Should I stay or should I go? Don’t just quit
You’ve probably heard about the “Day Without A Woman” strike that activists called for on International Women’s Day. Sounds like a great idea until you realize that millions of women strike 365 days a year by leaving the paid workforce to care for their families.
You know that statistic about 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 work? In fact, according to the U. S. Department of Labor only 48 percent work full-time, the rest cobble together part-time solutions or don’t work at all.
Pew Research reports that for the first time in decades, we are seeing an uptick in stay-at-home mothers. The fastest growing groups are from the middle and lower economic classes. These women want to work, but can’t largely because of the high cost of day care, the lack of paid maternity leave, and the lack of flexibility for those with caregiving responsibilities.
Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of women who attend the top quartile of American colleges leave the paid workforce to care for their children. Those are arguably the best educated women we have in this country, women who could be filling the leadership gap, and they aren’t working. In fact, nearly one quarter of college educated mothers pause their careers every year.
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 to learn how highly qualified women integrate their personal and professional goals. I learned so many things including that while only 11 percent of women planned to pause their careers, 72 percent actually did.
These women wanted to have great careers and be great mothers, but they couldn’t be largely because of the pervasive motherhood bias that permeates our workplaces.
Modern research out of Stanford and other major institutions has revealed that when women become mothers, they are viewed as less promotable, less likely to be leadership potential, less capable, and are paid significantly less. In fact, having one child delivers a 24 percent hit to a woman’s pay check; two children and she faces a 44 percent wage penalty.
Meanwhile, our work culture is based on the concept of the “Ideal Worker”. That’s the worker who is available 24/7, can travel at a moment’s notice, and who, if he or she has a family, has someone at home to care for all those little distractions we call life. Women are typically the ones who are doing most of that caregiving. As a result, we can never be ideal workers.
In my research, I was astonished by the large number of women who reported they “just quit” their jobs and then “one thing led to another” and they found they became stay-at-home mothers, as if it happened by accident. All of these women had college degrees–they had put much time, money, and effort into building their careers–and yet, they seemed to have lost their agency when it came to their right to be both engaged mothers and professionals. It was as though they were running from, rather than toward, something.
When I asked them what advice they would give to young women pondering these issues, nearly all of them said, “don’t just quit” or if you feel you must pause your career, at least “have a plan”.
Here are some of the strategies they recommended to integrate kids with careers:
1. Don’t skimp on your maternity leave
Only 13 percent of women in this country have access to paid maternity leave and yet those that do still seem to fritter away those early days and weeks with their newborn. Some women I interviewed had up to three months, but raced back to work because they were certain they were “needed” or they worried their careers would be derailed if they took too long.
I’m calling this out for what it is: bullshit.
First, if you work at a company that can’t let you enjoy those first few months with your new baby, then you will never truly succeed there because that means they ascribe to the ideal worker model and motherhood bias permeates that culture. Take your full maternity leave and then find a new job where you can thrive.
Second, are you really so important that you can’t be away from work for three months (if you are lucky enough to have that time?). Often it is our unwillingness to be fully present with our new babies and our belief that we are so valuable that harms our maternity leave. Don’t do that to yourself or your new baby. Enjoy every moment and then get back to work and rock it.
2. Create the maternity return strategy that works for you
Many women I interviewed told me that they quit because they just weren’t ready to go back to work. I can relate. I was on bed rest for four months and then on maternity leave for three months. I wasn’t ready to go back to work and be all-in-all-of-the-time. I needed a slower on-ramp. My company wasn’t willing to give me one, so I quit.
What a mistake that company made. I was a high performing senior executive who had much to offer, but needed help transitioning in. Instead of investing in me over the long haul, they wanted an ideal worker who could deliver immediately. But today smart employers are more enlightened. They know that the costs of replacing an employee can be exorbitant. Between the loss of company knowledge and the time it takes to find and hire someone else, losing an employee simply does not make sense.
This means you have power. Figure out what you want in terms of a maternity return strategy. Do you want to start by working three days a week for the first month? Do you want to work full time but from home a few days a week temporarily?
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. All they can say is no. And that can give insight into whether you want to stay at your current company. If they are inflexible, then perhaps that is not a place you can thrive. In that case, go back to work and start job hunting to find an environment in which you can truly thrive.
3. If you must pause, keep it short
Sometimes pausing your career really is the right solution for you and your family. I get it. It was true for me. Our au pair announced she was leaving about a week before I was supposed to head back to work after the birth of my second child.
We scrambled to find a replacement but we couldn’t. There was no room in the local day care facilities and even if there was, we couldn’t afford the high cost for two children under the age of three. Even though I had the bigger job, bigger title, and a larger team working for me, my husband was making $75,000 more than I was. It seemed to make sense for me to be the one to pause my career.
But I didn’t pause for long and neither should you.
My research revealed that the longer a woman paused her career, the harder it was to relaunch. Women who pause their careers for extended periods of time face motherhood bias and long-term unemployment bias when trying to get back into the paid workforce. A pause longer than five years made re-entry very challenging. But over 60 percent of those who were out less than two years found re-entry easy.
No one can decide what’s right for you and your family, but being strategic about how to best manage your career now that you are a mom is the only way you to ensure you will thrive. If you truly want to have the career of your dreams and be an engaged mom, don’t just quit. Make a plan and ask for what you want.
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. Check out the rest of my articles on motherhood, maternity leave, and everything in between. Email me at lisen [at] pregnancymagazine.com. I’d love to hear from you.