So you’ve decided to go back to work. Or you are working while contemplating having a(nother) baby. Or you took as much maternity leave as you could and it was over in five seconds and now you’re headed back to the office. Have you wondered, as you watched their sweet squishy cheeks breath in and out as they lay asleep in their crib, Is this going to be worth it?
Really, has any mama not wondered that?
If someone had ever said to me in college, “Hey, if you ever want kids one day and you want a career where you actually get to see them more than 15 minutes a day/can work from home/make enough working part-time/will be in an industry that doesn’t require you to work weekends… you should go into this field: ____________,” I possibly would have thought more carefully about what I was studying in school. Hindsight is 20/20, but this is something that never occurred to me during my second year of college.
But no one says those things. From day one we’re told, You can do anything (oh, and you must do everything) or, Work hard enough and you’ll achieve it. From day one we’re told to follow our dreams and our passions. And I have. I love to write. And at my job, that’s what I do. I am unbelievably fortunate. But no one talks about career choices and how they’ll affect your parenting when you’re picking a major or walking across the stage with that diploma or accepting that first job. No one says, You can do anything (and we can — women should run the world because we’d settle all international squabbles by nap time and solve a budget crisis by wine o’clock), and it’s great you got that job, but oh by the way, you just might miss your baby’s first steps because they’re at daycare, and 2 a.m. will be the only snuggle time you’ll get during a busy week. These things didn’t matter at age 20.
But they matter to me now.
Over time, 18 years after college graduation and 16.5 of them working, I’ve begun to wonder, Is there a magic job formula for a working mother? There are at least three things I think would have to work for you to have a “magic” job (and a “magic” job might be as mythical as a unicorn). That magic job formula can make leaving those sweet babies and all their kisses and “Hold you, Mama,” hugs more bearable every morning.
The money has to be worth the childcare. Otherwise, why? We just had three kids in daycare for two years. This was a long two years of no fun anything, because: three kids in daycare. I know I’m a better mom when I work, and some months I questioned why I was spending that much on daycare, but I knew working made me a saner, happier person and therefore, mother, and so it was worth it. I also knew it would be worth it for me later, when we were done paying for daycare — to not leave the workforce and try to rejoin — which sometimes can be really hard to do.
The job has to be worth the work. Do you like what you do? If you don’t like it right now, will it help you get to where you want to be one day? Is it good work? Is it challenging, are you growing? Is it making you a better person and employee? Are you benefiting from it professionally? Maybe this isn’t as important to you, and that’s okay. But it helps to know personally where you stand on it, so you know what you can live with (especially if you are contemplating not returning to work after baby, or you’re looking to change jobs).
They give you grace. Is there flexibility? Can you take your kid to the doctor without calling in sick with the “stomach bug”? Is there grace when you have a flat tire, ailing parent, child in therapy, are looking for a new house, or have to go to the dentist? Can you flex your schedule to leave at 4 p.m. to hit the pediatrician before they close? Can you leave for an hour to see your kid in the school play or go to a funeral? Treating someone like a human doesn’t just extend to moms — everyone at one point or another will have to manage something in their personal life, so let’s give each other a break. Employees who are treated well are much more likely to want to stay; let them handle what they need to handle in their personal life, and I promise you, they will work harder and be more willing to go the extra mile at work because they appreciate the understanding. This is not a benefit ever listed on a job description on LinkedIn, but it should be.
The frosting on the cake. The people you work with are great. (For the record, the people in my office are exceptionally amazing.) Since you spend more time at work during the week than you may with your own spouse or children, this can be vital. Dull work or not enough pay or even the combination of both at the same time can be bearable for some length of time if you go to work and you enjoy the company of your colleagues. That means they challenge you to be better, they forgive you when you fail (because we all do), and they may even, possibly, laugh with you. And celebrate birthdays and babies, holidays, and new homes and retirements — all those things that makeup life. Because you see them every.single.day.month.after.month.year.after.year. If I had to choose one magic job item, this might be IT, actually.
These are the job qualities I consider the “magic formula.” Over time, I have had any combination of the above. Sometimes, especially early in my career when I was taking what I could get, I have had none of the above. If you have all four, at the same time, that’s amazing! (Share with the rest of us, please!) If you’re getting paid enough, and that’s your goal, and you can live with the work to bring home what you do, that’s just fine. If you’re giving up the money for a more flexible “mommy track” position because you want to be there for your kids because your spouse travels five days a week, that works. If you’re barely covering childcare but you have health insurance, that’s important. There are always trade-offs. Moms are the Queens of Trade-Offs — we are always making a thousand decisions and choosing one thing over another until eventually, finally, all-the-things are taken care of. For moms who are balancing babies and teens, work and home life, aging parents, a spouse, soccer practice, tutoring sessions, is there ever a magic job formula? You tell me.
Let me know if you’ve found your unicorn, or prefer another ingredient for what makes up the magic job formula.
Meg, I am obviously not a mom but you are such a good writer I feel like one when I read this blog! And I always learn something I should have known as a dad. Proud to have been part of your career and glad you represent my son’s school.
You have just spoken truth that not many moms talk about. I have friends who didn’t go to college so their jobs early on were not making much money so it wasn’t a big deal for them to leave the workforce and stay home with their kids. Me on the other hand went to college and got a great job right out of the gate and have been promoted several times and have always been the breadwinner and the provider of our insurance. I am proud of what I have accomplished but when my twin girls were born my whole world changed and I wanted nothing more than to stay home with them. unfortunately I haven’t been able to make it happen and it still brings me to tears almost everyday. College was great but if I had to give a 20 year old advice I would tell them to pick a career that had a flexible schedule and plan way in advance to stay home with your baby. Thanks for writing this article for all of us who struggle with this issue.
There needs to be more open and honest talk to girls in high school about planning their futures. So many of us would have made different choices if we had not been told in the ‘90s that we can have it all and to not even think about kids until 30, and never think about career/family balance at all. In the ‘90s, a woman’s career had to come first or you’d be seen as an unproductive employee, so your family had to mold themselves around your career needs. But everyone quickly found out real life doesn’t work that way.
My mom went back to work when I was a kid, and it was hard on me. VERY hard. I knew from a young age that working motherhood was not a path I was going to take myself, and marrying a man who grew up a latch-key kid sealed the deal. But even if a girl doesn’t plan to participate in her career while she’s raising kids, her education and career choices still impact her family. Student loans. Needing to relocate to a career-specific area of the country. Whether she can quickly jump back in if her husband dies or gets laid off. Whether her career will ever offer critically-needed benefits like health insurance. Enough pay to make it ever worth it to go back. Ability to work part-time if needed or wanted. Ability to keep up certifications while out of the workforce instead of having to let it all lapse and retrain. None of that is ever talked about to high school girls on the cusp of making decisions that will determine their life trajectory.
My kids are getting older and I can see the light at the end of the parenting tunnel. Will I go back to work when my nest is empty? If my degree were in a more lucrative field I might, but I’ve discovered that the choice I made at 18 to pursue a fulfilling but low-pay career means it might not be worth it. I have also discovered that my initial passion for my degree field has waned over the years, while aging has made 60+ work weeks daunting. Maybe my job is just to be a cautionary tale for today’s young women.