How to Best Crack the Career/Parenting Balance Code
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.
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.
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.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.