‘I Would Be The First To Say I Had No Work-Life Balance.’
This article is part of Ambition Diaries; read the full series here.
Ruth Messinger, 81, has a long and storied career as an advocate and politician. She spent 12 years on the New York City Council and 8 years as Manhattan borough president. She was also the first woman to receive the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor, but lost to incumbent mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1997.
The world of politics is not easy place for a woman. Messinger achieved her positions amid prejudice and sexism. She shared these challenging experiences with her daughter, Miriam, 56, so she would know they existed and be prepared to confront them. Miriam chose to follow in her mother’s footsteps, pursuing a career in activism. But has been met with sexism, homophobia, and racism throughout her life. Today, she is a mom and the director of practice with the Interaction Institute for Social Change.
As part of the Ambition Diaries project in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the pair spoke with Fast Company about their experiences in leadership, balancing a career and a family, and generational differences toward work.
The following conversation between mother and daughter has been edited for length and clarity. Click here for more Ambition Diaries stories.
“I WOULD BE THE FIRST TO SAY I HAD NO WORK-LIFE BALANCE.”
Ruth: I would be the first to say I had no work-life balance. In many ways, I still don’t, and I thrive on it. It does not mean it’s a good model . . . but my notion is you can do it all; you can’t do it all in exactly the same minute, but you can find ways to do it all.
My then-husband, who was my children’s dad, was hugely flexible in my interest in trying to do all these things at once. . . . And for a long time when our kids were young, we lived in a house with other adults, which makes the whole issue very different. And it’s actually something that, although I never would have predicted it in a million years, I’ve now recreated here because . . . we’re helping to raise our great-grandson.
“I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE I REALLY HAD THE LIBERTY TO CHOOSE WHETHER TO WORK OR NOT WORK.”
Miriam: My generation didn’t feel like I really had the liberty to choose whether to work or not work. And we know a lot about child development, so, like, the amount of time you spend with your kid and the quality of that time. So, if you’re exhausted, if you’re not exhausted. It’s great if you can spend, you know, time at home . . . it’s differently important than work.
So, I’ve always tried to hold a balance of—and that’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t have wanted to go into politics because it’s essentially 24/7. So, with my work, even though it wasn’t usually like 40-hour workweeks, and was stuff I deeply cared about so often brought [it] home, but trying to attend to how much time am I not working when in the presence of my kids and actually getting to know them in different ways and spending that kind of time was important to me, partly as a reaction. And it’s not, like—I loved growing up in a collective household, and I love seeing what my mom had to do. And there was, for sure, a lot of time where I wanted her more. I mean, we sort of joke, “Oh, quality time was going to . . . a school board meeting with my mom.” . . . You know, and . . . so there were times where I knew as a kid, and then as [an] adult reflecting back that [I] definitely would have wanted more attention, more access. And . . . it’s also one of the benefits, I think, of having two parents. So there’s probably a particular thing, and maybe it’s with daughters and mothers, and maybe it’s any kid and mother of, like, wanting a particular kind of time, and I’ve come to appreciate particularly—my dad died three years ago—of, like, his, like, the different qualities. He’s, like, a very present emotional person; he’s an incredibly good listener. And, like, you were opposites: He likes to do one thing at a time. She likes to do 20 to 22 things at a time.
“IT DIDN’T FEEL COSMICALLY UPENDING TO COME OUT TO MY FAMILY. IT WAS JUST SOMETHING I DID.”
Miriam: There was very little conversation about you should do this, you should do that, either around career or around partnering or around kids.
I think there was an implicit expectation that one would be partnered and one would have children, but I don’t know that it was spoken. And there was certainly no age to it. . . . I came out when I was something, like, a junior in college. And there was everything from, “Oh, okay, fine” to “Oh, it’s just a phase and it’ll change.” And, you know, in the collective household that we were in was a lesbian couple . . . there were men’s groups at the kitchen table, there were women’s groups, I grew up in an era of New York City, late ’60s, early ’70s.
And everybody had gone to college back to . . . some of my great-grandparents . . . so there was an expectation around education. You know, there’s always an implicit, “You’re going to be with a man or a woman,” you know, like, a heterosexual implicit, but it . . . didn’t feel like cosmically upending to come out to my family. It was just something I did.
“LOOKING AT ISSUES OF POWER AND PRIVILEGE JUST SEEMED TO BE THE THING THAT ONE NEEDED TO DO.”
Miriam: I think I always had a broad set of interests. I didn’t ever have that image of, “Oh, this is what I want to be” or feel like really driven towards a specific thing. . . . So, in college I had a focus on Latin American development and urban development. So some of that, like, I think urban studies definitely came out of what I saw my mom doing and things that I thought were important. I thought originally that I would do international work, and then I came to realize that my work for a change . . . needed to be much more local. So, I did youth leadership for a good chunk of time, like, 10 years, including an organization that I was the director of, then studied public health, and really came to find that public health was the thing that could hold together because what I care about is the health of communities. And that’s political health, mental health, physical health; and really voice and political health as the most important. So, it wasn’t like a dream from a youth, . . . but that’s how I hold it all together and understand, like looking at issues of power and privilege just seemed to be the thing that one needed to do.
Ruth: After politics, I did a lot of work in politics, I still do a lot of work . . . with politics and people running for office; I believe in it very, very strongly. But I do a lot of work organizing for social change. I did it globally for the years I ran American Jewish World Service. . . . I still work for them, but I do much more of it locally. So, we’ve intersected and interwoven and at various . . . points in time and different perspectives, but a lot of it is the same work.
Jordan Gass-Poore is an investigative reporter and podcast producer from Texas with more than a decade of broadcast experience, including years working in live radio and editing audio for air, as well as, producing narrative, long-form audio stories.
Naima Green is a multidisciplinary artist, photographer and educator from New York City.
Co-published with Fast Company.