When Motherhood Helps, Not Hurts, Your Career
When you think of careers with poor work-life balance and thus ones that aren't very accommodating to working mothers, you might think of investment banking, or law, or even technology (despite the valiant attempts by many tech firms to improve their policies for working parents). But what you probably won't think of, and what's arguably a career with even poorer work-life balance, and even less accommodating to working mothers, is comedy. Which is no joke.
In fact, it's well known that the career of a comic is one of the most demanding. Consider the late-night club gigs night after night. The endless months on the road. The low to very low average pay (very few comics "make it"). Not to mention the fact that comedy, especially the standup variety, is more male-dominated than Wall Street, BigLaw, and the NFL.
All of which makes comic Ali Wong's success even more unlikely, and inspiring.
Wong, who is now 34 years old, famously recorded her one-woman Netflix comedy special "Baby Cobra" while seven-and-a-half-months pregnant. In the special (which is not for the squeamish or prudish but is for those with a darker and dirtier sense of humor; I loved it), Wong used her pregnancy as the through line. Most of the jokes revolved around her child in utero as well as the journey toward pregnancy: dating, sex, getting married. Which is to say Wong embraced her pregnancy, using it to her advantage rather than letting it derail her work. And it ended up serving her well. Very well. Her special, which premiered this past spring, has received rave reviews, and she recently received The New Yorker treatment—a long and glowing profile in the magazine.
Here's Wong, from that profile, on the decision to record her standup special while with child:
"I thought that if I did it when I was pregnant then I would always associate the baby with a break if I got it … A couple of female standup comics I know refer to their kids as their Little Career Killers. I was, like, I really do not want to feel that way. It sounds crazy, but if it wasn’t for Mari and doing that special when I was pregnant with her I could see how very easily I would have slowed down, and stopped."
And here's a passage about the material that Wong's become famous for.
It is possible that female excretion is relatively untouched comedic terrain because the most noteworthy things that women expel are children—and few female standups have any. Performing in clubs is not a career that fosters an ideal work-life balance. “It’s almost impossible to be on the road as a female comic,” Amy Schumer said, “even without having to keep something other than yourself alive.”
In many ways, though, the things that Wong describes onstage are unremarkable—the typical concerns of a person in her mid-thirties who grew up "a total private-school Asian." She is coping with the demands of her career and motherhood. (Her standup now includes a bit about how expensive her nanny is: "My husband and I, we gotta work very hard—to not take care of our child ourselves.") She used to be promiscuous and wild, but now she’s too tired for sex. She wants her husband, a graduate of Harvard Business School, to be successful. She is concerned about her aging mother. She eats gluten-free.
Speaking of her HBS-educated husband (who works in technology), guess who's supporting whom?
As a hint, Wong also writes for the ABC comedy "Fresh Off the Boat" and is now starring in a new sitcom called "American Housewife," which will begin airing on ABC in two weeks.
In any case, Wong, in addition to her New Yorker profile, was recently featured on NPR's "Fresh Air." In that podcast, Wong said that certain career advice given to her by the comic Chris Rock was pivotal to her success.
What was really encouraging was I had a talk with Chris Rock about getting married and having kids, and I expressed to him that I was really anxious about it, and I was really worried about how it would affect my career, and he said to me, "You know what Ali? I think that if you do get married and have kids, that you will actually have a real shot at being truly famous, and I'm talking about the kind of famous where your mother knows who you are ... like a mother, like a household name. ... because most of America is married and has kids."
And that really changed my perspective, because then it was kind of the beginning of me thinking about how to use my marriage and my pregnancy as—not a source of downfall and weakness—but instead as a source of power and relatability.
Whereas in "Baby Cobra" Wong joked about the raunchy sides of pregnancy, dating, and sex, the comic's post-baby standup material focuses on the raunchy sides of breastfeeding and other physical motherhood duties. And lately, and miraculously, she's been testing out the material at various comedy clubs—several nights a week—after she puts her daughter to bed.
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Above, I mentioned law among those careers that aren't all that friendly to working mothers. Of course, there are exceptions, and perhaps the most well known exception in law (a working mother who succeeded in the profession) is perhaps the most well known law professional of our time: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Today, Ginsburg published a new book of her writings (many of which date back numerous decades) entitled My Own Words, and last week she published an excerpt of the book in the New York Times. In that excerpt, Ginsburg writes that her husband, Marty, as well as various teachers and mentors were integral to her career success. She also mentions that her daughter was essential to her success.
Work-life balance was a term not yet coined in the years my children were young; it is aptly descriptive of the time distribution I experienced. My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.
Ginsburg rose the ranks of her profession during a monumental time for women in the workplace, and, although she believes there's still a long way to go before women are treated equally, she's (sort of) optimistic about the future.
Today about half the nation’s law students and more than one-third of our federal judges are women, including three of the justices seated on the United States Supreme Court bench. Women hold more than 30 percent of law school deanships in the United States and serve as general counsel to 24 percent of Fortune 500 companies. In my long life, I have seen great changes ...
Yet one must acknowledge the still bleak part of the picture. Most people in poverty in the United States and the world over are women and children, women’s earnings here and abroad trail the earnings of men with comparable education and experience, our workplaces do not adequately accommodate the demands of childbearing and child rearing, and we have yet to devise effective ways to ward off sexual harassment at work and domestic violence in our homes. I am optimistic, however, that movement toward enlistment of the talent of all who compose “We, the people,” will continue.
Early reviews of Ginsburg's book have generally been positive. Kirkus Reviews: "Only the most dedicated Ginsburg fans, and there are many, will devour everything here, but most readers will find items of interest from this icon of women’s rights." USA Today: "The woman now known as 'Notorious R.B.G.' comes across not as the rock-star liberal jurist her adoring fans celebrate, but a cool cucumber in the white-hot world of Washington, a voice of reason speaking up for civility." And Publishers Weekly: "Even those who have followed the octogenarian jurist over her long and distinguished tenure on the Supreme Court will find plenty of less expected items to relish, including an editorial Ginsburg wrote as an eighth grader in 1946 for her Brooklyn elementary school newspaper on the importance of the new U.N. Charter."