It's Working Project

"Funny thing, nobody ever asked my husband if he was going back to work after either kid."

A Fourth-Generation Working Mother Makes Life & Work Flexible

What was it like in your family growing up?

I grew up with two working parents, and it really had an impact on how I understand the roles of mothers and fathers. In fact, I’m a fourth-generation working mother. My great-grandmother wasn’t in the formal workforce, but she was widowed with six children and had to work hard to keep her family together. My grandmother started working in her early teens and was in and out of the workforce—both formal and informal—for her entire adult life.

My mother worked an office job in a factory, with typical office hours. My father, when I was in elementary school, switched from an office job to a foreman’s job at the same factory. He went from working the same hours as my mother to working shift work—one week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the next week 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. This meant that I grew up during the 70s with a very hands-on father. He was either there while I was getting ready for school or there when I got off the bus at the end of the day. His shift work was kind of the original flex time—he scheduled my orthodontist appointments on days when he didn’t have to be at work until 3, so he could take me without having to use vacation time!

I also grew up with a very equal division of household work, again, because both of my parents had full time jobs, there was no way my mom was going to be the only one responsible for all the housework—with five kids, it just wasn’t possible. I was also one of five girls, and we had no brothers. so there was no gender-specific division of chores for the kids, either.

That’s so rare for the time. How do you think your childhood has informed the decisions you make about work and family?

From the moment I was thinking about marrying my husband and having kids, I knew that I would work full time. It was never a question. Part of that is how I’m wired—I like work and I enjoy the challenges it offers me. But the reason I never hesitated was because of my own experience as a kid with a working mother. I never wondered whether my mom loved me. I never pined for her to be home after school or to be a room mother. We ate family dinner together every night, and I spent lots of time with both of my parents. I had wonderful childcare with a sitter who came to our house every day. She was a loving caregiver and it was like having a bonus grandmother. I was confident that being a working mother would be fine for my kids because having a working mother was fine for me.

How do you hope that your decisions will affect your children?

Like my family growing up, we have a much less traditional division of labor around our house, in large part because my husband and I both work. One of the  things I hope my kids learn is that both parents care for the kids and the home, and that all working parents share the burden. I’m also happy they’ve had such good childcare experiences, even though they’ve been very different from what I had growing up.

What was your work life like before kids? Your home life?

Before having kids, we obviously had more time and more money! At the same time, my work life had kind of fizzled after we got married. I had sort of run out of ambition. Once the kids came along and I was so busy juggling, I got a lot more focused at work. The early years were about just keeping up, but now that my kids are 9 and 10, I’m really digging into work again and recently got promoted!

And after kids?

When you have two jobs and two kids in the house, life is a giant word problem! One thing that surprised me is that I asked for and got a flex schedule when my oldest started school. For the first three years of elementary school, I worked 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and came home with the kids after school. I was still full-time, so I caught up on work in the evenings and weekends. Now that we’re heading to the end of elementary school, I’ve scaled that back—I leave at 3 on M/W/F and the kids go to daycare on T/Th after school. I found that now that they’re older, I really want my evenings and weekends back.

There was some push-back when I first went on the flex schedule from other employees, but over the ensuing 5 years, I have proved that I can pull my weight even if I’m not in the office 40 hours. It helped immeasurably that I had been with the organization for more than 8 years before adjusting my schedule—I’d built up some capital.

So many women are afraid to ask for that kind of flexibility. It’s amazing how well that has worked for you, and for so long. Clearly it’s working for your employer, too.

How did you share the news of your pregnancies with your employer or clients? How far along were you when you had the conversation?

I was up for a promotion the first time I got pregnant. I leveled with my supervisor about the pregnancy and got the promotion, then told my co-workers. I had no morning sickness at all and I’m heavy, so keeping the pregnancy under wraps wasn’t difficult either time. I was past 15 weeks both times.

How did you decide which partner would go back to work? What issues factored into that decision?

There was never a question that both of us would go back to work. We both wanted to, and financially it just made sense, although we could have scraped by on one salary if necessary. Nobody really asked me with my first baby, but when my second came along 18 months later, several people asked if I’d just drop out for awhile, since daycare for two was a hefty expense. I pointed out that I made way more than our daycare expenses, plus nobody was putting money into my retirement account if I wasn’t working. Funny thing, nobody ever asked my husband if he was going back to work after either kid.

Did you have a back-to-work mentor? How did they help?

My supervisor was a dad with kids several years older than mine. It helped that he was a very involved parent and understood when I needed flexibility.

Tell us about your parental leave and return.

I was the first employee at my organization to ever negotiate any kind of family leave. We are a small non-profit and not required to abide by FMLA, so all I was entitled to was any paid leave I had accumulated. I proposed six weeks of full-time leave—using up all my paid leave and taking a little unpaid leave—followed by six weeks of part-time leave, with ten hours in the office and ten hours working from home. The part-time period meant my husband adjusted his work schedule to take care of the baby two partial days a week. The director of my organization approved that plan both times, and that work-from-home history played into my ability to flex my schedule now.

I liked coming back part time at first because it was a gentle way to ease back into the swing of things. I liked going back so soon because I could count on quiet time in the office while my kids were home with their dad.

Have you, or a partner, paid it forward as a parent in the workplace? Tell us a bit more.

Even though the terms of my family leave were confidential, I helped a coworker figure out what she wanted for leave and helped her put together a proposal.

When did your confidence around work kick in? How long did the adjustment take (or are you still adjusting?)

I would say by the time I was back full-time—around 12 weeks for each kid—I was back in the swing of things. I was treading water, at least, and able to keep up.

What, if any, advice would you give to employers to ease strain around family leave and returning to the workplace?

Don’t make things all-or-nothing. If an employee wants a part-time return, find a way to make it work. It might be inconvenient in the short term, but better than losing a good employee or having someone in the office full-time but not fully-engaged.

Sage advice! Who was your biggest source of support in returning to work?

My husband was absolutely my biggest source of support for returning to work. Even though he grew up with a mom who wasn’t in the workforce, he never voiced any misgivings or concerns about me going back to work. We split the nighttime wake-ups and he handled all the solid food for the first couple years. We’ve split sick days when a kid has strep throat, swapped off daycare drop off and pick ups, and juggled snow days, scouts and robotics club.

What do you think would most benefit parents transitioning back to work after starting or expanding their family?

Parent and employers both need to keep all the options on the table when figuring out how to transition back to work. Look for unconventional solutions like varying schedules or switching from salaried to hourly status, even if they’ve never been done before in your organization. Remember that an engaged part time employee is probably more valuable than a disengaged full-time employee.

We’ve covered a lot of deep territory here. Ready for a few fun questions?

A good day is when:

I’m on time to work and nobody forgot anything!

What I wish I had known:

I wish I had known how fast things would change, especially when everything was so exhausting and I couldn’t see how different it would be in just six months.

One mistake I learned the hard way:

Don’t put off signing up for summer daycare or the slots will be full at your first choice!

Biggest pregnancy indulgence?

Prenatal yoga was the only time I had to just sit around and gestate. It was heavenly.

Fill in the blanks:

As a working parent, I never expected {the early school years} would be so hard and {late infancy/early toddlerhood} would be so much easier!

That’s counterintuitive, I know. But the challenges now are much less about logistics and more about values—what are my kids learning from what I say and do? What are they learning from their peers? How can we balance four people in the family, when all our needs count? What happens when my husband the scout leader has a camp out scheduled while I’m away on a business trip? Where does the extra kid go?

This is a conundrum! And one faced by so many other working parents, too.

Last question: If you could tell your pre-children self one thing, what would it be?

Save more money! Having children costs more than you think it does.