Yep, Having Kids Will Hurt Your Career.

Aug 15, 2012 by

Every day, moms-to-be scour the blogosphere for confirmation that when they someday choose to become pregnant, have their babies, and go about the task of raising them while working in a professional career, they will go on to be fabulous parents and fabulous career women, and that although things may be a bit different, for the most part life will go on as usual.  So if you are one of those women and you have just stumbled upon this post, I am telling you right now that, in all likelihood, your career will suffer to some extent, on some level, due to your choice to have children.  Sorry.

There has been a lot of feminist and post-feminist discourse on this already, so I’ll give you the skinny version if you’re not already familiar with it.  The old-school feminists were the trailblazers who got us the tip of the iceberg — for example, laws protecting us from sex discrimination in the workplace and giving us job-protected maternity leave — and then told us we could go out and have our fabulous careers as well as our happy, thriving families.  We of Generation X were told by our parents that we could have it all.  Then we got to the workplace, had our own kids, and realized that it was not that simple.  Without engaging in a tired debate over the relative rights and privileges of Americans versus those of families in other parts of the world, suffice to say that our nation’s maternity/sick leave laws are pathetic, that the issue of women’s equality in the workplace runs deeper and with more complexity than a few pieces of legislation can adequately address, that parents are left to “figure it out” when it comes to balancing work and family needs, and that women are constantly held up to a double standard expecting them to be glowing, perfect mothers while simultaneously working long hours and making impossible sacrifices to climb to the top of their professional careers.

I got married when I was 29, and one year later, I had just bought a house and become pregnant.  Career-wise, I was in my third job since graduating law school at 25, partly due to trial and error, and partly due to lifestyle decisions I had made.  That moving around hurt me, because although I was gaining knowledge and experience, I was also hitting the reset button every time I made a move.  Consider that I’m a 2004 graduate, so in 2012 I am entering my ninth year of practice, and should be at the point where I’m either being considered for partner at a law firm, or making great strides in government or nonprofit work, or at least taking on something closer to management-level responsibilities.  I see trickles of that happening, and I do have moments of personal satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment.  But I’m also certain that my frequent job changes and two pregnancies — resulting in two births in less than two years and a combined 28 weeks of leave — have set me back in my workplace and in my career generally.  I simply don’t have the time to bill enough hours or pound the pavement for clients, two important factors in the partnership decision.  And a 4/5 schedule means I’m seen as doing 4/5 of the work I should be doing, rather than being seen as committed to my firm and choosing to stay there and contribute as best I can, rather than just quitting, which would require them to waste resources hiring and training a replacement.  When parents are supported, businesses are supported, at least in the long term, and as fiscally conservative as I can be from time to time, even I realize the inherent truth of that statement.

I guess I’m left with the next issue:  do I care?  Should I be upset about my situation, or should I just be thankful that I do challenging, interesting work, enjoy some level of professional respect, and have kids who are thriving in daycare and with whom I get to spend some nice quality time?  Is this the time to suck it up and accept that more money and prestige needs to be shelved while I run around after two little kids who need mommy to just be there for them sometimes, and not responding to emails or catching up on files from home?

A while ago, there was much buzz about Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! who also happens to be pregnant with her first child.  According to varying reports, Mayer has stated that she will either shorten her maternity leave to two weeks, or continue to work when her baby is born.  This statement ignited a firestorm over whether Mayer is a dedicated businesswoman or a naive mom-to-be, whether Yahoo! should be celebrated or criticized for its controversial choice, and whether this particular woman should be considered a role model for working moms everywhere or an example of exactly what not to do.  I don’t know that this debate is particularly relevant, because most of us are not CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.  Most of us are middle class, mid-level professionals, who have the capability to go quite far in our careers, or be entrepreneurs, or make waves in the nonprofit world, but will never lead giant corporations along with our teams of nannies, chefs and personal trainers to head up the homefront.  I’m not saying the debate is completely worthless, but I don’t think we should look to women like Mayer for guidance one way or the other.

I love my kids and I don’t resent them for making it difficult to bring my A-game at this particular moment in my career.  They have opened me up to a way of viewing the world that I most likely would never have developed in their absence.  And if I had an amazing career but no kids, I would walk around for the rest of my life with an enormous hole in my heart.  So don’t read this to mean that I’m bitter or losing sleep over where I could be right now and what I could have accomplished by now, without kids.

But to those “have-it-all” feminists … sorry ladies, you were so, so wrong.  But it’s ok.  I forgive you, and I’m looking ahead to a bright future, instead of dwelling on the misunderstandings of the past.

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Melanie Dunn tries her best to raise a family and nurture a marriage while working as a special education attorney, representing parents of children with disabilities. Her two daughters, a preschooler and a toddler, were born at home two years apart, and breastfed into toddlerhood. She is a mompreneur who loves discussing the intersection of the practice of law with the practice of parenting. Melanie also geeks out over difficult questions of gender roles, employment discrimination, and the challenges faced by parents in the workplace and in the public schools. She is a crunchy mom advocate for attachment parenting who nonetheless dresses up for work everyday.

24 Comments

  1. Jen Seiderer

    Thanks for this post, Melanie. I often feel anxiety about this, especially during performance review times at work. Before I had kids, I was always wanting to move up, have more responsibility, go into management, etc. Now? Not so much. Maybe when my kids go to school my desire to climb the ladder will come back, maybe not. I know it’s hurting me to just want to retain the status quo for a few years but that’s what’s best for us.

  2. ScienceMomArlene

    I 1/2 agree and 1/2 diagree with you.
    Yes, if I had to choose between children and a career I would have to choose children.I know a lot would be missing in my life without my daughter.

    But I think you can sometimes have it all. It really depends on what your career choose is and what you have your life set on. For me, when I was pregnant with my daughter I was working for a large company that was very family friendly. I had no problem taking time off work for doctors appointments and things like that. And during my pregnancy I was even given a promotion that I had been working on getting a year before I became pregnant. When it came close to my due date I was give 3 weeks off before my due date followed by 12 weeks after. All full pay. Once I returned I was right back working my normal job but was give plenty of time to pump when/if needed and no questions were asked when I had to take time off when my daughter was sick or had an appointment I had to take her too. I know not all companies are like this, but there are a few out there that do let woman have it all.

    • Melanie

      Arlene, that’s great for you. And I also realize that a lot of times, we need to define success for ourselves rather than constantly trying to achieve someone else’s idea of what it looks like. I think you have mentioned this before, but what industry/profession are you in? (Would it happen to be SCIENCE, lol?) So anyway … I guess the question now becomes, instead of some of us “having it all” and others not, on the whims of our employers … what do we do to make this the societal norm instead of the exception to the general rule?

      • ScienceMomArlene

        I do agree we need to define what our own success really is. There is a lot push out there to always get more and more but what if we are 100% satisfied with what we have? Why do we always have to have more? I would be hard for it to be the social norm but I think a big start would be looking at ourselves and realizing we have a great family and doing all we can do and still enjoying life. If it fits your family lifestyle its perfect for you.yes, many employers don’t see it this way and oh I wish they did.
        And yes I am in science. I work for one of the largest pharmacutical companies in the state doing clinical virology research. It is a demanding job but have always found flexibility when I need it. They really seem to understand people have families and they do matter.

  3. Katie Schunk

    Love this post! So true

  4. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” opened the floodgates for so many of us who struggle with the realities of work-life balance and the fantasies with which we (of a certain age) were raised. The 20-30 somethings I’ve been chatting with about this seem to have a different and far more realistic vision of “having it all” than that of my 40-something compadres. “Having it all” aside, your honest post and continuing conversations about and among women are invaluable. Thank you!

    *I work at The CT Forum in Hartford. We’re doing a Forum on “The State of Women 2012″ in October with Gloria Steinem, Ashley Judd and others. We’d welcome any input or ideas you or others have about “must include” topics for our discussion. Contact me directly if you’re interested. More info about the program at ctforum.org. Thanks!

  5. Michelle

    This is an excellent piece Melanie. You have so many great points including the fact that all the debate over the maternity leave of the CEO of yahoo is pretty much irrelvant for the rest of us. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I agree with Ruth above that I think “having it all” means something different to our generation – we’re moving away (I hope) from very unreasonable expectations that we can do and have everything. We can’t and that’s quite OK.

  6. erin jm

    I needed this post this week! I just gave my employeer notice that I need more time off. I have decided to work three days a week and spend the extra two days getting the house/life in order for the working three days. I have two kids and expecting my 3rd in December. I love them dearly and without reget. But, my heart aches for not being a “productive member” of the work force that I spent college tuition to do. I have always believed that I would be super mom. And with one that seemed to be the case. Now, it seems that my family needs me home more. I really enjoy working. I enjoy the satisfaction of a project done and a paycheck to deposit at the end of the week. But, I also want my children to know I love them, and that life is not the race we have created to get out the door each morning. Oh, but I love my job…. Oh, but I love my children…

    • Melanie

      It’s especially frustrating when we feel like we’re struggling in both aspects, not just in one or the other, isn’t? Most days I can make peace with it, but I feel exactly this way at times.

      • erin jm

        The idea of part time is still new- so hopng the same outcome. I was brought up being told I can do it all so it feels like a failure, not a blessing. But, my husband is super supportive and the teeny law office I work in is willing to work with me. Now, I have to learn how to handle my kids all day vs. simply schlep them to daycare! A whole other type of work!

  7. Melanie

    Ruth, thanks for stopping by and referencing the Slaughter article. I just read it and I think it is spot on. The generational difference is interesting. To some extent, there is just no replacing the wisdom of a woman in her 40′s–those brilliant Millenials may have a more realistic attitude about work-life balance, but at the same time, they don’t have the depth of experience that comes with age. But I think it’s also true that some accomplished women look back at the up-and-coming professional women, and tsk tsk them for not being committed enough, not having the right partner, not outsourcing our domestic lives for the sake of our careers, not sequencing the right way … all of the have-it-all myths mentioned in the article. She’s also right about how we should not look at the “genuine superwomen” as examples. That’s not to say that we can’t study them and take something of value from their experiences; just that it’s neither reasonable nor desirable for all of us to live those kinds of lives.

    We’ll be sure to pass along any input for the Forum. Sounds exciting! I would be curious to know Gloria Steinem’s thoughts on this discussion, being one of those trailblazers who is hopefully continuing the conversation with Gen X and Gen Y.

    • Thanks, Melanie. There’s no right answer for every woman, but hearing all perspectives can help women make choices that work for them at various stages of their lives. “The Feminine Mistake” by Leslie Bennetts is another interesting read about women and work-family-life balance. (I read and read and read, but have yet to achieve “balance” without heaping piles of guilt, self-doubt, etc. :) )

      Thanks also for sharing any feedback for The Forum – we appreciate it!

      • Melanie

        I have yet to read Leslie Bennetts … maybe I should finally get to it. I heard both positive and negative reviews of The Feminine Mistake, for all of the predictable reasons. My guess is that, while there is a lot of truth to her theory that being a SAHM will backfire in the end, in reality there are families who make this system work for them.

  8. Meredith

    This post is great this week, and spot on as i am getting ready and preparing my staff for my 2nd maternity leave and not knowing what i am going to do at the end of that leave. i love the hustle and bustle of my job and used to thrive in pushing my limits and working extra hours to get stuff done, but now i could take it or leave it, i want to be home with my daughter at the end of the day and i want it to be acceptable that i don’t have time to work at night anymore and i don’t want to be attached to my phone and made to check emails at night, because more or less i think since having my daughter i have just learned that this job is not my life anymore and that we all need that much needed break at the end of the day to just enjoy being with our family and being in the moment. Thank you for posting!

  9. vtnative

    Some people will agree and some will disagree, but the best thing about this post is the honestly that Melanie brings to the table. Well done!

  10. bernhardsonbunch

    As I job search, I am definitely finding this to be true. It’s so tough to feel so split on what I want and can do- on the one hand, there’s what I know I COULD do…but at what cost? I’m finding it really hard to balance what I want to do professionally with what I know I need to do for my boys.

  11. I love this article – I’m rejoining the work force and having my own woes about all of this – here’s to hoping for sanity and balance. I’ve just checked out the book The Joys of Much Too Much by Bonnie Fuller and I’m pretty excited to read it!

  12. This is a really great post Melanie and something I totally agree with. And Jen, like you, I find myself being ok with the status quo. Right now, I have no interest in the climbing the ladder. I’m happy to be fulfilled with the role I play and make it work both for my employer and my family. I do not want more responsibility right now. Unless a parent does not sleep and has a flexible partner/village to help raise the child, I really don’t think anyone can give 100% to both roles.

  13. I know that becoming a mom has hurt my career – my previous manager came out and said so! I just don’t know what to do about it. I was told recently by my current boss that I do a great job and I have a lot of potential that they’d like to develop – but it’d require more hours at the office, more travel, more of a “commitment” to the company.

    I’m an engineer, and I’m fortunate to earn a good income while only having to work a 40-45 hour week. I work in relatively comfortable surroundings and am mostly autonomous in my daily tasks. I can flextime or work from home to care for a sick kid (which is good because my husband cannot). The problem is that I feel so torn – that I SHOULD want to earn more since I’m the bigger breadwinner, but I just don’t WANT to. My husband and I are hoping to have a second child in 2013-2014ish. I know from experience that the second time around I’ll want to take my full 16 weeks of leave (I only took 10 with our daughter and regretted it immediately) and that when I return I will not be in a position mentally where I can handle a crazy workweek and lots of travel – not with a husband who also works full time.

    So I’m happy with what I’m doing now, even though it means I don’t earn as much money as I could. For me, the tradeoff wouldn’t be worth it. For this stage in my life I’m content to let my career be in a lower gear than it could be; someday when the kids are off at college and on their own, I’ll have the opportunity to shift it into a higher gear if I so choose. I have several “jobs” but my most important one is as a parent, and no professional achievement is worth screwing that up.

    • Melanie

      Isn’t it funny how commitment is defined by sheer number of hours spent at the office, even though we all know people who work around the clock and have absolutely no commitment to their jobs whatsoever? We should be looking at the quality of the efforts too, not just the quantity. It’s probably a bit different in engineering, but in law the billable hour is king and you are praised not for getting the job done in the least amount of time, but in spending the most amount of time getting the job done. Huh? Ok, admitttedly, especially in smaller firms like mine, the goal is always to get the job done fast … so you can quickly move on to the next project, and bill some more. I hope your employer begins to value your actual contributions, and not just the face time!

  14. Melanie: Great article! Balancing work and life is hard under the best of circumstances, and impossible for someone who believes that “having it all” means “doing it all at once.” I was in that later group and it almost drove me crazy.

    It wasn’t until I finished writing (and rewriting) the novel AT THE CORNER OF WALL AND SESAME that I finally understood that it is the lifestyle, not the person, that drives the stress we feel. I hope the next generation hears us loud and clear, and measures their success based on their happiness with their choices, not the length of their professional and personal resumes.

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