The Price of Motherhood: My Goldman Sachs Story

Original drawing by Liza Donnelly in collaboration with Jacki Zehner for SheMoney.

Originally published as part of the SheMoney newsletter on LinkedIn.

The year was 1996 and I had just been made a Partner at Goldman Sachs in New York City. My husband, Greg, was made a Partner that year as well, making us the first Goldman couple to make partner at the same time. I also became the first female trader and youngest woman to achieve this milestone. To the best of my knowledge, I still hold that record 25 years later. I was 32 at the time, and among my partner class, only two of us were women. For additional context, prior to 1996, only nine women had been made a Partner since Goldman’s founding in 1869.* And here is another kicker. I was expecting my first child when I got that life-changing call about my promotion.

As any parent knows, the decision to have children is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. And it’s not just one decision. It’s a series of seemingly never ending decisions. When to start trying. Do you want more than one child. How many children. When to start trying again. And maybe, again after that. The implications on all aspects of your life are vast, and at this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, we know that captain obvious.” But do we really? Can any of us look back at the decision to become a parent and say, “I had it all figured out.” I think not. And I think this is especially true for women who are also aspiring to have a meaningful career. At the very least, I know this was true for me.

I married my husband, Greg, in 1995, just days after turning 31. Before we got married, we had a lot of talks about what our married life might be like. What we both wanted. We both wanted to have kids (he wanted five, I wanted two), and we both wanted to have meaningful careers. At the time of our engagement, we were both Vice-Presidents at Goldman Sachs, with similar jobs, similar responsibilities, similar work hours, and similar paychecks, which, given that we worked in the financial services as traders, were substantial. However, we had both had modest upbringings, and, well, we were both cheap, to put it bluntly. We were taught that a penny saved was a penny earned, and to try to never have any debt if you could help it. On money issues we were, and remain 26 years later, very much aligned.

After we tied the knot, which, by the way, is a term that I hate, we decided pretty quickly that we should start trying to get pregnant. Although I could not do a simple Google search back then, there were still plenty of resources that told me all about how fertility does drop off with age, and one never knows how long it might take to get pregnant. For me, however, it did not take very long. I vividly remember the two of us reading that pregnancy stick test and immediately thinking, “Heck Yes!!!!” This was then followed very shortly after by a “Heck No!!!!” In all honesty, I had expected it to take some time to get pregnant, but it didn’t. And in that moment, all I could think was HECK YES we were having a baby. But HECK NO it was a partner making year.

Goldman operates on a two year cycle of making partners, and I immediately felt the fear that if I told my manager I was pregnant, that would be the end of any chance I may have had of being made partner. I was barely pregnant, and yet my future suddenly felt immediately different. Out of my control. More vulnerable. And no amount of talking it through prepared me for that feeling. Whether or not someone gets a promotion is almost always subjective, and it is always a ledger game of pros and cons; you vs another person. Now, at the top of my ledger, was PREGNANT FEMALE. And I can guarantee there was no man who had SOON TO BE FATHER on his ledger. For the next few months while my pregnancy was taking hold, and therefore no one knew yet, I struggled with the paradox of feeling both joy and dread.

Luckily, I was not someone who had a lot of morning sickness. I was able to keep my pregnancy a secret until I got through the first trimester where the risk of miscarriage was the highest. But that did not make any of it easy. At the time, Greg was managing the emerging markets trading desk, while I was at the fixed-rate mortgage pass-through desk. My work days would start around 7am when I would arrive at the trading desk at 85 Broad Street, and for the next ten (ish) hours, I would be buying and selling mortgage backed securities on behalf of the firm. I worked alongside amazing traders, salespeople, and clients, and my days were spent processing market-driving news and information and establishing positions to reflect them. It was a very stressful job, but it was also one that I loved very much. And I should note that when I say alongside, I literally mean alongside. Trading floors contain rows upon rows of desks where traders sit at an arm’s length away from each other. It is a very intimate type of job, and you all know each other’s business. As I approached the end of my first trimester, I knew that my time keeping my pregnancy a secret was short-lived.

I should note at this point that I don’t remember any other woman in close proximity to me and/or of a similar seniority being pregnant. In other words, there were virtually no role models for how to be pregnant while being a trader at Goldman Sachs. There were, of course, women at the firm who did have children, many of them salespeople, but at the time it was still very much the exception, not the norm.

Greg and I had a lot of talks before we disclosed the news and prior to the announcement of who would be made partner that year. We had a plan for what would happen if he made partner and I didn’t, and vice versa, because financially speaking, it would have made sense to prioritize the career of the one who made it. However, we really didn’t talk about what would happen if we both made partner, because we thought it was such a long shot. And yet that is exactly what happened. We both got that life-changing call.

So there I was, a new Partner at Goldman Sachs, and becoming more and more visibly pregnant in front of row after row after row of predominantly men. Thankfully, it was pretty much business as usual. Except, of course, for the trips to see clients, which went down, and the trips to the bathroom, which went up. Dramatically. In some ways, the pressure was off. I had made partner. But in other ways, the pressure was even more intense, because I wanted to prove that the firm’s faith in me was not misplaced.

I think this is a good time to mention that I was not a cute little baby bump kind of pregnant woman. I was a “Holy smokes! How can you have such a huge belly?!” kind of pregnant woman. I had been a competitive bodybuilder in my youth, stayed in great shape through my 20s despite my crazy work hours, and yet I still gained 60 pounds over the course of the pregnancy. And it wasn’t just about that number. I don’t think we talk enough about what it is really like to grow a baby, even now. Especially what it is like to do so alongside other people, in my case mostly men, in a professional setting. Day after day of feeling what you are feeling, which is often weird and uncomfortable, and having people endlessly comment on it, touch you, make it either the biggest deal or no deal at all, and everything in between. Yes, it takes a lot of physical energy to make a baby. But there’s also the emotional energy you need to ride the ups and downs of doing so while carrying on like business as usual and having sights on a long and successful career. For some, sure, easy peasy. For others, not so much. I was in the not so much end of the spectrum. I have always been one to journal, and my gosh did I have a lot to say back then. I filled random notebooks full of my fears and doubts, while also capturing the firsts. The first time I felt the baby move. The first time he had hiccups, which was, by the way, while I was doing a presentation to a client.

As the day of my expected delivery drew closer, so did my level of anxiety. Prior to getting pregnant, I barely took a week’s vacation at a time most years, let alone a maternity leave. I was scared. There was no ‘how to’ manual, barely any guidance of any kind from anyone that I can remember. That said, I was so unbelievably supported by the amazing guys on my desk. I was two weeks past due when I finally delivered by emergency c-section, and I worked, or I should say waddled, almost right up to my delivery day. Side note. One of my biggest pet peeves to this day is when people say things like, “Oh, you poor thing. You did not deliver ‘naturally’.” Yes, I was a woman who “failed to progress” and had to have my baby cut out of my stomach while I was strapped down like Jesus on the cross vomiting over my shoulder because I reacted badly to the anesthesia. Think about that language for a moment. Failure to progress. I had a failed natural delivery. It makes my blood boil. But in the end, I delivered my beautiful, big, and healthy child.

Maternity leave ended up being awesome. Minus the whole having to recover from major abdominal surgery while trying to tend to a newborn part of it. My amazing team was doing an incredible job at work, and back then you couldn’t trade from home so it was a real maternity leave. Greg, of course, barely took a day off, as paternity leave was not a thing back then, and likely still isn’t. I loved my time with my child, and I was a newly made Partner of one of the world’s most prestigious investment banks. I still had a lot to prove at work, let alone as a new mom.

When my maternity leave was up, I went back to work, and Greg and I had to figure out how to manage it all. What has always been true for us is the fact that we were always in it together. And what was so unusual about us as a couple was that the economics of our jobs were virtually identical at that point. We both had the same financial ownership of the firm, and we were both, at that time, very committed to having long term careers. That said, wow, did it get hard, and fast. And I say that with full acknowledgement of the extraordinarily privileged position we were in.

We hired a full-time nanny who traveled an hour by train each way to take care of our child for basically 10 hours a day, five days a week. Greg and I worked out a schedule where one of us would try to be home by 6pm on any given day, while the other could work as long as needed, which often included work related dinners. We became masters of scheduling. Like any new parents, we were sleep deprived. And like any working parents, we tried to make the most of every minute we were at home with our son, all the while feeling like it was never enough.

Our nanny was amazing, but sometimes life happened and she was late arriving or had to leave early or was sick or her child was sick, and we, Greg and I, were left scrambling. We did not have any family close by who could help with childcare at that time, and there was no back-up plan other than for us to miss work ourselves. And then there was work travel, both expected and unexpected, especially for Greg as he traded emerging market securities. We would have to take trips to South America, Europe, you name it, and it was beyond exhausting. It did not take long for us to realize that it was not sustainable. We could not be the parents we wanted to be, nor could we be the professionals we were expected to be. We were both struggling. It has no wonder that the vast majority of partners at Goldman were men with stay at home wives.

I remember one day Greg sharing this story with me. He was leaving work at around 6pm and one of the other Partners he reported to stopped him to ask “where the hell he was going?”. Greg responded that it was his turn to relieve the nanny at a reasonable hour, at which point the Partner said to him, “I don’t see my kids, so what makes you think you can see yours?” Greg and I talked about it and it felt like a breaking point. Something had to change.

We talked and talked about what change we could possibly make. Should one of us leave the firm? Neither of us was ready to do so, and it was clear at that point that the firm would go public, likely in the near future. To leave prior to that happening would have been absolutely stupid from a financial point of view. But there were also no guarantees about if and when that would happen. In the end, we decided that just having one day a week more with our child was an option worth asking for. At the time, we didn’t know of any senior professional, let alone a Partner, who had a formal, flexible work arrangement. We thought it would be more likely, and more socially acceptable, for me, as a woman, to ask for the accommodation. I asked for it, somewhat surprisingly got it, and my partner share was reduced accordingly. Having a four day work week instead of a five made a huge difference, and it felt, at least for a while, to be sustainable.

The following year Goldman went public, and as two of the 221 Partners of the firm, it was an absolutely mind blowing experience from a financial point of view. Like any Initial Public Offering, shares are allocated according to the percentage interest that each person holds. In my case, my share was 80% of what it otherwise would have been because of my reduced schedule. I have done the math in terms of what that one day a week for just over a year cost me from a financial perspective, and it was a lot. An unimaginable amount. But we both knew that this would likely be the case when we made that decision and we did it anyway. For us, it was the price of being the type of parents we wanted to be. The alternative would have likely been one of us leaving or having a breakdown, so we felt it was worth it.

Again, I want to stress that I am very aware of the extraordinary and privileged circumstances I am describing. I know that my story of being a mother on Wall Street, especially at that time, was far from the norm, nor do all mothers receive nearly the same level of support that I did, if any at all. But here’s the thing. How many working couples, regardless of where they’re working or how much they’re making, find themselves in a similar position? How many couples find themselves trying to figure out how to be responsible, loving partners and parents in these modern times? Whether it’s struggling to make ends meet day to day, struggling to save and buy a home for their children, saving for their college funds, or wondering how much is enough when the bank account looks solid but that account balance came at the price of countless missed ball games, dance recitals, and birthdays due to work commitments. I would bet that there are very few full-time working parents out there that have not seriously discussed the financial implications of one of them reducing their schedule, leaving work, and measuring that against the cost and workability of child-care options. And what about the parents who must do it on their own as single parents? For them the option is likely not at option to stop working and the job of finding and managing child care solutions falls on a single set of shoulders.

It would be years later, in 2004, that I would read a very long and intense article in The Atlantic, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement by Caitlin Flanagan, which, being a finance major and not a woman’s studies major, was both enlightening and troubling to say the least. As I sat down to write this piece I went searching for it, because that is how much it has stuck with me all these years. I wish I could summarize all 30 pages of that article for you, but I can’t. Consider reading it. But I will say that it is the title that has stuck with me the most. It spoke to how much professional, working class women depended on other working women, domestic help and nannies, to support their lives and ‘liberation’. Though our time with full-time nannies was short-lived as Greg left Goldman when our second child was born in 2000, Ms Flanagan’s attack on privileged white women for not fully valuing domestic laborers felt personal, despite how well we paid and treated our help. It is currently estimated that nearly 500,000 people, mainly female, work in the childcare profession in the United States, and sadly so many of them do not have access to benefits of any kind, and many find their way in to that work as their only option given challenging life circumstances. Fast forward a few more years and I would meet the incredible Ai-jen Poo, President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose mission is to support and organize nannies, housecleaners and home care workers. All of this helped me to see that I would never be free, achieve anything close to equality on a personal level, if I did not do more to help and support other women on their journey as well. It helped me to see that the personal is truly political, and as a woman with substantial resources, it was on me to try to change the systems that didn’t, and still do not, support working mothers, domestic workers, and women more generally.

For working mothers, parents, life often feels like a game of dodgeball. You spend your days maneuvering around the curveballs of managing child-care while navigating a corporate career, pursuing an entrepreneurial venture, managing a small business, or just holding down a job, while trying to achieve financial and professional stability and achievement. These are struggles that show up in any income and wealth bracket, but certainly most acutely for younger and lower income families and single parent households. Especially for single mothers.

I remember thinking when I was a new mom, and I believe it is still true now, that mothers are the giant dumping ground for mostly useless advice and conflicting messages. We are told that there is no more important job in the world than being a mother, and yet the lack of policies and practices that support motherhood, from paid maternity leave to affordable childcare options, makes it clear that motherhood is not valued at all. The pressure to raise ‘great kids’ falls disproportionately on the shoulders of mothers, and mothers are both celebrated and shamed for their choices when they attempt to prioritize the well-being of their children over their own, or vice versa. There should be a book that is called, No Way to Win: Motherhood in America.

That said, there are more than a few books that get at the heart of this problem. Books like The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennetts (2007), which sounds the alarm about the financial risk women take when they leave the workforce once they start a family. There’s Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood–And How to Fix It by Amy Westervelt (2018), who astutely notes that while the US may claim to revere motherhood, we treat mothers like crap. There is also  The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Anne Crittenden (2010), which describes how mothers are systematically disadvantaged by society, especially single mothers and/or mothers of color. And finally, a new addition to this esteemed list, Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career is Good For Your Kids by Lara Bazelon (2022), which pulls at the seemingly timeless threads of the many ways our culture makes it all so darn hard to be a mom and have a secure financial situation. And beyond the books there are countless reports that present research on the costs of not valuing motherhood and what policies and practices that, if in place, would lead to significant social and economic gains. Taken together what is presented is a rather dark picture of the many realities of modern motherhood.

There is no denying that having a child is expensive, and the more every prospective parent acknowledges it and plans for it, the better. It is estimated that it currently costs about $233,610 to raise a child in the US through to the age of 17, meaning this number doesn’t include the cost of sending your child to college. It also doesn’t account for the fact that due to skyrocketing living costs, children are moving out much later in life than previous generations, with about 50% of Millennials having returned home at least once by the time they’re 27. But the financial implications of having children are much bigger than the actual costs you are likely to include. There’s the gender wage gap to consider, meaning that mothers have to work longer and harder to provide for their children. And then there’s the infuriating statistic that overall, a woman’s income decreases by 4% once they become a mother, whereas a man’s income increases by 6% when he becomes a father.

But all of those stats don’t come close to telling the full story. It is no secret that on average, women of color and/or single mothers have it so much harder. Nearly 80% of single parent households are run by single mothers, and nearly a third of them live in poverty. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. And being a mother is the single greatest predictor of bankruptcy and poverty in the US. Now imagine the emotional, physical, and psychological toll that all of these issues (and so many more) take on a day-to-day basis. No wonder more and more women are looking at motherhood and saying, “No thanks”.

I think we can all agree that a child, our child, our children, are priceless. Having children has been one of the single greatest joys of my life, so I would never want to discourage anyone from having children of their own. Maybe next year, in honor of Mother’s Day, I will write a perky piece where I only tell you the upbeat stuff about being a mom. But that is not this piece. This is SheMoney and my goal with this newsletter is to share my personal experiences, advice from experts, and facts. Lots of facts. Yes I chose to be a mom, and I feel strongly that being a mother should not be seen as the be-all and end-all for being a woman. Further, if you choose to become a mom you should have your eyes wide open about the implications. What I hope for, and will work for, is greater awareness around the potential financial costs of motherhood, as well as for better policies and practices to support mothers and families. It cannot be denied that there are huge costs and consequences of having a child, especially for women. Financial costs, yes, but also less tangible and potentially more insidious costs. My story is from my experience in America, as are most of the resources and data cited, a country which ranks 28th in terms of work-life balance. As I hit publish on this article I am sitting in a hotel room in Copenhagen, Denmark, a country which ranks the highest . Walking around this beautiful city today I can see and feel the difference.

When I sat down to write this special Mother’s Day edition of the newsletter I had no idea I was going to share my story in the way that I did above, including a full belly pregnancy photo. It’s just what fell onto the page. What writing this has helped me to realize is that I have rarely been asked about my journey as a mom, except in the most superficial ways, and I have barely asked others. Looking back, I wish I was more forthcoming about my challenges, and I can only hope that today’s new parents are more free to do so. What I see amongst many of my friends and work colleagues who have babies and younger children is a greater sharing of responsibilities with their partners, less gendered expectations of who does what, more willingness to change careers when things are not working, and more realistic expectations of what is possible. Words like ‘work-life balance’ and ‘having it all’ are starting to be replaced with phrases like ‘juggling act’ and ‘making it work’, which are steps in the right direction. We have so much work to do to change the narrative and we can all play a role in doing so. And, as an investor, I also know that there are more and more companies sprouting up every day that are bringing innovative solutions to the many, many, many challenges faced by working parents today.   And, it is up to all of us to champion for, and vote for, better policies that more fully support families.

In closing, I want to say Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms reading this right now. And if you are not a mom, you likely know a few, so why not send them a little extra love on May8th. I am lucky enough to have an extraordinary mother named Rose to whom I could not be more grateful. My mom worked outside the home to support our family and I always felt loved, valued, and supported. She really did ‘do it all’ and somehow made it look easy, even though I am quite sure it was not. I was raised to believe that I not only could I have a career and be a mom, but should, while respecting that my choices might not be other women’s choices. She raised me to be a woman that supports other women, and I’ve done my best to make her proud. I also have to give a shout out to all the amazing women and moms that have been there to love and support me on my mothering journey. You know who you are, and I love you. We are in this, together.

*This information is based on my memory, and has not been verified by anyone at Goldman Sachs.

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