Nothing Standing In Our Way!
"We can truly do whatever it is we want to do. There is nothing standing in our way." -- Gloria Steinem
Another (a)typical morning in the life of a morphmom. Somewhere in the middle of my third hour-long round-trip to my son's school to drop off the third forgotten school item (too much to ask that all three be remembered at the same time), fueled by as many cups of coffee (mostly milk and high-calorie vanilla flavoring, but three'll get the job done) on the heels of a very late, not very productive evening, I'm hit with something that is either a bolt from the blue or sugar shock, but, in any event, produces an epiphany.
Heretofore, I'd conceptualized the "morphmom" movement as a growing wave of individual moms who've managed, in a brave new world, to successfully juggle the stay-at-home approach to parenting while at the same time achieving whatever it is they've always wanted to do from a professional/creative standpoint, and now have the desire to pay it forward and help others do the same. But as I downed my last gulp of latte that morning, I realized that, while we morphmoms are, to be sure, pioneers and rugged individualists, to one degree or another, we all stand on the shoulders of our "foremothers" -- decades upon decades of "proto-morphmoms" who've been paying it forward for the last century or more.
And it dawned on me that the definition of "morphmom" is in some ways much broader than I'd previously realized; surely, it must include the hundreds of thousands of women who came before us, battling every obstacle along the way, making our path clearer with each win, large and small. Generations of mothers who strove mightily in a climate much less accepting of what they were trying to achieve than the 21st century America that they helped to create.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending an event sponsored by Citi Private Bank's Diversity Committee, with the support of Jay Yost, an ultra high net worth banker in New York, featuring Gloria Steinem as the keynote speaker. (Among the many subjects that Ms. Steinem touched on: the still-unadopted Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)
But when Ms. Steinem, always a compelling speaker, concluded her remarks, things took a turn for the surreal. Naz Vahid, head of the Citi Private Bank's Law Firm group, who ran the event and to whom I am (for reasons about to become apparent) eternally grateful, actually gave morphmom -- my own tiny little fledgling contribution toward improving the lives of working women - a shout-out on the very same stage on which Gloria Steinem still stood. Wow.
But wait, there's more. As if I weren't already humbled, honored and embarrassed enough, things suddenly went from merely surreal to Chris Nolan-esque, "Inception"-level dreamlike when Gloria Steinem herself not only acknowledged morphmom from the podium, but asked me a question.
More accurately, she asked me to pose a question to all those potential employers out there who don't appear, shall we say, overly anxious to make a place in their organizations for us morphmoms:
"Have you ever raised a child?"
Gloria Steinem addressing the crowd to further the initiatives of the ERA Coalition
I looked around the room. Of the over 200 women in attendance, ranging in age from 15 to 80, hailing from all walks of life, socio-economic and professional backgrounds, I knew that there was at least one who could answer Ms. Steinem's question - nay, her challenge - with a resounding, "Yes, I have!"
Naz Vahid is an amazing woman, professional, friend and morphmom extraordinaire. Growing up, Naz always dreamed of becoming a journalist. But when, at the age of 15, the Iranian revolution brought her to the United States, achieving that particular dream became an almost insurmountable challenge. With English as a second language, journalism was not going to be the easiest of professions to break into in her adopted home. Naz, never easily deterred, continued to pursue it nonetheless.
Then, in the spring of her freshman year of college, fate intervened. Although she had no particular interest in the subject, Naz was forced to take an economics class out of lack of other options. Against all of her expectations, it was a match made in heaven; Naz immediately fell in love with the discipline. Her dreams suddenly shifted, and now she wanted nothing more than to put her new-found passion for economics and her multilingual communications skills to work at the World Bank. Saddled, however, with the now almost ubiquitous burden of student debt, when a job offer materialized from Citibank, it proved an offer Naz simply couldn't refuse.
As it turned out, in an incredible testament to both Naz and the institution, she never looked back. Once again, her dreams morphed: now, her goal was to succeed HERE. But the institution she's come to love, and through whose ranks she's risen inexorably over the past almost 30 years, was a very different place when Naz first arrived in 1985. Different today, in no small part, because of Naz's own efforts and contributions.
1994. Naz, a first generation American woman aspiring to be a banker, needs a sponsor. When she asks her manager for his recommendation, she's told that, as a woman, especially one with a "strange" name, she would never fit in. Undaunted, she goes above his head and receives the recommendation. But that's not all. Before long, she's become her erstwhile naysayer's boss! (Years later, he'll admit his mistake.)
Two years later, Naz has morphed yet again and become a mom. But with this most wonderful gift -- the adoption of her daughter -- more obstacles arose at the office, where many of the decisionmakers were still of a generation not yet ready to fully embrace moms in the professional workforce. For years, working mothers had been part of the administrative staff. But while the professional ranks were increasingly populated by strong, successful women, those who were at the same time raising children were still a relative rarity.
As a result, the organization simply wasn't wired for the modern professional/mom. Among other things, adoption didn't qualify for maternity leave. Luckily for Naz, she was blessed with a forward-thinking boss -- a father of three daughters -- who "allowed" her to take two weeks. Less than two decades ago, and these were the sorts of headwinds that the proto-morphmoms still faced.
But fast-forward to 2014, and you'll find Naz reflecting on her time at Citi with not just well-deserved pride, but a broad smile. Because, while the headwinds were strong, Citi was, as an institution, willing and able -- with the help of Naz and many of her colleagues -- to adapt and evolve. Now, thanks in no small part to Naz and others like her, they're ready for us. Today, adoption leave is mandated and every bit as well-accepted as maternity leave. The burgeoning ranks of female managers increasingly have the flexibility to say, "I'm leaving early today" to see a child's game or make it home for bedtime. They will, of course, work that much harder -- finishing the day's work from home when all others are asleep -- but that is what we do as mothers. We get things done.
Here's how far Citi, and many other (although still too few) forward-looking major American corporations, have come through the efforts of Naz and the other proto-morphmoms across the country and across the decades: A few years back, Naz, exhausted after a long tour of duty traveling on business, was offered the opportunity to work from home on Fridays. She never even had to ask. Indeed, all around Citi, there are employees occupying "team leader" and other positions of enormous responsibility, who work from home several days a week, and a global work strategies program where employees can make requests for formal flexible work plans. In this brave new world, where the morphmoms are now beginning to dictate, rather than having to accommodate, the rules of engagement, Citi and other large institutions with foresight are figuring out - where so many other potential employers continue to struggle -- how to maintain the loyalty and commitment - and thus to retain the boundless talent -- of we mothers with a yen to do more.
Joy Leff, yet another amazing professional and friend, a Senior Vice President in the Citi Private Bank Law Firm group, testifies eloquently, and with deep gratitude, to the incredible achievements of Naz and women like her who paved the way. Joy, newly married, joined Citi four years ago. The organization at which she arrived was one where, it was immediately apparent, she perceived that neither gender nor motherhood were obstacles to advancement. From the start, it was clear to Joy that proving yourself to your client was what mattered. Just imagine if Naz's first boss, all those years ago when she first arrived at Citi, had been not a man immersed in hidebound notions of what qualities were essential to success, but - Naz herself! That's the institution that Joy had the good fortune to join.
Naz and Joy have a wonderful working relationship, but, until the three of us got to discussing morphmom one day, had never had occasion to talk together about Naz's journey or Joy's perspective. For me, it was incredibly exciting to hear these two women sharing their experiences - one among the architects and the other the beneficiary of the current, vastly-improved conditions, and both of them ready, willing and able to take it to the next level. Both share great hope - and optimism -- for the future. As Naz reflected, perhaps her daughter will arrive in a future where her desire for motherhood - if that's what she desires -- will never even factor into the equation as she considers the limits on her professional choices or possibilities. Perhaps, it will actually broaden them.
Pictured: Naz Vahid and Joy Leff
I can't help but think that Naz, if she were a little less humble, might feel, as she reflects back on all that she's achieved, just a little bit like Ms. Steinem must.