16 Women Whose Careers Took Off *After* They Had Kids
“You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once,” a wise woman once told us, paraphrasing some combo of Oprah and Madeleine Albright (thanks, Mom). And Sheryl Sandberg’s stat, that “43 percent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time,” would seem to support that notion. But having kids doesn’t mean your professional life is over. In fact, for these inspiring women, becoming moms meant they were just getting started.
“I decided early on when I became a mother that I wasn’t going to feel guilty,” King, who had two kids in her 30s, when she was a local news anchor in Connecticut and decades before she took the helm at CBS This Morning, wrote. “I really love my children, and I really love my job. So I knew that there had to be a way that they could both live harmoniously. My job was never, ever more important than my son and daughter. I just said, ‘I’m not going to beat myself up if I can’t always be in the running for mother of the year.’”
She won her first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, the same year her first child, Henry, was born. Two more Oscars would follow, as would three more kids. In fact, in the years since 1991, when Streep welcomed her youngest child, Louisa, she has been nominated an additional 13 times. As Miranda Priestly would say, That’s all.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Let’s let the Notorious RBG, the second woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court, explain: “When I started law school my daughter Jane was 14 months, and I attribute my success in law school largely to Jane. I went to class about 8:30 a.m., and I came home at 4:00 p.m., that was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day, and children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep. Then I was happy to go back to the books, so I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.” When she founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, while her two kids were growing up, “in those years, [husband] Marty took over the kitchen entirely, to the ever-lasting appreciation of my food-loving children.”
The first female Secretary of State became a mom in 1961, when her twin girls were born (a third daughter was born in ’67). Fifteen years later, she got a PhD from Columbia and that’s when her diplomatic career ignited. She once said, “I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once.”
Watching her career turn red-hot in her 50s (thanks to How to Get Away with Murder and reliable Oscar buzz) is plenty inspiring. Knowing it all happened after she adopted daughter Genesis in 2011 is the real win in our book.
After becoming a mom in 1999 at age 22, Witherspoon worked steadily. But only after Legally Blonde (2001) and an Oscar (for Walk the Line in '05) did Hollywood glimpse her full potential. Now, three kids later, the accomplishments of this mega-producer, Times Up advocate and Draper James founder would blow Tracy Flick’s ambitious mind. And she’s clearly a hands-on parent: “I always say if you aren’t yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them,” she’s joked.
After years as a hard news reporter, she took the co-anchor chair at the Today show in '91—while five months pregnant with her first child, Ellie. Of her first day, opposite Bryant Gumbel, she reminisced: “I got up, threw up and came to work.” By the time Couric became the first female anchor of the CBS Evening News in 2006, she’d spent 15 years raising two girls as a single mom.
The then-law firm partner (who was, at the time, out-earning her husband) famously came under fire in 1992 for saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” What gets glossed over is that Chelsea was already 12 when she said it. Of motherhood, “She always tells me it was the greatest thing that ever happened to her,” Chelsea told Vogue.
The Harvard MBA was already a mom of two toddlers when Mark Zuckerberg lured her away from Google to join Facebook as COO in 2008. Now the mega-selling Lean In author, who nails the demands of working motherhood, has a net worth of $1.6 billion.
She has been the first woman Washington bureau chief, managing editor and executive editor of The New York Times, and is now a senior lecturer at Harvard. “I decided to have children at a pretty young age,” she told Politico of having her daughter at 29 and her son at 31—years before she joined The Times (btw, her daughter is now a Harvard-trained surgeon and a mother herself). “That was a daring choice. And it’s the happiest choice I made in my life, because now I’m reminded that jobs come and go, but your family is forever.”
The onetime Vogue staffer didn’t launch her career as a fashion designer until age 40—the same year her first daughter was born. When she won the 2005 CFDA Award for “Womenswear Designer of the Year” Wang explained, “My daughters did not come. I didn’t want them to cry if I lost like they did when Michelle Kwan lost at the Olympics. But I was sitting next to Anna Wintour, and she said, ‘Get your daughters here...I don’t sit with losers.’”
Bridesmaids made $288 million at the box office in 2011—11 years after she was cast on SNL and six years after the first of her four kids was born.
SNL’s first female head writer, who is simply the best at summing up working motherhood (sorry, Sheryl), famously wrote: “You go through big chunks of time where you're just thinking, 'This is impossible—oh, this is impossible.' And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible." For her, that meant creating 30 Rock (and every amazing thing she’s done since) a year after welcoming her first daughter, Alice.
Diane Von Furstenberg
Diane Von Furstenberg was a 26-year-old divorced mother of two when she invented the now-iconic wrap dress in the early '70s. "I was so busy, I didn't have time to think what other people were thinking," she once said of working while taking care of her two young children.
In 2011 she became a mom (to daughter Alma). In 2017 she became Wonder Woman. Mic drop.