Career-killer: When a baby puts everything on hold

It was one of those nights when my husband rolled over to my side of the bed. Usually this is the first step toward the grand maintenance of our fairly normal marriage. But this night was different. "I can't," I said. "It'll ruin my career."

"Huh?" He was baffled.

"What about me hosting that TV show?" I said. "I can't be pregnant."

And herein lies the reason every girl should bring her career to bed with her: Pregnancy is not good for a career. A large belly is limiting; a kid even more so. But society's own perceptions of a mom vs. a career girl are the most limiting constraints of all.

I know because I planned my first pregnancy around my high-powered career. Everyone told me, "Don't rush. You have plenty of time." So I waited until I had made my way through two of my own companies, working long, very parent-unfriendly, hours. I waited until I could relocate my career across the country to be in the same city as my husband.

And then, just as my perfect plan reached its apex, the World Trade Center fell two blocks from my company, putting me out of a job. And all the work I did to build an impressive resume was undone when I showed up pregnant for job interviews.

I would like to tell you that employers don't care about pregnancy, but I would be lying. And I can't fault them: If two people are equally qualified for the same opening, the best hire, at least in the short term, is the one who isn't five-months pregnant.

It's easy to be philosophical about the long term– how corporate America will benefit from the accommodation of pregnant women. But the long term is a hard sell to a manager whose bonus isn't tied to revolutionizing the workplace.

So back to the TV show. They liked my column and called to ask whether I wanted to host a TV show about finance. Of course I was thrilled.

My husband, who's always skeptical when skepticism isn't warranted, said, "How can you host a TV show on finance when a company you started went bankrupt?"

"People learn from their mistakes," I said. Then I said, "Shut up."

The TV people wanted to interview me, so I flew to LA. My husband, Mr. Pessimism, is also Mr. Hollywood (graduated from film school, dated an MTV producer, blah blah). He said, "You need someone to do your hair and makeup."

"They just want to talk to me," I said.

"They want to see how good you would look on TV," he said.

So I had someone do my hair and makeup, and I looked great that day. The executives told me they loved my column. They thought my wit and sensibility would come across well on TV. They talked about the training I would receive in on-air technique. Then they said, "OK, we'll get back to you."

"That means you'll never hear from them," my husband said. "It's over."

But if I listened to all my husband's pessimism, I'd have killed myself by now. So I'm still hoping.

Which brings me back to the bed. There we were, talking. We had planned another pregnancy for around this time. But I didn't think I'd be hired as a TV host if I were pregnant. By the time we would begin taping, I'd be very pregnant. It's one thing for Catherine Zeta-Jones to show up really pregnant at the Oscars because the whole world still thinks she looks hot, belly and all. But my TV audience wouldn't know if the nonpregnant me was hot. There's no way I could be pregnant for my TV debut. (Come to think of it, has anyone ever been pregnant for their debut as a TV show host?)

You can't control everything, and there's no perfect time to have a baby. But one time is better for women than others, and that's sooner. When I learned the risks of waiting, I was shocked. When a woman gets pregnant at 35, her baby has a 1 in 224 chance of being born with Down syndrome. There's a 1 in 200 chance the test for Down syndrome will kill the baby. And the odds increase with every passing day. I didn't hear this when I started a company at 32. Instead I heard, "You have time."

So now I know I don't have time. And I know that if I put my next pregnancy on hold until I hear from the TV people, something else may come up to foil my plan of harmoniously integrating my pregnancy and my career.

We had sex that night. And we hoped for a baby. Because as a seasoned career girl, I know that even if postponing pregnancy would eventually have boosted my career in the short term, the delay made it too high-risk for my liking.
Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.