These are interesting times for a professional woman in her 30s.
For many, more than a decade has been invested in a career. Rungs on the ladder climbed, reputations established. Big responsibilities in tow … heck, some of us run departments, even companies!
And that is awesome — after all, the #futureisfemale. It is also the decade where women in big cities like New York and London most commonly start having children [1a] [1b].
Gender aside, it is my opinion that jobs get more rewarding with age. The more time you spend in the workforce, the more experiences you have.
In time (assuming these experiences are relevant), they will pave the way to enhanced responsibilities, usually coupled with better role titles, bigger teams to manage, and more generous compensation. Sure, the pressure is higher, but in the eyes of an emerging executive, the benefits of climbing the corporate ladder outweigh that burden.
But this poses an interesting challenge for professional women who want children.
Imagine this. After more than a decade of hard work, a woman in her mid-30s is breaking into leadership ranks. Established and credentialed in her field, she is scaling the corporate ladder — her eye on the prize, the next promotion in sight. But she knows she wants to birth children, and that window won’t stay open forever. So that is what she does, and while she will always cherish that decision, she wonders if it will hurt her career.
It shouldn’t. But for some women it does, particularly when the right support is not in place. And this is my reason for this blog post.
I don’t suppose to have all the answers — and as a mother of two currently on maternity leave, I’m still working this out for myself. But I do have some thoughts. And, if my thoughts help even one more mother assimilate back to work when it suits her, then I’ll take it.
I took interest in this topic in 2015 when I discovered my first child was on her way. I was 32 and living with my husband in New York City. Eyeing up promotion and facing the most challenging client engagement of my career, the discovery of my pregnancy was both thrilling and terrifying.
Among the excitement were the moments when I realised the “work hard, play hard” mentality that served me through my 20s was no longer an option. After all, a pregnant woman needs her sleep. The realisation was perplexing — I needed to reframe my attitude toward work and its role in my life, and I didn’t know where to start.
I’ve made a lot of progress since then. Two babies later, I am often asked how to juggle life as both a mother and a professional. It’s the impossible question as there is no simple, let alone right answer. Alas, I attempt:
- It takes a village.This African proverb is profound. For me, that village is my husband, nanny, in-laws and sister. Put simply, I could not do my job without them. A working mother must identify her villagers — they must be strong and reliable, trusted to look after the most precious of possessions. They must be thanked and appreciated, for this group is the most important coalition for a working mother’s success.
- We’re in this together. There are many allies to working mothers — both men and women. But other moms in particular truly get it. We must support one another. A colleague told me she thought of asking me for a change of clothes since her baby ruined her outfit in transit to an important meeting. I wish she’d have asked — I’d have moved mountains to help. Another colleague jumped on a plane to cover for me at a moment’s notice when I was too pregnant to travel across the U.S. for a meeting. Her words when I thanked her: “We must help each other out.” I knew exactly what she meant.
- Find a supportive employer. I am lucky since my firm is consistently ranked a top company for working mothers . A firm that takes diversity and inclusion seriously is more likely to support a working mother’s integration than one that does not. Look for flexible work policies and family friendly benefits, as well as a leadership culture that promotes wellness and work life balance.
- Divide domestic duties. As articulated by Annabel Crabb in her quarterly essay on Men At Work , many working mothers continue to take on the lion’s share of domestic duties in the home. In fact, research from Manchester University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University in the U.K. has shown that working mothers with two kids score consistently higher on chronic stress indicators, such as blood pressure and hormones, as compared to the general population . In order to transition back to work in a way that is sustainable and healthy, we need to see more balance in the way domestic duties are divided between family members in the home.
- Set boundaries and get to work. Working mothers are expert multi-taskers, whether it’s fixing the kids’ breakfast while taking a conference call or squeezing in a doctor’s appointment between meetings, one thing is for certain and that is that working mothers have very little time. This means that what time we do have reserved for work must be used wisely. For me this has meant less procrastination. If something needs to be done, it needs to be tackled fast. It also means that there is only time for the critical items. As a fellow working mother once coached me, “You can drop the rubber balls but not the crystal one.” Identifying what really matters at work is important, and de-prioritizing the rest is a necessary action for a working mother (even if it doesn’t feel natural).
This article might feel stereotypical to some. Of course, there are women who do not want children, and there are fathers who are primary caretakers. And, obviously, women give birth to or adopt children at all ages, not just in their 30s. I’m not ignorant to that. Take my thoughts for what they are worth. As one working mother to another (or, the partner, child or colleague of a working mother), I hope these thoughts help our working mothers transition back to work with grace. After all, we’re all in this together.
P.S., This post is dedicated to my own working mother, Dr. Cathy Allen, and inspiring friends: Liz Kreuger, Caroline Gatenby, Courtney Nolan, Joanna Bates, Sarah McGrath, Emma Fletcher and Dr. Patricia Davidson. Also, the countless working mothers at PwC who inspire me every day — there are too many to name, but they know who they are.