I never get tired of telling the story of how I started my business. I typically start the story in 2001, when my plan after the birth of my first child included a flexible work arrangement that I painstakingly maneuvered at the non-profit where I worked. My plan included sharing childcare with my husband in a schedule where I would work from home a few days and work in the office a few days each week.
But those carefully-considered work plans crashed in a flood of my unexpected desire to spend as much time as possible with my new daughter. Fortunately, a change in my husband’s work circumstances made it possible for me to resign my position and begin my new career as a stay-at-home mom.
I stayed home through the birth of all three of our daughters and didn’t look back. We had moved to a new state, so when my husband asked me about what I might want to do for work “someday,” going back to my previous work at the non-profit wasn’t an option, nor did I really have a desire to go back to that. I also felt paralyzed in considering a world where I would juggle work and family responsibilities; after all, my husband’s high-powered career left me at home with the kids 12+ hours per day. Becoming a two-career family seemed impossible.
In 2009, I began freelance writing, a new phase of life and career.
Just three years later, I had enough opportunities that I decided to start my own company and create opportunities for others. While working at home, I remained available for my kids. I purposefully designed my work life to provide enough flexibility to allow me to be present with my kids. Even now that I am working in a traditional office setting, flexibility and presence with my girls is a high priority.
When my Social Security earnings report landed in my mailbox this week, the first thing I noted is the six round zeroes in the middle of my work history, representing the years 2003 through 2008. While those zeroes represent zero contribution to Social Security credits during those years, to me they represent some of the most valuable and meaningful years of my life. Though the years passed in a blur of diaper changes, feedings, and laundry piles, they also included zoo trips with wide eyes of awe and wonder. They include the day that we cleared our dining room of furniture and used homemade/washable finger paints to paint strips of paper taped to the floor — and nearly everything else in sight, including my tiny girls and their friends, who beamed with streaks of pink and green paint in their hair. Those years included tears and screeches, bike rides around a city block in Chicago, adventures on the “L,” and lullabies sung in endless loops.
I proudly post my Earnings Record with zeroes, and I do so purposefully and mindfully. Why?
Contribution exists in more than money; the most significant contributions we make to the world will never be measured in dollars and cents and will never drop to the bottom of a P&L. Taking a break from working may cause a gap in earnings but does not have to mean a death sentence to a woman’s earning power or career trajectory. In the years since 2009, I’ve far exceeded the earnings I had before kids by forging my own path. In doing so, I have created value, not only for myself and my family, but for several others.
When I see younger women struggling with the future, considering how they might manage kids and work, and what financial or lifestyle choices they might have to make while pursuing motherhood and career or motherhood then career, I want them to realize that even though there are no easy answers, there is a way to a life of meaning and purpose. You can opt-out of work for a while, and string together a series of zeroes, even a decade of zeroes, and your worth to the world will not be diminished an iota. Instead, you’ll measure the value you’re creating differently, with metrics of your own making — the ones you decide matter most.
For now, I am keeping my Social Security earnings report pinned to my bulletin board, but I have folded it to emphasize that beautiful row of zeroes, the ones I will always cherish.