I recently met Jeanie Ahn at Yahoo! Finance, where she interviewed me for her show “The Payoff” (catch it on book launch day: Oct. 17!). Afterwards, we chatted about New York City schools, motherhood and work. Some of her comments struck me as remarkable and universal, and worthy of a whole podcast episode.
In this Like a Mother episode, we hear from Jeanie Ahn on motherhood, guilt, ambition and goals:
- The origins of her working-mom guilt (a mom who laid on thick the reminders of the professional and artistic sacrifices she made for her children)
- How she harnessed her mom-guilt to take big risk in her career
- The steps she took to break out of the traditional TV producer career to forge a path that works for her, her family, and her career goals
- The magic that transpired when Ahn established what she wanted in a new job, including nice people, a family-friendly work schedule, and a higher-profile, on-camera role
- How her spirituality enforces her work (I love this)
Follow Jeanie Ahn on Twitter @jeanie531
Full transcript of my Jeanie Ahn interview here:
Emma: Welcome today’s guest, Jeanie Ahn. She is senior producer at Yahoo! Finance, and we met because she actually interviewed me about my new book. As you know I talk about it all the time because I want you to buy a copy, The Kickass Single Mom. She did this really great segment and we talked about motherhood and single motherhood. She is a married mom and also lives in New York City, but as often happens in journalism after the tape is rolling, that is when you get the really, really juicy insights. I actually found her thoughts about motherhood and career and succeeding to be so interesting and inspiring that I invited her to come on my show so we could have this big media incestuous party.
So, Jeanie Ahn, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jeanie: Thank you, I am so flattered to be here with you.
Emma: Do you want to give us like a two-second professional bio? You were behind the scenes and now you’re in front of the camera. What did you do after college?
Jeanie: After college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I tried a number of different things. Basically, my strategy was, do the opposite of what you hate. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that I loved. I worked for the city government, then that wasn’t for me, then I worked for a hedge fund, then that wasn’t for me, then I traveled and I decided I think media is what I want to do. I worked at Time Inc. for a while, doing consumer research and that’s when I started taking journalism classes.
That is when I figured out this is what I want to be. I want to be a journalist. I want to tell stories. I worked at ABC News for a while on a few different shows; 20/20, Prime Time, What Would You Do, New York Med, and then I worked on a few documentaries before I started to realize I needed to wind down a little bit because I had a high-risk pregnancy. I couldn’t travel as much as I did, and that’s when I started working for Yahoo! working on personal finance content, and I really felt that that resonated for me because I was learning so much about how to manage my own money, and I was trying to figure out a way to visually tell that story to other people so that they could pretty much set up their life for success.
Babies changed her career goals
Emma: From a personal standpoint, you were at ABC, this is bigtime media, New York City career. Tell me what happened. When you had your babies, how your ideas about your goals and what you wanted out of your professional life changed?
Jeanie: I think that once I became a journalist and figured out that’s what I wanted to be, I was full force with my career. I worked non-stop, and then when I had my first child, I knew that I wanted to get back to work, but I needed a different pace of life. At the same time, you’re constantly counting, is this worth it? How am I balancing my life? Is it worth it for all the childcare costs and all the time away from my child? Is it good for my child? I think every day is a struggle. You’re figuring out what it is that makes sense for your family and every few months you’re reevaluating that. Is this working for us? If it’s not, let’s make a change. Is this working for us?
Daycare costs and working moms
For us, at least for my first child, daycare costs were very significant but it was worth it for me to work. There was no argument financially on that front. I went back to work and I liked it. When I had my second child, that’s when it was like, okay, the costs are getting out of control. If I’m going to go back to work, I’m going to make every moment count. I have to love it, I have to thrive because otherwise, it’s just, why am I even doing this?
That’s when I decided if I’m going to go back to work after my second child, I’m going to pursue being on camera. It’s something that I always wanted to try and do, and sometimes I joke and I say, “Karis, I gave birth to boldness.” Because with her I felt more invigorated to really go after what it was that I want. It’s certainly challenging to try and lean in, as they say, in your career, with two kids. For me, if I’m not doing that, then I’d rather not work at all.
Emma: I think it’s so interesting because, just give us an idea, the news industry it’s one of these things that there’s traditionally a very set career path. You start in a small market if you want to be on camera, you work your way up to a big market, and people very rarely go from behind the camera to on camera. That’s not very usual at all.
Jeanie: I think that with social media and with people on YouTube videos making their own content and being social influencers, the entire landscape is completely changing. It’s not as traditional as it was before. When I worked at ABC News the lines were so clear. If worked on the production track, you were going to be a producer, and I genuinely love being a producer. I love working with editors. The visuals, the music, the sound design, all of it, I love. When it comes to storytelling, I recognized early on that the person who has the most control over the story is the person that gets to say it. That person may not have written the story, but that’s the person who has the most say for the final cut. For me, that’s what it’s really all about. If I’m going to be telling the story, I want to be the one who has the final say as to what goes in and what gets cut. If I’m writing all the content, then I want the credit for the content. It was all a matter of not just I want to be on camera, but it was I’m telling the story, I’m researching the story, I’m doing all the behind the scenes work, let me tell the story if I’m capable of doing it. Let me try.
It’s certainly been a challenge. I went on camera when I was much, much heavier because I had just had the baby and I’m still working on that. It’s an everlasting struggle, and you just have to be okay with it. I think the biggest fear was putting myself out there because I was able to hide behind other people reading my content, where other people were being the face. I’m a private person, so that was hard for me. It still is, but I just try not to think about it. It just comes with it.
Emma: I think that I’ve had a similar transformation since becoming a mom. I was always a reporter, I was always a writer. That’s my comfort zone, is just sitting in my home office and writing. I always would say I used to be a reporter and I would write other people’s stories, then I started blogging, and now I tell my own story. That’s when I’ve started doing my best work, my best content creation for sure. Now, I’m doing these podcasts, and I’m doing videos, all these other things have come along with it. It was, I feel like it’s very tied to my motherhood. Partly for all the things you’re saying, my kids, inspired me, I wanted to be doing my best work.
I had this moment, both my kids are very creative, my daughter I see an artist in her, she’s just so expressive. I don’t know what that’s going to be, performing arts or what, but she is going to be an artist. Maybe she’ll be a writer. She was very little, she was probably like three, but I saw that in her and I thought I’m a writer, and at the time I was writing boring personal finance stories and I had started having this existential crisis and I thought if she grows up to be a writer, and her mother’s a writer, what is she going to think of me? What if she is this great American novelist, is she going be proud of me? That called me to do my best work and writing personal finance articles that were not my biggest accomplishment in life, that wasn’t my best work.
I think also, motherhood for me just brought out so much of my vulnerabilities, which I’m hearing in you. You faced your fears, you faced your fear of being on camera and you went there. I wonder, do you also see a connection to your motherhood where you were able to love and be open in a way that maybe you couldn’t before you had kids?
Kids inspire you to go for your dreams
Jeanie: Definitely. I think that when I became a mother, I also was able to see how I was raised by my own mother and kind of compare. This is how I want to do it differently, this is what she did well, and this is what I want to do better. My mother, she was a concert pianist, and we moved to America and she basically gave up her dreams to raise us, to support my father. She never let us forget it. She told us that she gave up everything for us. That comes with a lot of pressure on your children too, when you’re saying that you’re basically going to live through your child’s dreams. For me, I wanted my children to feel that I was enjoying my life and that when you become an adult it’s good, it’s fun, it’s purposeful and passionate, and you don’t have to give anything up. I don’t want my kids to feel that pressure.
My mother was a stay at home mom and she was there every day to pick us up and take us everywhere. I’m not saying that I don’t want to do that, but I want to figure out a way to show my children that I definitely have my own life, and you guys are a huge part of my life, but mommy is going to continue to find what it is that drives me. It can change. You have the ability to do whatever it is and to change your mind.
Emma: That’s powerful. The power to change your mind. You’re not making a commitment that does not have to be for life, says the single mom blogger. Divorced, single mom blogger.
Jeanie: It’s a powerful message to say you can change your mind. You don’t have to say I want to be a doctor when you’re 15 and then go that track. Or even in college. I changed my mind constantly when I graduated and people made me feel like I was directionless and purposeless, and what are you doing going from that to that? I was like, well I can only go by what I know and the only thing that I know is what I don’t like at this point, so I’ll just go the opposite way and then I’ll kind of bump around and figure it out. That whole path is what makes me, I hope, a better producer, because I am able to tell lots of different stories and work with lots of different types of people, book lots of different types of guests and from all different backgrounds, I think it’s because I worked in all different backgrounds and I went to all the random places.
Emma: By the way, for people who don’t know, Yahoo! Finance, it is not a legacy brand like the ABC, NBC broadcasting companies, but you guys have the biggest viewership in the world or something. Right?
Jeanie: In the finance world, it’s a big deal.
Emma: It is a huge deal. Give me some numbers, or put it in a rank or something.
Jeanie: I think one of our recent taglines was, the number one finance news platform in the world, or something along those lines. Seventy million unique visitors a month on our page. That was months ago, so I’m sure that’s been updated. Our video programming is really ramping up all the time, and Andy Serwer is the Editor in Chief at Yahoo! Finance and he is really versatile and very respected in the industry. We’re all working under him and just trying to keep up.
Emma: Do you mind me asking how old you are when you made this pivot to on camera?
Jeanie: Sure, I was 36.
Emma: Financially was there a boost when you took this risk and pushed for the change?
Jeanie: Financially I wasn’t trying to make an on-camera salary or anything like that. I think again, on the production side I went from being a producer to a senior producer, I really pushed for that promotion, so financially when I got the promotion that was a boost. For me, at this point, if you had to ask me to choose which way to go, I don’t really have an answer because I enjoy both sides of being on camera and then being behind and working with editors and graphics and all of that.
Emma: Well, you’re doing both. Just the nature of your job, you’re doing both.
Jeanie: Yes, you’re doing both. I was just so glad to have the opportunity for them to say, yes, we’ll give you the training, we’ll help you, we’ll back you, basically. Let’s just give it a try. Actually, most of the producers at Yahoo! Finance are also on camera, so the people that are business reporters and writing all of the content will then go on camera and report it. That’s just kind of the nature of Yahoo! Finance’s video production team, with all the live shows and everything that has to be put on every day. It’s very common for producers to do both, at least where I work. I think it’s becoming more and more common, especially if you’re on a digital platform. Definitely less so for television.
Emma: I want to go back to something you started opening with. As you were making your career decisions, you were weighing them all against the cost of childcare. I really challenge women to not do that, because why is it an option for only you to work? When you pay for childcare both you and your husband are working.
Jeanie: I don’t really have a good answer for that.
Emma: That’s what women do all the time. You did it because, maybe I’m not saying, but perhaps that’s because what all women do.
Jeanie: I would say that the reason that I considered taking a step back in my career when I had the kids, versus my husband doing so, was because he started a new job right around the time my son was born, my first child. He was trying a new track. He was a journalist as well, that’s how we met, and then he decided to move over to marketing. That was a huge shift for him and I wanted to really back him during that time. For me, I was totally burnt out. At the stage of being burnt out in your career it like, okay, if my husband can support us for a little bit without me having to work, then I’m going to try that, maybe, maybe not.
Emma: Give it a whirl.
Find your dream job, despite the odds
Jeanie: Yeah, I mean I knew before the year was up, I knew that I would be back at work, but it was a matter of taking off a little bit of time to kind of want to be a producer again. I really was so burnt out at the time. When I took the job at Yahoo! I literally left my documentary job at the production company that I was working for, and that day, the same day that was my last day at the production company, went to a wedding. At that wedding, my old colleagues were there, and one of them worked for Yahoo! at the time and she said, “You really should come over, it’s a different pace of lifestyle. It’s not as crazy as news.” I was like, “Oh I really can’t. I need to take at least a week, two weeks, I don’t know. I can’t even think about taking another job.” She’s like, “Alright, well just think about it.” Then she called me on Monday.
When I went in to find out more about the opportunity, I went in with the mindset of they have to pay me what I want, the boss has to be great, everyone that I meet has to be kind, the hours have to be reasonable. These are all the things I want, God. If they don’t pan out that way, I will walk away. I just knew personally I needed a little bit of rest. At the time I was a freelancer, so you’re just taking on the jobs that you get and you never know when that next job is going to come, so you just keep taking work. It’s hard to allot the rest that you need when you’re in the mode of saying yes, yes, yes, to everything. When I went into Yahoo!, everyone that I met made me feel comfortable and welcome and honest about the workload. I thought that it was doable, and a different challenge, and was an area of my life that I wanted to be better at. So, I took it on and I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Emma: That’s incredible. You set really firm boundaries for what you needed in a career, and you got it.
Jeanie: I did. Then when my son was born, I was still a freelancer, so I got no paid time off, I was totally under my husband’s insurance and thankfully we had that. Not having that extra income come in and living that life, feeling that strict budget every time you walk into a store, it doesn’t feel great. I knew I wanted to work, but when they approached me to come back to work, it was way too soon. I think it was maybe a month or two after having my firstborn. I certainly wasn’t ready. They called me three times to come back, on the third time was around four and a half months, and I said, “Well, let me see if there are childcare options available.” In New York City, it’s very challenging to find a spot. There are waitlists. Basically, I did some digging around, I visited some daycares, within a couple of days there was one that I wanted that I felt comfortable with. It was so daunting to even think that I was going to leave him with anyone. I was crying, I was a mess. There was only one place that I wanted to put him in, and there was only one slot available. That’s when I called my manager and said, “Listen, if you want to hire me, this is the rate that I have to get paid. And you have to tell me before the end of the day because I have to take this last slot at daycare.”
It was always strict boundaries just because the options that you have available to you for childcare and all of that is so limiting. It all ended up working out. They were very swift in their decision and I think that helps negotiate even more money.
Emma: That’s awesome. The other part that I want you to speak to though is how hard you had to gun. It’s not like you just walked in and was like, “Hey, I want this on camera thing.” I know that you worked really hard to make that change. Talk a little bit about that.
Jeanie: First even asking, I felt awkward. Here is the producer who’s saying she wants to go on camera, she’s just had a baby, she doesn’t look great, and can she even do this? Why does she even want to do this, she’s doing her other role just fine. It’s hard to change people’s minds about what they think you can do. I kind of went in and I pitched a bunch of ideas, and then I told them that I would like to tell the story, and it was kind of just an afterthought to my manager at the time, I could tell. I pretty much brought it up at every weekly meeting that I had with him. I said, “Did you talk to your manager about this? Is it approved? Is it okay? Can I get training?” Blah, blah, blah. After several times, I feel like he understood that I was serious about it and he took it to his manager and they talked about it. I’m not really sure how they worked it out but I was given the approval after months of trying.
Once that happened, I signed up for a class to be on camera and get some training from a professional and I asked my company if they could support that and they said yes. I did that after work. It hasn’t been that long, maybe a year and a half, but I see some of the videos that I did in the beginning and I can’t even watch them. It’s so awkward.
Emma: Oh, I know. But you did it. Aren’t you proud of yourself though that you made an ass out of yourself and pushed through that?
Jeanie: I think the only way you can get better is if you do make an ass out of yourself and make those mistakes and then sit through it and watch it. Then you realize, oh my God, I have to do this, this is what I always do with my hands, look at the way that I always crinkle my shirt this way, or my shoulders are constantly going up that way. It’s really important to take a class and try and get professional help because you learn little tips and tricks that you never would have thought of from somebody who has done it for 10 years. I mean, think about how much you think you’ve improved in the past two years, and think about how much you’ll improve in five, and 10, and 20? I mean, it’s just insane.
Emma: It’s totally insane. Well, thank you so much for sharing this. I love your stories. One, what is next for you?
Jeanie: My company just got acquired by Verizon and so it feels like you’re working at a new company, even if you’re not. There are lots of opportunities here and I think that I want to explore what those could be. Maybe move over to a little bit more lifestyle content. Personal finance I think is the most lifestyle type of content that you could have at Yahoo! Finance, so right now it really fits for me. I’m going to continue to develop new shows and just figure out how to continue to make money fun.
Emma: And what are two tips of advice you have for moms?
Jeanie: Just general advice?
Emma: Well, I don’t care about parenting advice. I’m joking, I’m talking about like, career, money.
Jeanie: No, I know. The best advice, well I think that self-care is so important and having your own time to write down what you’re going through because everything's a blur. For me even preparing to talk to you today, I was looking through my journals and it’s so hard to carve out the time to write regularly, but unless you do you forget all the cute little details about what makes this time special. Also, all of the life dilemmas that come your way, when you’re at a crossroads and you look back and see the decisions that you’ve made, you can really be proud of yourself and say, “Okay, whatever I’m going through now, I can’t make a wrong decision. I can go left and that will be okay, I can go right, and that will be okay.” It’s just like, having the grace to recognize that you need to be gracious to yourself, it’s the right way. Things will work out and you’ll get through it.
Advice to your younger self
Emma: Yes. You know there’s always those questions like, what would you say to your younger self? And I always think I would just tell my younger self to chill out. I used to stress so much about failure or making the wrong decision and taking the wrong path, and I would just say chill out, it’s going to be fine. I would tell my younger self to take bolder risks. Just go for it.
Jeanie: Yeah, I think that’s what I try to tell my kids. You can’t make a mistake. You can’t. You just have to try. In our household, we say, “God gives us things to share, and you have to try everything.”
Emma: I like that.
Jeanie: Those are kind of our two mottos in our house. I believe in God, so for me, I really do feel that whichever way I go, God will meet me there and get me through. That’s, to me, what gets me through. Everything is so confusing every day, and we really do have to reevaluate, is this working for our life? Is this home working for our life? Is this school working? Is work working for us? How can we shift things to be wiser instead of crazy busier? We shouldn’t force things to happen if it’s not happening.
Emma: I’m so glad you said that, because I feel that, I believe in God too, and that’s just a big part of my life. I’m, incidentally, not religious, but I don’t find that in the professional world there’s a lot of space to say that. I’m grateful that you just did. Thank you.
Jeanie: Thank you. I really feel that being a storyteller is what my purpose is, and so I feel like I’m living that purpose. The story can change, but I’m still telling them. As long as I get to tell stories and meet cool people, and be inspired by people like you, and so many others out there that are doing the best they can, I think that’s what is so beautiful. If you were to say, “Jeanie, what kind of programming would you want to watch at the end of the day?” I want to watch successful moms who are just really having a hard day. That’s what makes me feel better. Not the moms who look like they’re put together and everything’s great, but it’s like the moms who are just— Do you ever watch Periscope?
Emma: No, I don’t.
Jeanie: Basically it’s a Twitter app, you pick a place in the world and you kind of just watch what somebody is doing. They’re just talking into their phone basically. They have an audience and they interact with you, but sometimes I like to watch random people just blundering through life because that makes me feel so much better. Everyone is struggling.
Emma: Oh, the struggle is real. I was Facebook messaging with an old friend of mine, she’s incidentally a single mom, and she was saying all these nice things. I’ve known her for many years, and she was saying about some success that I’ve had lately saying some very kind things. I’m like, “Oh yeah? Here’s the glamour, here’s a real picture of the glamour.” At that moment, it was the middle of the afternoon and I was wearing my robe, zero makeup, and let me tell you, it is not pretty. I literally had my hair in curlers, because I was going out to an event. So yeah, I was like, “Here’s a picture of the glamour right here.” And even though I’ve known her for so long, she still cracked up, because I still put on makeup when I go hang out with my friends. We still get our act together. It’s like, we’re so hungry for something unfiltered.
Jeanie: I think that’s so important to call up your friends who are struggling and just be real with each other and not try to paint a beautiful picture, ever, but just the struggle and— It can be really humorous if you share it with each other. Everyone’s kind of going through their own version of a struggling day. We’re all blubbering about, and it’s just so much easier to just face it and own it. That’s the kind of thing I want to watch. At least, that’s the content that I see.
Emma: That’s interesting. Yes, everything’s going back to that. Jeanie, on Yahoo! Finance. Tell people where they can find you.
Jeanie: You can follow me on Twitter @Jeanie531, that’s where I post all of my content. Also, on finance.yahoo.com there is a personal finance tab and you can see all of our videos there.
Emma: Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much, I’m so grateful for our new friendship.
Jeanie: Thank you for having me, Emma. I’m so glad we met.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.