Now reading Working Mom: Liz Prueitt

Working Mom: Liz Prueitt

On (not) having it all.

Liz Prueitt and her husband Chad Robertson opened Tartine—one of the great bakeries of the world—in San Francisco in 2002.  She’s a mom and a pastry genius and she was not at all hesitant to get real talking about the intersection of motherhood and the kitchen.

When was your daughter born?

It was 2007, and we were in New York City for the James Beard Awards—we did not get the award that year; I think we got it the next year—and I gave birth two and a half months early. That was our start as parents in the food industry.

In our particular case, because it was such an emergency situation, I completely stopped work. There was no question of even having family come and help or anything like that, because we had an infant who was in the neonatal-care unit for many, many months. We dropped everything and we lived in the hospital for as long as it took. That was the emergency that became our family, and we had to shape our particular care situation around it.

Once your daughter was home and healthy and on schedule, what sort of adjustments did you have to make to get back in the kitchen? 

It wasn’t a simple matter of getting her healthy, because, as it turned out, she has a disability. So, as opposed to being able to get back to work, as one does after a certain period with an infant, I had to delve into the world of disabilities in children.

I found therapies for her and I formed a nonprofit organization to fund a summer camp for kids with disabilities—I used my platform as a chef to do the fundraising. But my life did take a very significant turn. Even after Archer was healthy and old enough to go to preschool and then grade school, it’s really only now—she just turned eight in May—that I’m able to say to the organization, “I’m going back to the workforce.” Developing Heath was sort of my foray back into work after semi-retirement. I even almost stutter as I say that, because it’s a strange thing to say. I’ve had my hand in things at the bakery, but I’ve really had to rely on the team and Chad to keep it running.

But I think what you’re asking about goes beyond just how I handled, or how women handle, work in the culinary field—I think it has to do with equal pay. Women get paid less than men. Then when a child arrives and somebody has to work less, it won’t be the person who makes more money. This is sanctioned by our society and government, whereas places like Sweden—

Have paid maternity leave.

Yes, exactly. It’s going to continue being a really vexing problem for families and for the equality of women in the workplace. You’re not going to have equal-parent participation—everybody knows that families benefit from having both parents participate—until there’s equal pay.

The question working moms get asked is this: How do you make this work? It’s a question that shouldn’t even exist. It’s not up to me. Why is the question not asked of men? How do you make it work, Chad? Nobody ever asks him that. When women are paid the same, then we can start with the question of how we handle having a more equal contribution from both partners.

It’s very heavy status quo. If I decide I want to go to work, I have to figure out what I have to do with the children. It’s always up to the woman. That’s where I’m really uncomfortable. I think that women just have to say I’m not answering that anymore.

You and Blue Bottle Coffee have this huge expansion coming up—how does that change things? 

If we turn it around and I speak as the business owner—how do I help the families that are working for us?—the simplest thing is having flexible hours. Flexibility is really hard to come by when you’re working with a much larger corporation, but it’s not impossible. I’m really hoping—and we’ll see as we go forward with Blue Bottle, they’re very much of the same minds that we are—that we can find creative solutions to these common problems. 

How do you do it? I’ve got young men and women working at Lucky Peach and I’d like to know how to build that capacity for flexibility into our business.

Women in their early twenties don’t see it coming. It’s going to hit them. They don’t fucking see it coming. They don’t get it. I want them to hear this. I want them to know this. They think that women burned their bras and went through this whole thing so that they can “have it all” now. They think that they’re getting equal pay. They think they’re hot shit in the workplace, and they’re going to suddenly discover that when they have a baby, everything comes to a screeching halt. The thing that these young women are going to find out is that it just keeps rolling along to the same conversation: How do women have it all? And it’s going to be in every magazine forever and it’s the wrong question.

What is the right question?

The right question is: How do men and women figure out how to have it all together?