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The Little Secret of Women Who Have it All

There is a professional case to be made for having babies young, as long as you're willing to build a career at the same time.
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WellPoint's new CEO, Angela Braly, made headlines when she took the helm in June. Partly that's because her first responsibility was dealing with the resignation of CFO David Colby, who was maintaining numerous fiancées and mistresses across the country. But also, as the only woman head of a Fortune 50 company, Braly has blazed quite a trail in the corporate world, even if that world is populated by Colby and his ilk.

She's also had some sidekicks on this journey: her three children. Yes, the only woman CEO of a Fortune 50 company is a mom. And not just a mom of one kid, as Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work, suggests women should have to make it professionally.

Braly is worth studying, because the general sense from all the mommy-war books out there (from Get to Work to Caitlin Flanagan's The Hell with all That, and so forth) is that it's nearly impossible to be a good mom and have a big career simultaneously, or that it requires very stark choices, like having just one kid. Sylvia Ann Hewlett sparked a firestorm a few years ago with her claim that 49 percent of corporate women earning over $100,000 a year were childless at age 40. Then former Harvard President Larry Summers fanned the flames with his statement that the most prestigious jobs required complete devotion to work during your early years, and hence wouldn't be open to women until they were willing to sacrifice their personal lives.

But for all this talk, many of the world's most successful women do it all just fine. Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, has two grown children, as does Geraldine Laybourne, the CEO of Oxygen. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House (a most prestigious job if there ever was one), has not one, but five grown children.

Emphasis on "grown." Pelosi, 67, got married at age 23 and had her babies shortly thereafter. But many young women these days hear that they should plan their lives in the opposite order. The best way to have it all, we hear, is to focus on building a career -- getting tenure, making partner, getting the corner office -- and then having children. This leads to a compressed baby-making schedule, since few women manage to have children after age 40 naturally, and even assisted reproductive technologies have limited success on older women. One of the reasons the new technology of egg freezing (which I wrote about recently for USA Today) is garnering so much attention is that it offers the tantalizing possibility of letting you cling to this schedule while still beating the clock.

But Nancy Pelosi didn't have her children in her 40's, after she'd "made it." Braly didn't wait until she became CEO to start having children using her frozen eggs. Her kids are all double-digit ages. As Hewlett's research found, none of the ultra-achieving women who did have kids had their first after age 35. The women listed above got married and started having children in their 20's. Hollywood shrugs on the marriage part, but many of today's top young performers, from Katie Holmes to Angelina Jolie, are likewise building their careers with kids in tow.

Old fashioned? Perhaps. But I think these women are on to something, and not in a Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Never Told Us anti-feminist kind of way. There is a professional case to be made for having babies young, as long as you're willing to build a career at the same time.

For starters, even if you do plan to scale back while your kids are very small, career timetables mean less now than they used to. If you -- as a woman who knows what she wants -- get married at 25, have babies at 27 and 29 and spend two years in business school during that time, you can start focusing on your executive career in your early 30s as your children are getting less dependent on you. Given how many people spend their 20s finding themselves, you may actually be ahead of schedule -- and you won't face the agonizing choice later on of having babies when you're at the top of your career.

If you're even able to have them then. While the career world is becoming more flexible, reproductive capacity remains stubbornly short-lived. Getting married and having kids in your teens is a well-documented recipe for disaster, but so is waiting until the process makes your fertility specialists rich. Spending thousands of dollars and years of unpleasant hormonal treatments trying to "snatch a child from the jaws of menopause," in Hewlett's memorable phrase, also does a number on the mother. One of the most exasperating aspects of the mommy lit out there is that most of the writers are older. They say things like "oh, I worked like crazy until I got pregnant after a year of fertility treatments at age 39, and then I just couldn't stomach the hours away from my baby. So I had to quit at the peak of my career." Then they draw some conclusion about the incompatibility of work and family, the injustice of society, etc. All moms love their children. But I have a theory that when you have multiple children young, you don't view every moment with them as imbued with the same worth-ending-my-career-over significance that only, very expensively conceived kids can inspire.

That makes the debate a lot less stark. That's a good thing, because the worst aspect of the whole "career, then kids?" or "kids, then maybe career?" debate is that it buys into the un-feminist notion that the two can't happen at the same time. As a 28-year-old mom with professional aspirations, I hope that's not the case. Before I had my son this spring, I told people I planned to keep working much as I did before, because I love what I do. People clucked and said "Oh, we'll see how you feel when you have him." Well, I did, and I love my son and continue to love my work as well. Since I've been able to work from home, with help from my mom, my husband, and an excellent cadre of babysitters, I was back at it the Monday after I delivered. Occasionally we have issues. The baby has wound up on the balcony with the babysitter as I do live radio interviews by phone (so listeners don't hear him). But managing kids and a career always requires juggling, whether you're 28 or 48.

When you have kids at 28, though, you build your career according to rules that you'll be able to live with as a family. As Avon CEO Andrea Jung, who became a mom around age 30, once told a Wharton audience, "There are a lot of games and concerts that I miss, but never the most important ones. There are also a lot of days and meetings at Avon that I miss -- but never the most important ones." Those ground rules let her raise kids and become CEO, without the stark choices that changing the rules later can make you face.