It’s Not Just Your Job — Your Life is Scalable Too.
When starting a family, you may find equal fulfillment in a less demanding career.
Part three in a six-part series, Creative Parenting for the Working Mom, from Reinventing the Working Mom®
Flashback: 1987, the film Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton. A Manhattanite advertising executive nicknamed the “Tiger Lady” inherits a baby, is pushed out of her job, buys a farm in Vermont, and founds a wildly successful baby food company that her former company tries to acquire. As she prepares a triumphal return to her old life, she has an epiphany. “I’m not the Tiger Lady anymore,” she tells the stunned boardroom. “I have a crib in my office and a mobile over my desk and I like it.” And she makes her way back to Vermont.
Fiction? Sure. Fantasy? Maybe not. This Tiger Lady realized what many do, that your successful, rewarding career may not require the punishing hours of corporate America or elite law firms. Maybe it’s setting up a home-based accounting business or opening an Etsy store. Maybe it’s moving from lead prosecutor to in-house counsel. You can still “have it all,” but now you have to decide what “all” actually means.
Many see a lack of ambition as failure, but success is what you make it. In the 1970s, Gloria Steinem famously said that “some of us are becoming the men we were raised to marry,” but in 2010, Cheryl Sandburg spoke about the “ambition gap,” saying that “we don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons.”
But how important is ambition? Not asking for a raise because you don’t feel worthy is a problem. Turning down a professorship at Harvard Medical School to join Doctors Without Borders is a different set of values. Whether you work at a corporation or a nonprofit, teach in an inner-city district or at a ritzy private school, your choice is your own. Sometimes it comes down to your work or your life — and you might just want to see more of your life.
In the first two installments of the six-part series, Creative Parenting for the Working Mom, I’ve talked about my favorite self-growth tool: Stop. Think. Reflect. Stop whatever you’re doing, breathe in, and take a quiet moment. Get out of your head and think about what’s important at this point in your life. Reflect on whatever path your heart tells you to take. If your choice is honest, fulfilling, and the product of serious contemplation, don’t justify anything to anyone. Ambition is a relative term.
Yonnie was a sought-after intellectual property lawyer, but she couldn’t shake the headaches and repetitive stress injury many of us have come to take for granted. She turned her once-weekly yoga class into a career, and now has the equivalent of a PhD in yoga, along with certifications for yoga therapy and trauma yoga. In the meantime, she runs, hikes, and does parkour and, with less computer time, finds even her age-related eyesight loss is reversing itself. Even better, she had a child, who delights her students by wandering into their Zoom classes. “As a lawyer, everyone thought I was a success,” she says. “But I was never happy. These days I sometimes feel self-conscious, that maybe people are looking down at me because I’m a yoga teacher — certainly my mother never understood my decision. But my life is exactly where I want it…finally.”
But before you march into your boss’ office: Stop. Think. Reflect.
Stop. Sit under a tree or by the water somewhere and take some deep cleansing breaths.
Think. Ask yourself these and other questions:
· How much do you really love your job? And how much would you be willing to sacrifice to keep it?
· Is it your job, or working, that you love? Can you get the same fulfillment doing something else? Something similar? Or something completely different?
· How are the family finances? Can you afford to scale back?
· Can you live off your partner’s income until you get sorted, and maybe for a while after that?
Reflect. Now it’s big-picture time. What exactly does success mean to you?
Working moms have tons of opportunities. They might be in excellent companies that recognize their worth, or in careers that by their nature are more flexible. Some of these may require additional training (dental hygienist, sonographer), and some you can do from home (copyeditor, grant writer).
Now go to a quiet place for another stop-think-reflect moment. Stop. Take a deep breath in. Let it out. Think. You can’t run a home-based business if you can’t work at home. Do you function best around people or alone? In a structured or fluid environment? Reflect. What kind of income do you need to be happy? What kind of work suits you and your family best? Again, there are no wrong answers.
Working from Home
These days, a fast internet connection, delivery service, and Zoom (or Skype, or Google Meet) for meetings means you rarely have to leave the house — although I don’t recommend it. Working at home has its own stresses. It’s hard to concentrate and easy to feel isolated, especially from other adults. By the same token, the breaks you take are more productive; during lunch you can clean your kitchen, work in your garden, or take a yoga class over Zoom. Where you work comes down to where your brain functions best.
My husband, a procurement officer with a flexible schedule, has kept his pandemic home office going; it’s better for the kids in the end. But he feels he’s always on. Demands keep streaming in, from his boss, his clients, and especially our children. “At least at the office, I could take breaks,” he says. “There are no breaks at home.”
But others find it liberating. Paula, a financial advisor, loves that on her get-up-and-stretch breaks she can put in a load of laundry, water the plants, or unload the dishwasher. This keeps her more connected with her house. She can also work her own hours in her pajamas, and be there when the kids get off the bus or someone takes a sick day. “I found the office stifling, and I wasn’t sorry to leave the high heels behind,” she says. “Sure, it’s hard to concentrate, but there were distractions at the office too. At least these are my own children, not co-workers I barely knew.”
· Make sure you get up, move around and schedule regular exercise — no excuses. Ensuring your blood keeps circulating might be the most important thing you do all day.
· Give yourself an office space, decorate it any way you like, and shut the door.
· Be disciplined with your phone and email during meals, while you’re helping the kids with homework, while you’re talking about your day — disconnect and stay disconnected. If you fail to set boundaries, you’ll find you’re not working from home, you’re sleeping in your office. That won’t do anyone any good.
Working outside the Home
Some need the distance of a (reasonable) commute or the company of other adults; others might miss the feel of a suit. Still others work outside the home because the job requires it. But this comes with its own burdens — childcare being the most obvious. In the United States, depending upon your state, infant childcare can cost between $10,000 and $24,000 annually, which can be unmanageable.
Rachel had already transitioned from being a sought-after corporate attorney to a procurement officer, hoping that a less demanding job would give her more time with her children. But even though her husband was on track for partnership at accounting giant KPMG, once their second child was born, they returned to Israel to be closer to her parents. “The daycare was too expensive and didn’t provide the value we were hoping for,” she said. “I just couldn’t manage two children without family support.”
But some families can survive on a single income, and some men are willing to be primary caregivers. In the excellent Atlantic series The Ambition Interviews, nearly all of the women deemed “high-achievers,” with top-level jobs in business or medicine, had husbands who scaled back or stayed home. And yet single working moms still make it work. Former senior advisor to President Obama Valerie Jarret never refused a call from her daughter, no matter what meeting she was in, because “she might just want to hear my voice.” And Jarret had more to say. “We have to find the courage to say ‘this is what I need,’” she continued. “And you need to be working for people who allow you to be who you are.”
· Use your commute to leave that life behind. Enter your office focused and guilt-free, and return home ready to unplug your devices and be present with your children. (You will be doing work while they’re in bed, but while they’re awake, give them your undivided attention.)
· Tell your kids about what you do, and get them as involved as you can. The more they feel part of your life, the less they’ll miss you when you’re temporarily gone. Let them know that you are always thinking about them even when you’re not there. Read them Patrice Karst’s Invisible String, and tell them you will always be connected, wherever you are. This works on many levels; we visit Grandpa’s grave once a month and assure them that he is still watching and protecting them, that the invisible string even reaches to heaven and back. This allows them to feel connected to a world bigger than them.
· Make sure your kids know you’re always available when they need you, and set your boundaries with your boss — immediately. Working from home? Tell them you will be on this call for ten minutes and then Mommy can play. At the office? Pick up the phone and talk to them, and tell them you’re in a conference but Mommy can call them back in thirty minutes, when the big hand is on the 6 and the little hand is on the 2 (or whatever). Let your kids know they are even more important than your work. And keep your word.
During the Clinton administration, young Chelsea used to wander into Oval Office meetings when she needed her father’s help with her homework. Engaged parents come in all forms.
Combing Work Office with Home Office
For some, the best-case scenario is to combine the two; even if you’re back at the office, try working a few days a week from home. You’ll be more present and connected to your kids, even if you have a little more trouble getting a workflow going. But just remember that distractions are everywhere — try to divide them between the officemates you might not even like and the children you can’t get enough of.
As director of technology at Citibank, Hannah drives from Long Island to New Jersey three days a week and works remotely the other two. Her husband is on disability from a work-related injury, and their nanny sleeps over on weekdays. On Hannah’s workdays, she leaves before dawn and returns long after her kids are asleep, but the rest of the week she revels in being able to wake them up and tuck them in. “The long commute is a problem; of course, it would be better if I could at least see them every night and every morning,” she says. “But we have enough to support the family and have invested enough to give us some financial security. This was a good compromise between my office and me,” she says. “Nothing’s perfect.”
· Switching your focus between home and office may be challenging. As mentioned above, use your commute to decompress, and make sure you have time to yourself when you’re at home too.
· Keep the same schedule at home that you do at work; people knowing how and when to reach you will signal that you are working as hard as ever and may give you some much-needed structure. This makes the transition less stressful.
In the end, where you work and what you do is your choice. When you shut out the noise, when you listen to your quietest voice, when you give yourself even five minutes to meditate or take long deep breaths, when you stop, think, and reflect, you’ll understand who you are and what you need. You’ll advocate for what you deserve. You’ll make more positive decisions about adapting the job you have or finding the job you need.
Of course, a lot of this comes down to picking the right support teams, which brings us to Part 4, Working Moms Can’t Do It Alone…Teamwork Is Everything, coming soon.
Just joining us? Check out Part One: So, You’ve Decided to Have it All… and Part Two: Want to Be a Working Mom? Pick the Right Job.
Can’t wait for the next installment? Get the Creative Parenting for the Working Mom e-book today, complete with worksheets, checklists, and practical tips, from Reinventing the Working Mom.® Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.