A View from Halfway Up the Hill
July 30, 2012
A sensible, interesting, sciencey-businessy, working-mom blogger I admire, Cloud of Wandering Scientist, was gracious enough to take the time to write a guest post. I couldn’t precisely remember what I asked her to focus on, but it must have been along the lines of what I’d ask anyone I like: Tell me more. Tell me more about your journey. *props head up on hands* How did you get here and how and why did you make the decisions you did? I am interested to hear.
One of the many things I enjoy reading in Cloud’s writings are her reasons. Her opinions are great too, whether or not I agree with them is irrelevant, but I enjoy hearing how people think. I love this post. I think you will too. (She’ll also be swinging by after work to answer comments.)
I write a lot about being a mother in the workforce on my blog, usually from the viewpoint of “Hey! This does not suck anywhere near as much as those people tell you it does!” Revanche saw one of the posts awhile back, and asked me if I’d do a guest post on the topic. I said yes, and then promptly got buried in various work and family needs, and it is now at least a month later than I told Revanche I might be able to deliver a post.
And that, right there, is one of my lessons for being a happy mother in the workforce: there isn’t a lot of time left after work and family claim their shares, so be careful what other commitments you make. You can’t always predict when work and/or family are going to need more than their usual amount of attention.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I start giving out advice, I should tell you a little about myself, so that you can decide whether or not you think anything I say is at all relevant to you and your life. I am 40 years old, married, with two daughters, aged 5 and 2.5. I also have a PhD in a field that combines biology and physical sciences. I did things the boring way, going to graduate school straight after I finished college. After I finished graduate school, I went to work in the biotechnology industry, and have mostly stayed there. My work has always been a combination of science and computers, and over the years has also involved an increasing amount of management. In my current position, I lead a group of 4 other fulltime employees and a revolving cast of ~10 contractors. I also manage all of our projects. We are responsible for the scientific databases and associated software at a medium-sized biotech company. In short, I have the sort of “demanding career” that you so often hear is incompatible with motherhood- and to make matters worse, I’m ambitious, and intend to go higher still in my career, albeit not necessarily right at this instant.
I was working as a contractor when my first child was born, and was able cut my hours to 35 per week for several months (with an accompanying cut in pay). But that job was evolving away from the work that I find most interesting, so I gave up my reduced hours and found a job at a biotech company, where I worked 40-45 hours per week. That company underwent downsizing about a year and a half ago, and I was laid off. After a few months of unemployment, I landed in the job I have now, where I still work 40-45 hours week. In many ways, this job is a step up from the previous one- I make more money and have more responsibility and power. And the previous job was a step up from the contractor position, since it gave me my first opportunity to directly run a group rather than just projects. More importantly to me, though, each job has continued to expand my knowledge and skills, which I believe will set me up for more career growth in the future.
So, now, on to the advice. I think the best thing to do is to tell you what I think I did right, where I think I got lucky, and what mindsets I think help me stay happy despite the fact that there are clearly aspects of my life that are made unnecessarily hard by our culture.
Things I Think I Did Right
Figured out how to be super productive in a 40ish hour work week before I had kids. This is huge. I get as much done in my 40-45 hour work week as a lot of people do in 50-55 hours. And the fact that I had a reputation for this before I had kids has probably contributed to the fact that no one thinks I’m scaling back now that the kids are here. I have an old post on my blog about when I discovered my work limit and figured out that I didn’t need to work crazy long hours. Married a man who is a true partner. Oh, we still squabble about chores occasionally, but that happens from a base assumption of equality, and that we’re both equally responsible for chores and parenting.
We bought a smaller, more centrally located house rather than a larger house in the outer suburbs, which cuts down the time we spend commuting.
Worked hard and developed a reputation for being a valuable employee before I got pregnant- this made it easier to negotiate the maternity leave I wanted (I took three months off, and worked 3 days a week for the fourth month) and other accommodations (I work a slightly shifted schedule).
Points on which I Got Lucky
My husband and I work in the same part of town, which makes it easier to share drop off and pick up duties. Unless I change jobs, this will change in about a year, since my company is moving, and I can already see that it will complicate logistics, at least until my youngest child is out of day care.
My parents are retired, and my mother is willing to fly over and provide back up child care when someone gets sick.
My chosen career works well with the pattern of putting in a little extra time after the kids are in bed
Mindsets for Happiness
I don’t allow the media-fueled “mommy wars” to drag me into feeling guilty. I spend plenty of time with my kids, and I put plenty of effort into my career.
But wait! you say. You’ve heard that you can’t “have it all.” You’ve heard that combining career and motherhood is exhausting. You’ve heard that having kids will stall out your career.
Well, to all of that I say “maybe”. And to beware of people who are sloppy in assigning cause. Do I “have it all”? I don’t know, it depends on your definition of “it all.” I have what I want, for the most part. Am I tired sometimes? Hell, yes. I’m tired A LOT of the time. But when I look at why I’m tired, it is because my 2 year old likes to come join us in bed at 2 a.m. and my 5 year old has been waking up before 6 a.m. these days. It is because right now, both of my kids are in a phase where they want mommy all of the time. I don’t see how quitting my job would fix either of those things- in fact, it would make the second one more likely to drive me to distraction. I also wouldn’t trade my daughters for more sleep, so I figure this is an instance where I put up with something slightly suboptimal in my life because the beauty of the larger picture makes up for this little flaw. Has my career stalled out? Hell, no. I am not on some meteoric ride to the top- but I wouldn’t be on such a ride without kids, either. The fact of the matter is that the step from middle management (where I am now) to upper management (where I plan to be someday) takes time, regardless of what else is going on in your life. There are only so many positions at the top. Don’t be fooled by looking at high profile examples like Yahoo and Facebook into thinking that there are a bunch of bright young things running corporations these days. Even at start ups, experience counts, and the only way to get experience is to put in the time. This can look and feel like a slow down in your career progression, but I am not convinced that it really is.
So, if you’re in your 20s or 30s, looking ahead to your future, and worrying about combining parenthood with careers, my number one piece of advice is to stop worrying. Do what you want to do right now. If you care about having a career, chase your career. If you later have kids and decide you want to stay home with them, or drop back to part time, or whatever- you can do it then. Since you will have been living the life you wanted up until that point, you’ll have no regrets, right? If you later have kids and decide you want to keep working, you’ll be set up to do that. Having a strong career makes that easier, because you are better set up to negotiate for the accommodations you want and because having money means that you can “buy time.”
Trust yourself. You’re smart, and you’ll have a partner who views you as a true equal (because why would you marry someone who doesn’t?) so you’ll be able to figure out solutions to the logistical issues that will inevitably come up. Don’t believe the people who tell you that all working mothers are stressed out and miserable, and that it is “impossible” to do X, Y, or Z with kids. I’m really happy, and so are a lot of my friends. I’ve watched people combine a lot of different things with motherhood: demanding careers, serious hobbies, amazing international travel… With a little luck, some thoughtful choices, and the right mindset, you can have as much of “it all” as you are likely to want. The key is to figure out what you really want, and not let our cultural insecurity about motherhood scare you away from even trying.