Success at work offers a real adrenaline rush. Unfortunately, it’s typically fleeting. Marriage and motherhood, by contrast, offer more lasting satisfaction. Those are among the important life lessons Erin Callan Montella shares in her new memoir, Full Circle: A memoir of leaning in too far and the journey back.
Montella was CFO of Lehman Brothers from December 2007 to June 2008, and Wall Street’s highest ranking woman at that point. Her memoir follows her through two decades of a high-flying career, an ill-fated first marriage, the public collapse of her career and a subsequent suicide attempt, as well as her recent transition to being a full-time wife and mother. While Montella found great professional success practicing law and working on Wall Street, her new roles have fulfilled her more. That was clear in her book and only reinforced by her emailed responses to the following questions (edited for length).
Why did you name your book Full Circle?
It wasn’t until well after I resigned as Lehman CFO in 2008 and went through a subsequent devastating personal crisis that I appreciated how out of whack my priorities had become and how little foundation and resiliency I had as a person. What I came to realize, on reflection, was that the priorities of family and relationships that I returned to in 2009 and after were those that I had originally as a child and young adult. I didn’t establish new meaning in my life, I just returned full circle to those things I always knew would ultimately provide meaning for me.
When you meet people today, and they ask what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
I tell them I am retired and try to leave it at that. . . . Honestly, at times I felt uncomfortable with saying I was retired when my self-esteem for so many years had been tied to what I did for a living. It took me years to get over that. I also don’t live in Manhattan anymore, so what I do for a living is not necessarily part of every initial conversation.
I am proud of my life now. I retired from a paying job but I am more active than ever in engaging in real life. I know it sounds trite, but I do think I have the most important job now as a wife and a mother. And, in all fairness, I am far from a natural. I try hard every day to be better at it than the day before and it is all I can expect from myself.
When you recall your Lehman colleague who took just two weeks of maternity leave, what do you think of her situation now?
I no longer admire it, but I am loath to be judgmental. I just know it would never work for me. This first year with my daughter, Maggie, has been a wonder and I am fortunate to be able to spend all my time with her and my husband, Anthony.
You write about your IVF journey in Full Circle. Is there any wisdom you would feel comfortable sharing with other women who may also hope to become mothers at some point?
Most importantly, don’t wait. Don’t think IVF is an option that you always have down the road. My life is immeasurably changed for the better with the arrival of my daughter, Maggie, and I can’t believe it was highly probable she would never be here. Be the center of my life with Anthony as she is.
Also, I would say that Anthony and I had a great experience even though we had many failed rounds of IVF. It made our relationship better. We had a common significant goal that mattered to us more than anything. He prevented me from letting the stress get the better of us. Each round that failed, he reminded me of some bit of progress we made. I think that is the only way you can do it. You have to believe each time that you are going to get pregnant but figure out how not to be crushed if you don’t. A delicate balance that needs a great partner and resiliency. But whatever pain and effort is involved, nothing can compare to the reward.
You say “setbacks are important to humble you.” What have you learned from your own setbacks?
I needed the drama and chaos that led to very desperate and dark moments to then allow for an evolution of myself. Sincerely, it has been a struggle. To choose to stop doing something you know you are great at, to start doing something you feel you are terrible at. I was in no-man’s land for years because even though I rejected my prior career-centric life, it didn’t mean I naturally embraced my role as a good partner and friend and now ultimately, as wife and mother. I talk about that in Full Circle.Anthony’s constant query, “Are you all in?” I am quite conscious of it.
This is also commencement season. After everything you’ve been through, what advice do you have for new graduates about how to live well?
I don’t pretend to be someone with all the answers about how to live well by any means. And I really don’t like to tell anyone else what is right for him or her. But I can tell you what I will tell my daughter. Because with Maggie, she is the one person I want to tell what to do. “Don’t do this!” will certainly be clear. Don’t forsake relationships and family and children for your job. It’s not worth it. It will never be worth it. It will inevitably end in disappointment. It has to. Keep those priorities in the forefront as you try to live a happy and productive life. Make choices that are consistent with those priorities. Pursue career paths that allow for the roles you want those priorities to play in your life. It’s not about sequencing, meaning work hard now and you can get to that stuff later. Make it all fit from the beginning or it will get away from you without you knowing it.
If readers are interested in reading more, where can they find your book?
Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer and communications strategist in Washington, DC. She is a contributor to The Federalist and a contributing writer for the parenting blog Kveller. Her interview with Erin Callan Montella was first published on the INstitute for Family Studies blog and is republished here with permission.