There’s no revelation quite like admitting that you’ve been lying to yourself. Lying to yourself is so easy to do when you are passionate about something. For three years I’ve lied to myself and said, “I’m going to have time to do other projects in addition to making a high-quality journalistic podcast on a tiny budget with no institutional support in a fiercely competitive media landscape. I can make it a part-time thing.” This project has taken a vast majority of my time and creative energy. I have not had the bandwidth, while parenting three young children against the backdrop of two years of a deadly pandemic paired with constant, massive social disruptions, to “take on more.” It feels good to be honest with myself.
I write about the forces that shape family life in America, and there is no greater force in this realm than capitalism. Today I’m dissecting some of my own career experiences and how capitalism, motherhood, and the pandemic have shaped my path. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Success and failure are in the eye of the beholder. When I first came up with the idea of The Double Shift podcast, success to me looked like partnering with a big network that would fund the show and let me create and host it. I’d have resources to make this my full-time, salaried job and the support to grow the audience. I was a veteran journalist, but reading this now in 2022, that vision seems incredibly aspirational. It was, but not quite as far-fetched in 2018 as it would be now. A couple big networks actually considered it but turned me down for various reasons, including telling me that “there wasn’t enough that was interesting about being a working mother to make a whole show about it.”
That original version of success never happened. But the first season of the show was a hit. We got critical acclaim, strong downloads, and lots of buzz and momentum. We got attention for telling stories people hadn’t heard before, like from moms who work in brothels, or who are shift workers using a 24-hour daycare in Las Vegas. I got a “building the plane while flying” crash course in podcasting, business, and the podcasting business. (I cried in front of QuickBooks multiple times.) Afterward, I was crispy fried from the non-stop effort. And in between our first and second seasons I got pregnant … with twins. I knew I wanted to continue with everything we’d built with the show, but I also knew the journey would not be linear. I knew I’d have to take some large chunk of time off from the show in 2020. I felt self-conscious talking to partners and making plans for the future. Having a second kid when you make a show about motherhood seemed like NBD. Telling people I was having twins felt like a punchline, a decidedly unserious twist of fate for a “serious” businesswoman. I felt confident in my abilities but unconfident in how my 2020 would go. (How prescient!)
In my early views of success, I was always focused on what my experience would be, but by the end of 2021, I started to understand that a metric for success I hadn’t valued enough in my calculation was the impact on listeners. I’d hear from listeners that the show had changed how they saw motherhood, or was the soundtrack to their pandemic isolation, or had meant so much to them that they claimed, “The Double Shift is my best friend.” Perhaps the most tangibly satisfying impact of the show was reporting on how a group of women advocated for and got better paid leave at The New York Times. I was beyond thrilled when, more than a year after it aired, I started hearing from listeners that the show was a catalyst for them advocating for changes in their own workplaces. To quote listener Karli McNeill, she listened and said, “hot damn, I could do that!” Listeners pushed for real-world change and got it. We even made a follow-up episode about it. Seeing that kind of tangible impact of the work makes me understand how narrowly I understood what success was when I started.
Not all great ideas are going to be profitable under capitalism. There’s a myth in American entrepreneurship that if you have a great idea and work hard, it will become a “success.” Many define success as measured by exponential profits and growth (or even just the potential for them on paper). Most small businesses fail from a financial perspective. Value and profitability are not the same. Originality and financial viability are generally not related. Most “successful” businesses in media and beyond have huge financial runways. The people who run them may have years of cushion to figure out how to make them “work.”
Worthiness of an idea and access to capital are also not related. For instance, Black women receive 0.34% of the total venture capital spent in the U.S. But these guys seemed to have no trouble raising $100 million for an untested (and unsuccessful) podcast platform.
3. Accept there are forces beyond your control and don’t take it personally. When I returned from my “maternity leave” (if you can call quarantining with newborn twins and a preschooler during a catastrophic pandemic a “leave”) I very much wanted to show up for listeners during this ongoing crisis for mothers and families. But not only was my personal life more demanding than ever, I, along with everyone else, was trying to survive and process the pandemic, massive social unrest around racial injustice, and the 2020 election followed by an attempted coup. Nothing to create any stresses or distractions that might detract from “productivity” and business clarity!
In addition, it was pretty clear to me that the podcast industry was changing rapidly, and plenty of seeds I saw that were in the mix in 2018 and 2019 were now fully planted forests. The venture capital and big money fire hoses were on full blast. Companies were consolidating. New shows were entering the market with $30 to $50,000 marketing budgets so they could flood existing popular podcasts with ads to capture new listeners. The economic uncertainty of the pandemic made some advertisers skittish about spending, and massively increased inventory and improvements in ad technology meant we were making far less on our ads than we were in 2019 — a trend that continued into 2021. Even though there was more funding than ever for new content, I noticed that it was generally only for four types of shows:
— True crime with a strong chance of being optioned to become a movie.
— Chat or interview shows hosted by high-profile celebrities (or podcast celebrities) who would bring their own audience and have other celebrities on the show, usually about safe topics like business, women and business, personal growth, or advice.
— Deep-dive reported shows with high production values, usually about some forgotten/fascinating person/thing in history or cultural oddity, again with a good chance of being optioned.
— Podcasts created by big corporations/institutions as brand extensions.
Some quirky indie shows don’t fit this mold but were well-established with big audiences before these trends fully took hold. They might be able to hang on or thrive with robust member donations. But that wasn’t where we were with The Double Shift, which provided nuanced, feminist stories and commentary on motherhood with no celebrities involved. Over the course of 2021 it became clear to me that the podcast industry wasn’t a sandbox I had the resources to effectively play in, and hosting a show that decidedly didn’t fall into any of those four categories made it hard to catch any of the cash raining down on podcasts. (Some well-funded shows did advertise on The Double Shift. Thanks, trickle down economics!) My commitment to my vision made it basically impossible to take advantage of industry trends. I’m O.K. with that. Maybe it makes me a “bad business lady.” But I don’t think these forces of capitalism equate to a personal failure.
4. You can’t have it all. I’m here to deprogram you from the lie most white-collar women have been force fed. It was true before the pandemic, but it’s glaringly obvious now. If you have significant caregiving responsibilities (like most moms), you can’t have it all. I’ll say it again: You can’t have it all.
Take these three things: A job that makes good money; a job that is impactful and meaningful to you; a job that’s not super-demanding and supports a flexible lifestyle well-suited to care responsibilities. If you’re relatively privileged, you can pick two out of three, max. Low-wage workers may have jobs that fit zero of these categories. Or maybe you are a unicorn currently experiencing all three, but that’s probably more like a fleeting rainbow than a predictable rainstorm.
I’ve been preaching the gospel of not having it all for years, but now that I have three children I’m accepting it into the deepest recesses of my own heart. I’m still ambitious and have big ideas, but lifestyle is now a non-negotiable for me. I’m accepting that I may never earn as much money as I did at my last full-time job, before becoming a mom. I just spent the entire morning wrangling a group of first graders in my living room on a Thursday because someone smelled gas for the fourth time at my oldest kid’s school. My weekends are spent chaperoning and then cleaning up from non-stop toddler raves. The fuel I have in the tank for work is the amount I have. There are no nooks and crannies to find reserves.
5. It’s O.K. to stop doing things. One of my biggest fears in pausing the podcast was that I would be letting people down, especially those who love the show and have financially supported it with membership. I think women especially are deeply conditioned to fear disappointing people — customers, bosses, spouses, children, friends, parents, mentors.
But that fear allows us to keep perpetuating unrealistic expectations about work and motherhood. Part of the way we avoid disappointment is by not rocking the boat or challenging the status quo, and personally absorbing all the things that aren’t working while not articulating the cost. Fear of letting people down is a pretty tight cage. I’d rather just be honest about where I am, and invest in a community that has my back on this journey.