you want to be, or anyone you’ve met where you think, They seem to have life and work figured out. How do I get there? Maybe reach out and ask if you can bring them coffee and talk through their days, because most women I know who work outside the home love to be asked how they manage it all.

I hear your concern that you won’t have time left over to be a person, and honestly, that is impossible at first. When your kid is born, your life explodes, and then you piece the non-kid parts back together around him or her. After my first kid, I was shocked at the immense lifestyle change. I wake up much earlier than I used to, sure, but just being in charge of a human requires ton of physical and mental exertion, plus a constant baseline feeling that you’re forgetting something. But here’s the thing: If you like to travel, go to restaurants, enjoy happy hour with your pals, and take naps on a Sunday, all of these things are doable. They just take planning and making sure someone is covering the kid, whether that’s a partner, family member, sitter, or friend. It’s likely that a lot of your friends will be parents, too, so no one at that point is having all-night hangs that you can’t attend.

As for professional productivity, parenthood made me scrutinize how I spent every second of my day. A manageable commute suddenly became an extra two hours away from my baby. Evening drinks became incomprehensible. But I started to work from home more, and drinks turned into lunches, and eventually coffees. While output definitely took a nosedive in the months I was pinned under a baby, I feel like I came back laser-focused and magically able to pack the same amount of work into less time. I think most working parents I know would say the same. There isn’t much tuning out or unplanned idle time in my workday, but sometimes I cancel lunch to read magazines?

Although you seem content with your path, don’t be surprised if a family has you rethinking it, in a good way. I had the world’s best office job when I had my son five years ago. But I started to hear a little voice in my head that said if I was going to be away from my baby all day — and I definitely planned on working — I should be focusing on the exact things that I wanted to do, which I finally admitted to myself (at 34) was writing and directing. I was lucky enough to have a supportive partner who was gainfully employed in the ensuing two years, during which I made a pittance, but it allowed me the time to get up and running so that I can now earn an income doing what I probably should have been doing all along.

A nice side effect to chasing my dream — getting paid for typing at home in loungewear — has been that I’m pretty available as a mom. I get to drop off and pick up my kid from school every day, and I’m rarely more than 100 feet away from my baby. It’s a good system, for now. However, the business is unpredictable. If I’m fortunate enough that the show I sold this year goes into production — and that is a massive if — I won’t be able to spend as much time with them as usual, but we’ll have to figure it out because I also love working. But, yeah, having a kid was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, until it wasn’t. Falling in love is terrifying. New jobs are terrifying. Everything great you’ve ever done is terrifying, but you’ve done them anyway. You’ll be fine.

Will Having a Baby Slow Down My Career?