For reasons I can’t go into in detail about right now, I have had careers on my mind. Well, mine in particular, but those of others as well. My little sister is working toward her Ph.D. in political science, and is in the process of interviewing at universities throughout the country for that coveted professor job that will lead her to the bliss that is academic tenure. We’ve been talking about how it is a really, really good thing that she is doing this now, in her 20’s, before she has kids, and even before getting married. Right now she has the flexibility to just up and fly out of town for a 2 to 4 day interview (man!), without having to plan around anyone else. Although her boyfriend is part of the picture, they are in a place in life where she can search for a job wherever it suits her, and they will figure things out from there without having to worry, at least not at the moment, about things like the quality of the public schools, selling or buying a home, or planning around baby due dates. I realize that not every 20-something has the same kind of life — some of us got married and started our families a bit earlier than average, and some of us waited until our 30’s or beyond to start a hardcore career. But generally, when you do the research on the segment of the population that seems to struggle the most with work-life balance, it comes up in the context of career girls who started climbing the ladder in their mid-20’s, got married and had a baby or two along the way, and now find themselves in their early to mid-30’s with a young family, wondering how they are going to continue to burn the midnight oil at work at the same pace as always, while simultaneously caring for their fledglings back at the nest. (Hint: they won’t, at least not well.)

Knowing what I know now, would I have done anything differently? I’m really not sure. At 25 I was just graduating from law school, and there was no question in my mind that I would have a legal career of some kind. For the uninitiated, no matter what kind of lawyer you become, suffice to say that you will expected to put in long, difficult hours. And if you manage to stick with this kind of tough career path, you will probably end up like me: having kids in your early 30’s, expecting it to be challenging but not absolutely overwhelming, and then finding that it is not only absolutely overwhelming to raise young children while working in a demanding profession, but that it makes you stop and question everything you’ve ever done in your career up to that point, and whether you want to continue now that your world has been totally blown up by a tiny human being.

Well, maybe it’s not that extreme for all of us. But for many, having a little person in your life who is completely dependent on you (and also, if you’re lucky, your partner or coparent) makes you do a 180 and think … whoa … maybe this career is not the be-all, end-all of my life’s existence. Maybe I could cut back to part-time, or find something more family friendly. Maybe I can switch careers and find something with better hours, although it would probably pay less. Maybe we can afford to live on less. Maybe we can afford for me to stay home …

Ah, now I have your attention. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? In the U.S., we complain that maternity leave laws and policies are woefully inadequate, and bemoan the fact that so many women continue to be discriminated against in the workplace due to old-fashioned, sexist notions of the proper role of women and the feeling that mothers belong at home raising their children. Yet, when we have our own kids, we truly desire to spend more time with them, and while the only way to do that may be to rein in our careers for a while, instead, we simply shuffle on back on to work, mumbling something under our breath about “balance,” hoping that it will all just work out somehow.

Are you a thirty-something year old new mom who has found herself at a career crossroads? I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions:

1) After having kids, did you end up cutting back at work, in terms of either the number of hours you put in or the nature/quality of your work? Was this a conscious decision on your part, or did you just realize it was happening over time?

2) Were you treated differently after returning to work? Did your supervisors or coworkers have new or different expectations about you as an employee, and were those expectations consistent with your own?

3) Were you dead set against staying home or working part-time after having a baby, only to find yourself doing just that once the baby came? If you could go back and give some advice on this subject to your 25-year-old self, what would you say? Do you think your 25-year-old self would listen?

4) Do you feel guilt or confusion over simultaneously championing laws that protect working mothers, but at the same time find yourself falling into traditional gender roles in terms of your career and family? How do you reconcile the two–or is this wrong way to look at the issue?

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