To go back to work after maternity leave—or not? What working mother hasn’t wrestled with this question? It’s almost always met with mixed emotions, but in the case of freelance writer Virginia Van Zanten, heightened by the fact that she had worked so hard to obtain her dream job, editor of the living section at Vogue.com. She also had always dreamt of being a mother. We came over to visit her and her 1-year old (beyond adorable) little man Asher at her Brooklyn home to talk to her about how she made the big leap from fulltime (and then some) to freelance writer and mother. Honestly, her words were so relatable they brought tears to our eyes!
describe your career trajectory for me: was it a straight and narrow path or a long and winding road?
I went to Northwestern where I got my undergrad and masters in Journalism and started my first job just a few days after graduation as the editorial assistant to the Managing and Executive Editors at Lucky (RIP!). I was there just in time to see the tail end of the “glory days” of publishing before 2008 hit. I then hopped over to W where I started covering the home market and working on the digital side of things. From there, I was at Redbook as the Home Editor and then made my way to Vogue.com as the Living Editor where I founded the Living vertical on the site. Now I’m doing freelance writing and editing for several different outlets, moonlighting as an interior designer for friends, and exploring my Reiki practice. I did my training a while back through this hospice volunteer program I did and have started to dip back in post-Ash. I've been doing sessions here and there for friends, but nothing formal.
have you had some notable working mom role models along the way?
I have worked with so many impressive moms throughout my career. In fact, most of my bosses have been working moms. Unfortunately as a woman who envisioned leaning out (at least temporarily), it was hard to find a role model in that sense amongst my very impressive editors—who were all clearly leaning in.
At what point did leaving your (many would say "dream") job at Vogue.com become a thought?
As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to be a mom. And in a strange way, the career I built before having Ash felt like the thing to do before I did what I really wanted—become a mom. I almost hesitate to share this, because it seems like such a retrograde sentiment. Particularly in NY, where there are so many super-impressive working moms, there is tremendous pressure to do it all and to keep pushing, pushing, pushing that career to its peak.
When I got to Vogue.com—truly, my dream job—the work/family question weighed on me heavily. Ultimately, when I got pregnant and pictured myself 5, 10, 15 years in the future, it wasn’t in an office or at the tippy-top of a masthead. It was at home with my kids. I had pushed my career to its peak, enjoyed the view (very much) and it was time for the next phase of my life. And I must say: I am exceedingly fortunate that I was even able to consider walking away from a full-time position with benefits to be with my baby. For so many women, staying home is not an option. I do not take it for granted.
at what point did it become a reality?
I truly hadn’t completely made up my mind about leaving until my maternity leave was almost over. A colleague of mine with a young daughter told me that in the first month with a newborn, life would be so upended that I would want to go back to work just to regain some structure. So true. But she also said that I should wait until things evened out a bit to make my decision. When that three-month mark came around, I knew I couldn’t go back full-time. Sometimes I wonder if my decision would have been the same with six months, nine months of maternity leave…
Up until the day I gave notice, I was deeply conflicted about walking away. Despite knowing in my soul that I wanted to be home with Ash, making the decision to let my dream job go and step back from the career I’d been working to build for a decade was at once the obvious choice and very emotional and disorienting.
do you ever have regrets?
Early on, Ash and I would take walks along the Promenade in our neighborhood and I’d see One World Trade across the East River and I’d whisper to him: “That’s mommy’s office.” And then I’d remember that it was no longer my office. And maybe it sounds silly, but there were moments where there was a bit of an identity crisis. For so many years, my identity was my job. So who was I now? I would ponder my response to the inevitable: “So, what do you do?” question. Initially it sounded something like: “I used to work at Vogue.com and then I had a baby and now I stay at home and freelance write” blurted out in a single breath.
More than a year later, if I was to get the “what do you do?” question, answering: “I’m a stay-at-home mom and a writer” still doesn’t seem like enough. How terrible is that? Perhaps part of the journey of becoming a mother, and simply maturing—child or no—is that the answer to that question gets longer and more nuanced. I’m still working on my response, and getting comfortable with that response. As cheesy as it sounds, when I get anxious about having it all neatly figured out, I keep coming back to what my mom likes to remind me, (quoting Oprah): “You can have it all. Just not all at once.”
So, that’s a long way of saying: No, I don’t have regrets. Though I do miss aspects of my old full-time-job self. I do miss the sense of pride I had when I would talk about my career. I do miss wearing my non-crawling-around-at-the-park clothes and hanging out with the incredible folks at the Vogue.com offices. But then Ash toddles over to me and buries his head in my chest and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
the best parts of freelance mom life?
The ability to witness and be present for Ash’s milestones. Today is the perfect example: Ash unveiled a few new tricks, including blowing kisses, and I got to spend the day basking in him and taking tons of photos and videos (as we millennial mothers do). Days like these are awesome in the true sense of the word.
There are days when I feel like I’m doing so many things and not doing any of them well enough. I had the work/wife/self balance figured out relatively well, but mom/work/wife/self has been trickier to master. There just isn’t enough of me to go around. It’s something I’m trying to get used to. Some things just don’t get done. The dishes sit in the sink. That massive list of stories I planned to pitch gets whittled down to a handful. The romantic dinner I wanted to cook becomes a Seamless night on the sofa. The time I envisioned sitting in a coffee shop planning my next career move is taken up by researching pre-K classes.
As frustrating as this can be, it is balanced, if not outweighed by the clarity of purpose Ash has given me. In a strange way, there is something incredibly liberating about knowing that Ash comes first and everything else just has to fall into place…or fall away.
can you describe ash to me? what's his personality? what does he like? what does he dislike?
How can I possibly describe him? I can think of so many adjectives: loving, cuddly, sensitive, perceptive, detail-oriented, adorably impish… He’s such a luminous being who is so much larger than his tiny body and his scant months should seem to allow. I can’t really begin to adequately package him in words. As an editor and a writer I realize the absurdity of that, but I think the entire experience of becoming a mother and getting to know this new person you created as they get to know the world is virtually indescribable.
where do you see yourself, work-wise, in 5 years from now?
This is such a hard question. I really don’t know. And for a woman who was laser-focused on my career and staying on the path and climbing through the ranks, it’s odd to not know what comes next. I certainly plan to keep freelancing and have some ideas for bigger projects, but I’m giving myself permission to—for possibly the first time in my life—not try to know or plan exactly what comes next. Ask me again after baby number two (hopefully!) is in Pre-K.
any memorable reactions from family, friends or coworkers when you told them you were leaving Vogue?
Most people who really know me weren’t the least bit surprised. I’m a homebody, a nurturer, and I think all of my friends and many of my colleagues knew how excited I was to one day become a mom (and knew that job would become my focus). Of course there are people who questioned my choice, but I was so sure in my decision that I really didn’t care. In fact, after having a few folks look at me sideways about leaving, I remembered a time in j-school when I profiled a woman who had left a job at a big glossy NY magazine to move back to Chicago and start a family. My 20-year-old self thought she was nuts. How could she leave? 10 years later, I got it.
what's a typical workday like for you now? when do you get up? how do you start the day? how you get your work done? (lol)
We’re up around 6:30 to start the day and Ash is up at 7. He’s a miraculously good sleeper (knock on wood). We do breakfast and then Ash and I are out the door usually for a Trader Joes date—he loves munching on berries and waving to customers while I shop—followed by a visit to the park. Three days a week our spectacular nanny, Marie, comes at 11 and watches Ash until dinnertime at 5. That’s when I have time to focus on any freelance projects I have going on. (Oh, and the million other non-freelance things on my to-do list.)
Friends and colleagues of mine who don’t have kids (and some that do) imagine that staying at home means I’m sitting on the sofa all day while Ash plays quietly and I have tons of time to work or do my nails and eat bonbons. I laugh and then explain that on days when Marie isn’t watching Ash, I have a few moments during stroller rides to check emails, I have about 90 minutes during his nap to eat lunch, tidy up, and do some work, and then I’m back at it once he goes to bed. If there are stay-at-home moms out there having bonbons and manicures, clearly I need to learn their secrets.
There are some days when Ash is in bed, I’m knackered, and I’m trying to justify why I’m so pooped to my husband. (Which is a habit he thinks is absurd, by the way.) I can’t point at 1,000 triaged emails or the mountain of stories I edited or the market appointments that had me running all over town the way I used to. But then I take out my phone and flip through the dozens of photos and videos of my day with Ash—that is what I was working on all day. And it is a full time job. He’s a demanding boss but he pays me handsomely in giggles and cuddles. And it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
wisest words uttered to you by a child?
Without saying a word, Ash has already been my greatest teacher.
thank you, virginia!