Should I stay or should I go?
I hate the term “working” mother. I mean really, have you ever heard someone say “working” father? Implicit in this subtle distinction is that mothers’ careers are optional. They aren’t.
Women today need to work for pay in order to be able to support their families. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t pull back or pause your career for a short period of time in order to help you transition into your new role as mother. Does pausing make sense for you and your family? Here are some reasons why you should stay in your job after the birth of your baby.
1. If you love your job and have the flexibility you need, why on earth leave?
In researching for my book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, I interviewed 186 women and surveyed nearly 1,500 more. I was surprised to learn that the vast majority (72 percent) had downshifted or fully paused their careers at some point. Of the 27 percent who hadn’t paused, they told me that one of the key reasons they didn’t was because they loved what they did and found great personal satisfaction in the work they were doing.
If you love your job, if it gives you deep meaning, then leaving so you can spend time with your baby or young child probably doesn’t make much sense. Sure, you may have pangs of “mother guilt” when you miss their first words, first steps, first whatevers, but your happiness makes you the best mother you can be. Why would you want to rob your child of a happy, fulfilled mom?
Another thing these respondents to my research said was that they didn’t feel the need to pause because they had bosses and workplaces that allowed them flexibility. They were able to integrate work and life because their workplace supported them.
As one respondent shared, “Flexibility has been key. I don’t feel like I’ve missed much with my children in terms of school programs, parties, sports activities, etc. Without the flexibility to get to do all of these things, I may have been bitter about working.”
If you love your job and have that rare situation in which your boss, your company, and your workplace supports you as a mother and a professional, I would encourage you to do everything in your power to not give that up. Your baby will thrive and so will you.
2. The long-term hit to your family finances can have significant consequences
When I quit my job as a vice president at Foote, Cone & Belding advertising, my husband and I didn’t take the time to analyze what that decision would mean to our family’s bottom line. The net result? Hundreds of thousands in lost income alone.
As of 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the cost to raise a child from birth to eighteen will run just over $300,000 (adjusted for inflation). That’s around $17,000.
$17,000 a year? Ha! Perhaps in some parts of the country, but in California where I live child care alone runs around $12,000 a year. What food, clothing, shelter. Then there’s the “enrichment programs” from Mommy and Me classes to sporting clubs to summer camps. I can tell you we have spent so much more on that for our three children.
And that doesn’t even include college tuition. For us, we (finally) ran the numbers and were shocked to discover it will cost us around $750,000 in post tax dollars. I don’t have that kind of money sitting in my bank account. Do you?
Before you decided to jump ship on your job, do a family pro forma and decide if you really can pause your career and for how long. You might decide that it isn’t really worth it.
3. Do you really want to be financially dependent on your partner?
Here’s the deal: If you leave the paid workforce for an extended period of time or pull back thereby significantly reducing your income two things will happen. First, you will become financially dependent on someone. And second, that person will bear the daily burden of being the primary provider for you and your children.
While we’d like to imagine our partners’ careers will be steady and secure, sometimes life gets in the way. Companies downsize, start-ups fail, the economy tanks, your savings dry up. Smart couples plan for the worst-case scenario and make sure they can live on one person’s salary for the period in which the other person pauses.
Then, of course, there is the inevitable power imbalance that happens when one partner is bringing in the dough and the other is rising it. Yeah, I know you don’t think that will happen to you, that you and your beloved will fight against the cultural norms and create new models that go beyond capitalism and patriarchy. But the truth is, that is damn hard to do. I know. I’ve tried.
And what about your partner? Is it fair to burden him (not trying to be heteronormative here, but for sake of argument, I’ll use the word “him”) with being the primary bread-winner? He probably married you because he saw what a rock star you are and wanted to be near all of that stardust. When he is saddled with the role of 1950s Mad Man, how’s he going to feel? Resentful? What about his work/life balance? What about his role as engaged father?
Research from the Families and Work institute reported the following: “Our data suggests that men are experiencing significantly higher levels of work-family conflict than they did three decades ago.”
In other words, the report states, men are experiencing what women experienced when they first entered the workforce in record numbers: “the pressure to do it all in order to have it all.”
Consider Heath Black. He never imagined he’d find himself in a traditional marital structure. When I interviewed him, he said he and his wife, Sallie, have always been full equals professionally, trading off who followed whom as their careers progressed . . . until their son, Jeb, was born. Now Heath is the breadwinner father and his wife is home caring for their new son.
“We wanted to be sure at least one of us was there for Jeb and it just seemed to make sense for Sally to be the one,” Heath told me. “As a new father, I have felt this deep internalized pressure to make sure there was money in the bank and food on the table. It’s ironic. Despite my deep passion and commitment to equality, here I am in this 1950s role.”
Doesn’t seem fair now, does it?
4. Your friends and colleagues will pass you by professionally
You’ve worked hard for your career. You probably went to college and then got yourself a great job and then worked your way up. And now you’re a mom, or about to become one. Mazel Tov!
I know you might want to spend every waking moment with your new bundle of joy, but what your career? If you decided to hit the pause button, you’ll face one very real outcome: Your friends and colleagues will pass you by.
One of the unexpected realities that many of the women I interviewed who had paused for parenthood was the envy they felt as they watched their colleagues zoom on past them on the ladder to the top.
One woman who had paused for over five years told me, “All of the guys I worked with, and many of the women too, are now at the top of their companies. My career progression is much slower because I was out of the paid workforce for such a long time.”
I didn’t want to be critical, but I wanted to ask, “What the hell did you expect?”
Pausing means you are taking yourself out of the game for awhile. That means the other players are continuing to build skills, gain confidence, and become a relied upon teammate to others. You can rejoin the team, but it will take you awhile to get in the game. If you want to be a player, taking yourself out means you’ll be on slower path to the top. Make sure you are ok with that before you tell your boss you’re not coming back.
5. The workplace still punishes those who pause their careers
I wish I could say that pausing for parenthood won’t hurt your career, but the reality is, it just might. While 78 percent of respondents who had paused their careers told me they had no regrets, those who paused for more than five years found re-entry much more challenging. That said, 63 percent of those who paused for less than two years found re-entry “easy”.
Employers still look askance at women who put their families first. No doubt you can get back on track (69 percent of survey respondents were “back on track” within one year), but if you can avoid leaving in the first place, you’re career just might be better off.
No one can decide what’s right for you and your family, but being strategic how you can best manage your career now that you are a mom, is simply the only way you will be able to thrive. You can learn more by reading my book. Pick up a copy of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career at your local bookstore or online to learn more.
Meanwhile, I’m here to answer your questions in my Should I Stay or Should I Go column for this magazine. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.