How do you maintain career momentum after parenthood?

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Photo by Hexidecimal, used under Creative Commons license.
I’m a woman approaching 30, and I’d still class myself as a junior in my profession. Kids are definitely on the cards for my partner and I, but so is having a career. My mother worked all through my childhood, and I think it had a great influence on my sister and I, so I know working parents are good parents. But my mother worked for the government and I work in the creative industries, putting in 14 hour days and having maybe one or two weekends off a month. I see almost no women in the more senior positions in my industry, and those that I do see don’t have kids.

I truly enjoy my work, but I feel like my concerns — that having both a career and children isn’t possible — don’t get taken seriously. When I’ve mentioned it to other women in my industry they either tell me to never discuss it again, lest a potential employer find out, or reassure me that after I have kids I won’t want to work so much. Both possibilities scare me.

So tell me, working parents: how do you make it work? Is it possible to maintain momentum? Can we have a discussion about work and parenthood? — Susan

Comments on How do you maintain career momentum after parenthood?

  1. This is such an encouraging thread. Hubs and I are still months (maybe a year) away from even trying to make a baby, but we would have gotten started a while ago if not for the fear about our work schedules. We are both newspaper reporters with really unreliable schedules. There are many week nights when we’re both working, doing interviews or covering this or that. We cannot afford for one of us to stay home, so something in our schedules would need to change before we would feel ready to take the leap. It’s awesome to see so many mamas with even crazier jobs and schedules than me who are making it work.

  2. This is my personal journey.
    When I fell pregnant at 29, I was in a junior position in a company with a 60-80+ hour working week. Fast forward four years, and I’m still working there, part-time with a 2 and a 3 year old (part-time = 3 days and ~45 hours a week). Howevre, not for much longer I think.
    In a company where 11-15+ hour days are the norm, there are three ways you can fit this in around children.
    (1) Effectively not see your kids on working days,
    (2) Spend time with your kids on working days and cut back on sleep (unless you’re lucky enough to only need 5 hours to begin with!),
    (3) Become substantially more productive, work fewer hours than the norm, and spend time with your kids.
    Whilst I’m always looking for better ways to acheive (3), realistically (2) has been my main model, with a bit of (1) thrown in when things get really busy.
    I lay these out as real options – for me personally, (1) as the starting assumption doesn’t feel right, but there are plently of other people I work with (more male than female, but still both) for whom is it does.
    I really wanted my working model to work, as I love my job, and certainly don’t fit into the category of ‘unable to be away from children’ (even when they were first born). I find my time away from them liberating and necessary for my sanity.
    However, I’m tired. Really tired. And this has negative impacts on my life in all sorts of ways – often I’m too tired to engage well with my littlies on my ‘home’ days; I get grumpy if they won’t go to bed on time because it’s pushing the time I start back on my work even later; I never spend time with my partner kid-free.
    After a lot of soul searching, I’ve decided this isn’t the life I want. It’s not who I want to be. For a long while, this felt like failure, like I ‘couldn’t take it’. But one day, I realised that acknowledging something wasn’t working and proactively acting to change this was a positive not negative thing to do, even if this meant reprioritising things. I also read ‘your values are like the six sides of a dice – they’re all there at all times, but sometimes you have one side facing you, sometimes it’s three in view, but never six’. So I think I’m just going to spin my dice around.
    And at the end of the day, my dilemma is ‘how do I choose between a family that I love, a job that I love, and my sleep that I love’, which has to be a pretty good dilemma to have in the scheme of things.

  3. I’m so glad that this question came up, because it’s an issue that occupies a lot of my mental energy right now. I work in an upper-management position in a very demanding field and I have a two-year-old.

    For five months out of each year, I work 12-16 hour days at my office. I got pregnant about a year after starting to work for my current employer and took three months of maternity leave that included about two months of our busy season. Fortunately, my employer was extremely supportive and never made me feel badly in any way about taking the time that I needed both for doctors appointments before the birth and for leave after. I made a lateral move about a year after my son was born and then a few months after that got promoted to my current position. My salary, title, and job satisfaction have increased at each step.

    One thing that surprised me at first, but makes a lot of sense, is that in highly-competitive, high-pressure fields, employee retention is a key concern for management. It was less important that I adhere to the standard schedule than it was for me to continue my employment. Therefore, my employer was happy to accommodate me when I presented both my needs and a workable solution.

    For example, I got the buy-in from my major clients that they were comfortable with me working from home two nights a week and we developed a plan for those nights that included scheduled check-ins, baselines for continuing communication, and even a no-calls period during bath/ bed time. This worked well for my former position where it was less important that I be physically present and more important that the work got done well and on-time. In my current position, my husband brings our son to visit me at the office regularly and I take any opportunity that I can to leave in time to at least put him to sleep after the babysitter has done all the rest of the bedtime routine.

    I think that you’ll find that highly-skilled professions may be more willing to make these kinds of arrangements (it was a counter-intuitive realization for me) because you were hired for a specific skill set or capacity that is not easily replaceable. Also, you can sell your self as a gold star for your employer’s image, which can be important to clients, investors, and your employer’s reputation within the industry.

    None of this is to imply that the past two years have been effortless. I work harder and longer now than I ever have in my life. I’ve had to give up (for now) some very meaningful outside activities. I’ve had to admit that I’m not ever going to be the all-present, cookie-baking, craft-making parent that I thought I’d like to. I struggle with child care — my husband works erratic hours that don’t line up well sometimes with my needs and we’re literally 5,000 miles away from any family. It’s also hard to be a trailblazer — I was the first person in my office to even attempt anything like this. But since I have, one of my employees has chosen a similar path and it’s a little easier knowing that we’re in the same boat. I’ve also found that older women in positions higher than mine have been my best allies; they remember a time when they had to fight even harder for even more meager rewards and are generally happy to know that their sacrifices helped change the system in a meaningful way. I cobbled together a child care system that isn’t perfect, but works for us. I know that my son is loved and cared for all day every day even if it’s not by me.

    TL/DR version: You can be a good parent and have a demanding career. Even if it’s not easy at times, it’s completely do-able.

  4. My husband is an Entrepreneur and began his most recent start-up while I was pregnant. He launched publicly the day we came home from the hospital with our daughter, who is now two. He works incredibly hard to TRY to maintain a healthy work/life balance and the truth is, it’s incredibly difficult.

    It isn’t only women who feel the pressure that Susan is concerned about. My husband explains it as feeling like he’s dividing himself. You can’t give 100% to your job and 100% to your child, it just isn’t possible. The question is, how do you want to divvy it up?

  5. I am a Soldier in the United States Army, with a 3 year old and another on the way. My hours are long and sometimes do not coincide with the hours my daycare is open. The key for me is knowing that I love my work and my work is incredibly important. I have a great support system as well, my husband’s work schedule is more flexible so he can often watch our son, and he also allows me one on one time with my boy so we don’t lose our bond. It isn’t easy being gone for deployments and such, but it is worth it to me to keep that part of myself.

  6. I went back to work when my twins were 6 months. Some people thought that was “too early” but a combination of financial circumstances and my workplace going through a major restructure meant it was best for me to be back there. I now work 3 days and then have a 4 day “weekend” at home. We have a nanny for 11 hours a day on the days I’m working, which is costing an arm and a leg, but the kids are happy and I don’t have to worry about them. Other things that have helped me:

    Enjoy the time away from home as “adult time” – I’m more productive if I enjoy work for the mental stimulation and conversation and don’t spend my time thinking/talking about the kids. Chances are your work colleagues also don’t want to hear about kid stuff all the time either.

    Be firm about what you will and won’t compromise on, and don’t make exceptions. I work fixed hours so I’m out the door at a certain time. I will, however, work through lunch breaks, and when the kids are older I’ll think about doing some hours from home too. It’s confusing for people if you do some things sometimes and not other times. If you’re predictable, your colleagues will know what to expect.

    Get organised. I’ve had to chance my way of working so that I’m as productive as possible while I’m there. For me, this means keeping task lists, sharing what I’m doing with my boss by having a catch-up at the beginning and end of my work week. I’ve also had to lift my game at home. I spend my downtime doing laundry, preparing meals for the week in advance and tidying so that I can avoid mad panics on my way in/out the door.

    So far this is what’s working for us, but I imagine it will change over time as the kids grow and their needs change. Career success and raising kids are totally compatible in my book.

  7. I have a 4 month old baby, so I’m sure my thoughts on this will change as she gets older. But here’s what’s working for me right now:

    1) Our original plan was for my husband to stay home part time. But about a month after I went back to work, he quit his job and will now stay home full time. We’re lucky that’s financially feasible for us, but we decided that the benefits of having one person who had the time to run the household as well as take care of the baby was worth the financial loss. (Plus the emotional benefits of quitting a sucky job, of course.)

    2) Long before I got pregnant I was very conscious about finding a job that would support parenting. The things I looked for included good health insurance, flexibility in scheduling and location (I may need to work 14 hours, but can I do some of them from home or after the baby’s asleep?), and coworkers who were also parents.

    3) I am making it very, very clear to my boss and coworkers that I am the primary breadwinner in my family, and that means I am VERY committed to keeping my job and being good at it. Some people may see motherhood as an indication that you no longer want to be at work, but I think you can turn it around and show that it actually makes you a better employee.

    I think finding a role model in your industry may be really key. It might be a woman who doesn’t talk about her family, so you don’t know she has kids. Or it might be a male parent–how do your male coworkers who have kids deal with it?

    • Be careful when talking to male coworkers aboout this, I had a few unpleasant reactions to my pregnancy, saying I was inconveniencing my team and that I would be useless from now on and that I should just go be a stay at home mother like the other wives (nothing wrong with this, mind you, just not for me)

      • Yikes! That’s really horrifying. I should have said “male coworkers who seem to value being parents”.

        Seriously, that’s really horrifying that men said that to you. I wish there was a way you could bring that to HR or even threaten a sexual discrimination suit… that is really so, so not okay.

  8. I also think it is an ongoing process. In my daughter’s 9 years, my husband and I have held several jobs including both of us working out of the home, lay off with severance, unemployment, part time at home, self employed etc. I was lucky enough to take my daughter to work with me most of the time from about 10 weeks to 5 years at a small family owned business. I used some daycare and family care to balance it out.

    The most important things I learned were that things change and you have to have a backup plan. Some daycare centers have a coupon for hours that you can buy to use as needed for drop in care. That worked much better for us than a standard set schedule until preschool. I did a graphic clock schedule of naps and meals so that whether she was with one grandma or another, at work with me, home with dad, or at daycare, it was the same routine every day. She set this schedule herself and I just tried to keep up as she grew out of 2 naps etc.

    Communication is very important, both with your job and your partner. There were some issues with having my child at work that didn’t come out until much later. My partner has to shoulder the major burden of financial responsibilities while I work a part time retail job in order to drop off and pick up from school. Note this was the only job I could find upon closing my small business despite having years of admin. experience. We could not both work 8-5 (or longer) without major childcare costs even with the school day covered. A flexible schedule for at least one parent really helps. You will trade time with your spouse for time with your child.

    Eventually it all evens out and you find your family rhythm and prioritize your time. You will be a very productive worker, especially during nap time!

    • Also, every one of her caregivers used 100% cloth diapers. Totally do-able and will save you so much money. Also breastfeeding and pumping will save money. I chose a daycare within 1 mile of my job so I could drive over and feed my daughter easily once a day. *admits I could have walked or biked that distance, but time is crucial when dashing out of work on lunch*

  9. This is ‘Susan’, the question asker.

    I can’t tell you how blown away I am by this thread. I feel so affirmed and heartened by all your stories. It’s really eased my anxiety.

    I know it won’t be easy, and I know there’s never a good time to become a parent, but for now my plan is to lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg says, and do the absolute best I can so I am, as SandraDayOKiller rightly noted, the kind of employee that can’t be let go.

    I’m also definitely taking note of everyone’s comments about communication. My partner and I already talk about having kids quite candidly, so while I’m confident we’ll be able to maintain that I’ll make sure I put in an effort to keep communication going.

    Thanks again!

  10. I have to say it is so interesting reading this thread as someone based in the UK. In the UK it is standard to take 12 months maternity leave, (about 8 months of which are paid and the pay varies depending on your employer. I am hoping to go back to school after 6 months of maternity leave. However some moms have said, ‘That’s crazy!’ another version of ‘you’ll see’. Reading on here about women going back to work successfully at 6 or 7 weeks has made me feel more confident that going back after 6 months is not really so crazy, and it is really what works best for each individual family.
    Also, thank you to the other grad students who posted about balancing studying/teaching/parenting, that was really inspiring too!

  11. Annoyingly, everyone said ‘Forget about working at home, you won’t even be able to move a box from one room to another when you have a baby’… and then my daughter turned out to be so low-maintainence that I might have started some kind of home working earlier. As it was, I felt a bit stir crazy and went back to work when she was 7.5 months, about a month earlier than planned. I was lucky enough to manage work part time, which I really recommend if you can do it, but I appreciate that it’s much harder to get in the US than it is here in the UK (where it’s not always easy).

    A friend of mine had a baby about three years ago and was in a similar situation to Susan in the original post – working in the film industry, where the message she got was ‘forget about working in films, or forget about having a kid’ and again, there were very few senior female role models with kids. Her response ultimately was to set up her own production business, which is still very hard work, but she can fit the childcare around her and her partner’s work one way or another.

    It is so important for women to try to set the precedent and show we *can* ask for and get and succeed at doing work part time, or that we *can* manage a family in a field where everyone says it can’t be done. I know I want my daughter to be able to have a lot of choices, so it’s always worth a try. But often easier said than done, I know, especially at the moment.

  12. Hmm I’m with Ginny – here in Canada it`s a full year of paid parental leave, plus in Quebec we have high quality 7$/day daycare programs. This program actually makes money for the government since parents can go back to work easier and so… pay more taxes (haha).

    I’m the sole breadwinner for now as my husband still has a year to graduate. I’m sure were we in the US we would have made it work somehow but I was sooo grateful for that year home getting to know my little guy (plus I was on sick leave the first 4 months as he was in the hospital, so I was gone 16 months). I think despite a career I love I would have stayed home 2-3 years if I could afford it!

    With all that said, I agree with others – if you are in a specialized field, employers want to retain you so they`ll give you some flexibility. I know this doesn`t work for fields with high turnover rates but I admit after a 16 month absence my employer was soooo relieved when I returned i realized just how secure my career is!

  13. My partner and I are in a similar situation with much less flexibility.
    I work in the medical field, night shift, 7 on/7 off. My schedule stinks. Im the main bread winner.
    JL works evening shifts/swing shifts.
    JL wants kids NOW. His internal time clock is ticking away and its loud enough to distress him.

    Heres the issue: I havent figured out how the heck we would make this work. Our schedules have us both out of the house at night. Im not sure what to do. Im pretty sure I would never ever ever sleep again (and I dont sleep alot on this shift any how, which leaves me doing things like leaving on appliances and water faucets). Im pretty much waiting on someone to retire or kill over to go to day shift (land of the living).
    On another note: I love my career and I am working very hard to advance it. I dont want this to stall me when Im so very close to an actual break through.
    I like to have things thought through and planned out. I cant seem to wrap my head around any workable way for this could work out.

    Any advice?? Is this just something we need to go for and does stuff like this normally work itself out??

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