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How to Best Crack the Career/Parenting Balance Code

How to Best Crack the Career/Parenting Balance Code

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Full-Time Working Mom writes:

I’m a mom to a wonderful baby girl who just turned 1. So far we’ve been doing the daycare, full time working parents thing which I don’t love but is working ok for now. However, with thinking about adding a second in the future, as well as how present I would like to be in her life, I’d like to make a long term career change but am having trouble visualizing what that looks like. What do you feel has helped you be there for your kids while also feeling professionally fulfilled? Not sure what I should be prioritizing. Meaningful work? Flexible hours? Work from home? Working less? I know I can’t have it all but don’t know what would make the most impact. Looking back, what helped you the most during different stages of your kids’ lives?

I want to be clear up-front here that I chose this question with great trepidation. There is no one “right way” to balance work and parenting, and what works for one person could be completely wrong for another. Throw in the curveballs life loves to throw us (in my case, it was “Hey! Have a special-needs kid! No, wait! Have two!”), and the only thing I feel comfortable offering as an absolute is that you simply have to be open to reassessing and making changes as you go through it—maybe quite frequently.

What I can offer you is my own experience, with the understanding that it’s just one story. When I had my first child, I dropped down to half-time at my office job, because I knew I wanted to continue working, but I didn’t want to be full-time. I was lucky enough to be in a position where my employer was willing to accommodate. After my second child (not too long after the first, mind you), I continued on this schedule until my then-husband was relocated and we made the decision that it made the most sense for me to quit my job and stay home.

Now, what I’m going to say next is not intended to ignite any “mommy wars” or anything, it’s just my own experience: I am deeply grateful that we were able to live on one salary and I got to spend those early years at home with my babies, but it also meant that after my divorce I spent a lot of time wishing I hadn’t stopped working. It’s hard to get back into the workforce after a gap at home (for all of the obvious reasons), and any of the flexible options that might’ve been available to me as a longtime employee were off the table as a potential new hire. It was very hard, for a long time, both financially and just plain in terms of feeling like I had “blown it,” my education was “wasted,” I was constantly trying to choose between covering my kids or finding a good job, etc. No one plans for a divorce, obviously, but things happen. People get laid off, unexpected crises arise, you just never know. If I had it to do over again—knowing what I know now—I think I would’ve continued working at least 10 hours/week (minimum) even when my kids were tiny. It would’ve kept my foot in the door, y’know?

All of that said, necessity is the mother of invention, and I ended up becoming a freelance writer because it was the best way I could cobble together a living and still handle two high-needs kids as a single mom. The schedule is completely up to me (this was key, especially in the early years), I could work from home (leaving me accessible when needed for other things), I have a tremendous amount of control over how much work I choose to take on, and I happen to love what I do (bonus) more than I ever loved my old career. I am very lucky. Let me repeat that: I am very lucky. I was able to build a new, custom career which worked with my crazy life, and it’s very fulfilling. I don’t know that this is the norm; I suspect it’s not. Also, I love working from home, but it’s not for everyone. Some people really need to “go out into the world” every day for their sanity. And some people don’t have a skill that translates well to a solo career. Some people need a job with benefits. And so on. It worked for me, I feel very fortunate, but you’re not me, you’re you.

Bottom line?

Here’s the things I’d suggest you consider. And I’d get out a notebook and write some pros and cons and considerations as you go through this list, too, because this is going to be a multifaceted decision, and what you feel today may not be what you feel a year from now.

Financial positioning: How much money do you need to make right now—to cover your living expenses, to offset daycare, etc.? How does that number change if something happens to your partner’s job (or, heaven forbid, your partner)? Really run some numbers to see if there’s a tipping point in daycare costs at a given number of hours (you might be surprised). Make sure you’re factoring in money for retirement, savings, healthcare, etc.

Nature of your work: Do you love your job? If not, why not? Is it the work, the actual place you’re working, something else? Is this a job given to flexibility? What might happen if you stopped working in this field (for example, I used to work in software engineering, and leaving my job essentially rendered me obsolete/unhireable within a few months)? Is your work something you could do from home if you wanted?

Nature of your personality: Are you the sort of person who defines herself through her career? If yes, what sorts of career concessions would you be willing to make for parenting (and please have this conversation with your co-parent, as it’s no one parent’s duty to cover everything kid-related)? Do you need to work outside the house every day for your sanity? Could you work at a job “just for the paycheck” or would that kill you a little at a time? Could you run your own business or would that be a disaster? Be honest in assessing what really matters to you. (For what it’s worth, I am a strong believer in the “a happy, fulfilled parent is a better parent” philosophy. There are no wrong answers, here—this is about figuring out how to make sure you feel good so that you can be the best parent to your kid(s), too.)

Nature of your desired family structure: It’s very easy to make decisions based on a baby or two, when you don’t really know what’s coming down the pike. Eventually your kid(s) will be in school during the day, but you really don’t know right now what sorts of activities they might want to do, if they’ll have special needs (read: lots of doctors’ appointments), if you’d be okay with one parent working weekends to be available during the week or if that would mean missing important events, etc. Think about what you might picture day-to-day life looking like, but know what you project right now may not end up being reality.

Once you’ve started to suss out some of the above, hopefully a picture of the right path will begin to emerge. I’ll also tell you that everyone warned me that little kids seem super time-consuming but tweens and teens take more time, and I thought to myself, “Oh ho ho, how ridiculous!” and of course it’s completely true. Tuck away in the back of your mind that needs and priorities change, and while working full-time might be the right choice for you at some point, maybe it won’t, and maybe it won’t at a time you never would’ve predicted. Again, pulling from my own experience: I work fewer hours now than I did when my kids were younger, by design. I log a lot of hours volunteering at their school (PTA, Band Boosters, etc.)—which, for the record, I never would’ve seen myself doing when they were younger—teaching a couple of teens to drive takes a ridiculous amount of time, touring colleges and such is much more easily done with a flexible schedule, and now that they’re almost ready to fly the coop, I just find myself wanting to maximize the remainder of their childhood here with us. My choices are not right for everyone, but I love that I have the freedom and flexibility to do this. Flexibility is the name of the game; you never want to make a decision based on “this is the only possible solution,” because then if it doesn’t turn out to be right, you’re going to feel stuck and unhappy.

Is this an answer to your question? Maybe. It’s all a series of hard choices. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have, and then you make a different decision if/when that first one is no longer right. Trust that you’ll figure it out.

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Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

  • MR

    My kids are 7 and 4. For me, the biggest thing was work culture and flexibility. Where I work, they totally understand and even expect that family is more important than work. There is never any question if I need to take time off for an assembly, field trip, or even volunteering in their classroom. Both their schools are very close to work, so it is easy for me to be able to pop over there if needed, without wasting a lot of time on travel. This is all great for when they are in school, but it was also great when they were younger. We actually had a nanny, because I wanted to be able to see my babies during the day. She brought my baby to see me, and I spent my lunch with them. It cut down the amount of time I had to pump, and it let me get a wonderful break with my baby. We would sit in the lobby (after I fed her) and people in my building would actually plan their lunch times based on when my kids were there, because they enjoyed seeing a baby during the day too (it is a very family friendly place to work). They came to visit me for over 4 years until my nanny moved away (her husband got transferred), at which point we switched to a conventional daycare for the youngest, and my oldest was in Kindergarten. The other thing about a nanny – they can do some chores for you, which let you spend more fun time with your kids. For example, my nanny did all of the kids laundry, and gave them baths. If my kid was invited to a birthday party, she could go to the store to get a gift for the child. If my child suddenly outgrew their pants, my nanny could go shopping for me. She made their lunches and got them ready in the morning. It really made my life SO much easier and allowed me to just spend quality time with them. So, even though I was working full time, I really felt like I was very involved and with my kids a lot when they were babies.

  • Sara B.

    Go get this book now: “I know how she does it” by Laura Vanderkam. Whether or not you meet the demographic criteria of the women she studies, you’re sure to learn a lot about how working women make it work, and some alternatives to (and potential reasons to avoid) the part-time route. Plus, I’m convinced her perspective is the most positive I’ve ever read when it comes to working women, while being honest about the challenges parenting holds. Seriously. Get the book. The audio version is good, too.

  • C

    I am a full time working parent who often puts in well over 40 hours/week.  A few things.  1.  You need a career that you are passionate about.  My brain and my passion are fulfilled at work.  2.  I have a flexible work schedule.  I often work my 8 hours, go home, spend time with kiddos and get back to work after their bedtime. I flex field trips, conferences, doctor’s appointments, etc. 3.  Take advantage of your PTO.  I have six weeks not including holidays.  I use it.  4.  Your budget should include things to save you time that can be better spent with your family.  For me, that means a cleaning lady every other week.  5.  Drop the guilt.  A happy mom is a good mom who leads her life by example.  And the time I spend with my kids is quality.  

    • Selina Luna

      I’m absolutely passionate about my job. I’m a teacher, though and that does NOT have flexible hours. I can bring home grading and I can plan lessons and write my pacing guide from home, and that’s all fine. My boyfriend is also a teacher and has the same set of issues that I have. We don’t have kids yet, but when we do, volunteering in their classroom won’t be an option. I may be able to do field trips when they’re in daycare, provided that the field trips happen when I’m on break. Doctor’s appointments will have to happen when I can schedule them without disrupting my classroom. All of this doesn’t mean I’m a bad person or that I’ll make a bad mom.

      • Of course it doesn’t! There’s no one right way. And while teachers’ schedules tend to be inflexible during school days, you end up with summers/breaks with your kids, which is awesome.

  • K

    FWIW – working full time does not necessarily mean I am “less present”. I know a few part time moms who spend more of their time clipping coupons, stressing about money and healthcare and hunting up sales than spending actual, quality time with their kids. I considered part time, work from home and just not working before I settled on staying in the work force full time. Here’s what I looked at: does a reduction in income actually equal more quality time with my child? Is it a good choice to put that financial responsibility on my partner? How will we manage healthcare, retirement saving and how will this affect my future earnings? For me, it was not a good time to stop working. I love my son, love being present for him, and the money that I earn makes it possible for him to attend a stellar preschool, play indoor soccer, cover healthcare and eventually help with college costs. While we could have trimmed out my income, ultimately it wasn’t a good move long term, and it would have had a big effect on my marriage and my own confidence in my role as not being dependent. And, now that our little one is approaching four, I can see how beneficial it’s been for me to stay in the workforce. For me (just my experience) it was better to take a longer view – not just what worked (or what I thought would work) when our son was 1 or 2, but what I thought would work given our financial goals for the next 5-10 years.

    • Excellent points, and I really don’t want this to devolve into who’s a “better” or “more present” parent at all—it’s about what works for each family, with no one choice being the ultimate “right one.”

  • michelle b

    I have 2 little ones, 4 years and 8 months, and work from home part-time doing the job I used to do full-time. For me, less hours at the computer and flexibility is key. I get projects on a contractual basis, so if I need to work during naps or in the evening, that’s okay, as long as I get the work done by the due date. Am I passionate about the work? Do I enjoy never going into an office and the lack of daily adult interaction? Nope. It pays very well and gives me flexibility, and those 2 things are the most important to me right now. I hope to add ‘passion’ into the work mix when my kids are in school full-time, but for now I get my passion from hanging with them more. I know I’m keeping my foot in the door professionally, and I actually make a salary that is larger than some of my friends who work full-time! Because of that, I’m confident of my ability to earn in the future, save for retirement, and we get to have/do lots of awesome stuff now!
    I think the big thing is do a hard pro/con list. What is a must and what can you deal with not having?

  • Allison G

    Much like Mir, I chose to stay at home. My strategy for keeping my options open include keeping in touch with my old co-workers, and increasing my skills at a favorite hobby, which I can parlay into part or full time work once my toddler starts school. I also put away a lot of money into savings when I worked, all of my salary for almost two years. It made a big difference for us when adjusting to one income, but it also acts as a safety net for me in case the unthinkable happens. I know my husband expects me to work when our child is old enough for school (and I would love to have something fulfilling to do then) so I’m trying to keep that timetable in mind. 

  • Spycegurl

    We have tried almost every possible permutation – dayhome when we had only one child, husband quit his job to stay home once we had two children. Then he tried working part-time from home and now that we have three we have a full-time nanny, husband works full-time and i work four days a week. Our nanny has been amazing and is working out so great – no more laundry or cleaning for me, plus someone to stay with the kids when they get sick etc. Having hubby stay-at-home was awesome too, but I’m super thankful to have him working now as my industry has taken a terrible nosedive. Working from home with very minimal childcare was crazy hard!
    Working four days a week has been amazing – i still miss them like crazy but our fridays off are extra wonderful as a result!

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  • Anon

    I work from home as a home daycare provider. I hate everything about it except the kids. Parents are disrespectful in many ways, there is not a lot of control of your destiny, other people do not respect what you do for a living. I do not get paid sick days or vacation days and it’s very difficult for me to schedule doctor visits for myself. BUT, I get to share my days with wonderful little people that I care about very much, I get to be home if my own kids need me–if they’re sick, or whatever. I get to be here to keep my home running–laundry, meals, etc. The pay is better than if I were working a minimum wage job somewhere although there are no benefits, I am not accruing retirement, I have no insurance benefits, etc. I really dislike a lot about it, but it’s the flexibility and hourly rate that keep me in it.

    • Anon

      I should say that my kids are 13 and 15 now but I have been doing this for many, many years.

  • Chris

    I would encourage families to consider not only their kids but also other obligations that are looming. I now have elderly parents that require my support for medical issues, trips to the doctor, help around the house – basically I have added two kids to my household responsibilities (though not my actual house yet). So taking the long view about how your family unit’s needs will change is essential in making these decisions. While the kids are gaining their independence I’ve got two more who will increasingly need me which has changed my career path. (not trying to high-jack this thread, just something else to consider in family planning).

  • Lucinda

    It really is different for everyone. I know many women who have chosen to stay home for a few years and then return to work once the kids are in school.  That seems to be a common path that works well for many.  However, that jump back into the work force can absolutely be overwhelming. 

    I ended up with chronic illness so I think I would have left my career eventually regardless.  Fortunately, my husband is self-employed and my skill set dovetails nicely with his so I spent 15 years working the business and almost replacing my previous salary for a time.  Now I work part time at a library and love it.  My kids are in middle school and it was the push I needed to give them more independence.

    My three sisters have all taken different paths.  One ran in-home daycare for a while after leaving her human resources job.  Now she works auto insurance.  Another left the mortgage industry and runs a tree farm.  A third is not working at all and they live on one salary.  

    Flexibility and constant reassessment are absolutely key to all this.  Great advice!

  • Kim too

    I think the important thing is to stay flexible and true to your own family’s needs.  I stayed home for many reasons, but in retrospect, I would’ve been happier working part time when they were babies. Those infant years were terribly hard on me, and I could have used the intellectual stimulation. structure, and self esteem that came from my job. And truth to tell, my girls might have done better with more structure, too.  Right now, we are much better off with me at home. My 6 and 9yos both have special needs, and giving them the support they need is my full time priority. And I drive a 16yo car because I need cleaners to keep me sane. 
    So, things change, and we need to be able to respond. What stays true, though, is what Mir says- there’s no right way to do this.  All of us muddle through, figuring it out the best we can.  Whatever happens, don’t fall into the mommy wars trap, and don’t let perceived judgement cloud your own thinking. 

  • Rachael

    You know, I struggled with this so much during all of my children’s early years. I had to work fulltime, and often only had two weeks of maternity leave. And soon after my next to last was born, I quit, and I went into business self-employed doing entertainment transcription from home. It was nice to actually stay home with my last. Seven years later, and I’m still doing transcription, and it’s worked out well for us. Working from home has its perks, but it also has downfalls. You have to decide what is best for you. This is what has worked best for us. I’ve been able to get to keep my career through a two-state move even, so that was an upside.

  • Amy

    Thanks for keeping this balanced and pointing out the answer really is different for each of us, its not all or nothing, and it changes over time.  I see too much all or nothing on this topic, and parents (mothers) feel there is one right answer. 

    I never considered walking away from my career, and that was something my husband and I discussed very openly before we had kids.  He was committed to being an involved Dad.  However a few months after going back to work I knew the travel structure of my consulting role would make me unhappy.  I looked at all the options and a work from home role in my firm fell into my lap at just the right time.  It was a step up career wise but gave me a lot more flexibility, but I’m fairly social so was a tough adjustment sometimes.  I do still travel and see clients in person and that’s good for me personally, but I also have more control.   My kids are 6 and 4 now and have always been in daycare/school within a mile of our house while I work from home.  My husband and I both travel but never at the same time.  We’ve designed our lives so one of us is always there and either of us can competently single parent.  Its taken some effort but I don’t regret it at all.  My kids have done great with two involved, loving, career-focused parents. I actually think we’ve done things for our kids that SAHMs I know “didn’t have time for”, just because those things were priorities for us. My husband and I both get a lot out of our careers and haven’t needed to give that up.  Things have shifted as the kids have gotten to school age and we’ve adapted.  Its not that we have everything perfect and easy all the time, but we do have the things are most important to us and that’s what matters.  

    I really think its important for new Moms to be clear on what they want and need and be open to different options they might not even be aware of.  We all need to carve our own path.