Former CFO Erin Callan Regrets Not Having Children, Reignites Work-Life Balance Debate

Erin Callan. Photo: Lehman Brothers via NYU LawFormer Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan joined in the ongoing public debate on work-life balance this week, telling the world she had regrets over the sacrifices she made for success, and prompting renewed buzz on the topic. 

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“I can’t make up for lost time,” she wrote in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, “Is There Life After Work?” In it, Callan, who resigned as CFO in 2008, describes how work always came first for her, often at the expense of family, friends and her marriage (which eventually ended in divorce). It also got in the way of her starting a family, though she is now remarried and has stepchildren.

“I missed having a child of my own,” she writes. “I am 47 years old, and Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.”

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Reactions to her piece have been thoughtful and numerous, continuing the chatter sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo!’s own Marissa Mayer.

“If employees lean in, only to keel over on to the boardroom table out of fatigue, something is wrong,” writes Andrew Hill in the Financial Times Monday, referencing the title of Sandberg’s new tome. “The book and Ms. Callan’s lament expose a problem with the system, not just with the people in it. Managers ought to be creating the conditions to get the best work from all staff, not simply to extract the most work from a determined few. If employees are driven, or drive themselves, to unproductive and unhappy extremes, the whole corporate economy suffers.”

Chiming in for Bloomberg Business Week, Sheelah Kolhatkar writes, “No one could have ever accused Callan of not ‘leaning in.’ The daughter of a New York City police officer and a stay-at-home mom, Callan grew up in Queens, N.Y., and then attended Harvard and New York University law school.” She added, “For most of history, it was men who were sometimes known for working themselves to death. Perhaps it’s a perverse triumph of feminism that women feel free to do the same.”

Aimee Groth of Business Insider called Callan’s piece “chilling,” and declared, “She's living proof of why people need to protect their work-life balance.”

Callan, whom the Daily News refers to as “the Greta Garbo of the fiscal meltdown,” went from Lehman Brothers to Credit Suisse for a short stint before basically disappearing from public view. That’s when, writes Patricia Sellers on CNN Money, who profiled Callan for Fortune in 2010, she “quit that job, and never looked back,” eventually marrying her firefighter boyfriend whom she knew from high school and settling down for a quiet life in Florida. Several Tweets linking to her piece asked some version of, “Whatever happened to Erin Callan?”

She explains how work took over her life gradually in the New York Times piece. “I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time,” she writes. “Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left.”

She also writes, “Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I’ve done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone.”

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