Being a mom is hard.
Having a career is hard.
Studies have shown, and those of us in the thick of it can attest, trying to have both is confounding and difficult.
Are these two things even compatible? Assuming they are, since so many of us are doing both, how do we as women balance this? Is there a such thing as balance? How do we make it all work?
Through the stories of my experiences and those of women I have interviewed, I hope I can offer you all some insights, some tips, and most of all, some comfort that you are not alone. At the end of this post, I offer you four important tips to make this all work.
From the very start, motherhood is an intimidating proposition at work. I have heard story after story of women who were afraid to tell their boss they were pregnant. Nearly all of them reported positive stories when they finally did, but it does not seem to help alleviate the fear.
I’ve had three kids, and each time it was as different as my children are from one another (trust me, they are different!). The first time, I hadn’t been with the company for very long. For this reason, I wasn’t overly invested in my career, and although I waited awhile to tell my boss, and I only took 6 weeks off because of financial concerns, I wasn’t too nervous about my pregnancy.
The second pregnancy was completely different (see photo below). At this point, I was in management and was fully invested in my career. Despite the fact that I was violently ill with this pregnancy, I kept it from my boss and my teams for months. I was terrified of missing work, of missing promotions, of being held back because I would be out of the office. The funny thing is that when I finally told my team, they all laughed in relief and said that they had been concerned for months over how sick I had been! With this kid, I took 2 months off – still not the full amount of time available.
The third pregnancy, I discovered I was pregnant 6 weeks into my MBA program my company was paying for. Total panic! This time, there was no keeping it from the boss – I was showing almost immediately. I had to do some serious maneuvering but I managed to take the full three months off this time.
The next step – the actual maternity leave – can be fraught with danger. We hear stories of leaders in tech and politics returning to work only a week or two after giving birth – what will happen when we take 6 weeks off? Or the full 12 weeks we are allowed under FMLA, assuming you even qualify for FMLA?
When you come back to work, that is when the real fun starts. Let’s start with the logistical issues. The baby needs to get to the sitter. The baby needs to get to the doctor for check-ups. The baby needs diapers and wipes and food and clothes. And the baby gets sick. Not to mention, many of us moms breastfeed our babies, so there is the need to deal with that at work.
The breastfeeding situation is no joke. First there is the uncomfortable conversation with your boss – made much worse when your boss is a man. Scheduling the times, understanding whether you need to make up the time or not, all of that has to be worked out. Then there is the problem of where to pump. With my first two kids, we had a “medical room” often frequented by those employees with headaches or tummy aches that, if not occupied, was a decent place to pump. By the third kid, we had an actual lactation lounge and could book time in it. Many (most?) women are not so lucky.
Then there are the emotional issues. Leaving your baby in the hands of someone else every morning is more difficult than you can ever prepare for. When that sitter doesn’t work out? Even worse.
I had a terrible falling out with our first sitter when my son was 18 months old and I was pregnant with my second. It stemmed from a misunderstanding that festered for several months, and exploded on her driveway at pick-up one day in the middle of the week. To say it was awful would be the understatement of the century. I cried and cried and then spent the next three days driving all over the city looking for a new solution. (We found one, and it worked well for all 3 kids).
A wise person once told me that the challenges with kids never lessen, they only change. As the kids get older, new issues pop up. There are baseball tournaments, play practice, piano lessons, swim lessons, and they all start at some unreasonable hour – like 5pm. Someone please tell me how working parents are supposed to get their kids to practice on time?
One thing I want to address here: how we “leave” work when we have a child-related event and/or emergency. I am torn here between the need to be authentic and own the fact that we are mothers who work, and the need to avoid attention directed to the fact that we are mothers. Studies have shown that bosses tend to see “mothers” as less engaged with their work and careers. The less we call attention to that particular label, perhaps the more we will avoid the negative repercussions. Perhaps.
An example from my life: I was in a high-level meeting in our board room one afternoon. The meeting was scheduled to finish at 4:30. At 5pm, I noticed that the older gentlemen in the room showed no sign of slowing down. My sitter required me to pick up my son by 5:30, and I was looking at a 20 minute commute. What do I do?
One genius idea a good friend of mine shared with me is to simply announce that you have to leave for a board meeting. What I did, after madly texting my husband under the table to see if he could get to the sitter (and discovering that he could not), was to simply lean over to the gentleman next to me and say, “I need to get to my next meeting,” and then get up and leave as inconspicuously as I could. I have no way of knowing if this was the right thing for me, but it seemed to work, so I offer it as a suggestion.
And that brings us back to that thing called a career. With all of the above going on, how do we have time and energy and focus for a career? Frankly, as I sit here and think about it, my mind boggles at the idea of it. When people ask me how I have done what I have done, my go-to answer is: “I just do it. I decide I want to do it, and I do it.”
Not much help, is it? So let’s break this whole thing down.
How do we do the mother and career thing at the same time?
1. Confidence – We need to have confidence in ourselves. We know exactly what we need as both a mother and a career woman, and we need to trust in that. When something doesn’t sound right or feel right, we need to have the wherewithal to call attention to it.
Example: I am by no means perfect at this, but I do remember one particular conversation I had with a senior executive, some months after the birth of my second child. I was feeling unchallenged at work, and so I approached the senior executive to tell him I was ready for something new. He told me (in a kind way) that I needed to go home and take care of my family. I could have let it go right there, but instead I said, “I take care of my family when I am at home, and I need to be challenged while I am here.” It wasn’t long before I was promoted.
2. Communication – We need to be honest and open in our communication. We need to ask for what we need and stand strong in our demand for it – from our boss, from our partners, from our family.
Example: One woman I spoke with shared the story of going back to work after the birth of her second child. The logistics of balancing two children were becoming overwhelming, so she went to her manager to request a more flexible schedule, allowing her to work from home two days each week. At first, the answer was no, but she kept talking to her manager, showing her the benefits and eventually she got the yes. After proving herself, she was promoted to a management position.
Another Example: Early in my career, I sat down with my husband and we talked about division of labor when it came to the kids. This helped us to split the duties with the kids, with him often taking a larger portion of the during-the-workday interruptions. We are both open and honest about what we can and cannot cover.
3. Commitment – This is the “just do it” part of things. Once you decide you are going to do something, stick with it. Get it done. Find the goal line, set your sights on it, and go. This is just as important at home as it is at work.
Example: When I found out I was pregnant with my third child six-weeks into my MBA program, I had a choice to make. I decided I still wanted to finish my program, and I wanted to do so on-time. In order to account for the time I would need to be out to give birth, I decided to accelerate my program. My daughter, being the accommodating soul that she is, was born just in time for winter break, so I was actually able to graduate early.
Another Example: Two years ago, my daughter expressed disappointment that I was not participating in her class parties and field-trips. I made a commitment to her that I would be there for her, and then I immediately blocked my calendar. I had so much fun attending those parties with her, and she now knows that she is my priority.
4. Support – This is so important. We need to support each other. Mothers in the workplace must support other mothers. Women must support other women. We do this by speaking up for each other, for advocating for each other, for listening and understanding each other.
Example: When one woman in a meeting gets cut off, bring the attention back to her by asking her if she would like to finish what she was saying. When drawing up an invitation list for an event, double-check to see that enough women have made the list. When evaluating the work of your associates, double-check to ensure that you are using the same criteria for everyone. When you see a woman hesitate to volunteer for something, encourage her to push forward.
One final thought – there is no such thing as “balance.” Or rather, work and kids will never be “equal.” We each have to find what works for us, and realize that this will change over time – maybe even day by day. Sometimes, hour by hour! If we pay attention, ask for what we need, commit to our ourselves and support each other, anything is possible!
I am here to support you! Let me know if you have other tips for being a mom at work!
As always, keep it positive and smile!