Careers, Motherhood & Being Thirty-Something

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?

17 thoughts on “Careers, Motherhood & Being Thirty-Something

  1. 1. I cut back on caring so much about my work once I had kids. This was not a conscious decision, I just found over time that I didn’t care as much. I’m not talking about amount or quality of work — that was still as high as ever — but I was willing to let things go that I wouldn’t let go before, stuff like having to be right or having to get my way. I would push back a little bit and then say to myself, “Eh, whatever. I get paid the same either way. If the powers-that-be want me to do it that way, I’ll do it that way even if I disagree. I’ve made myself heard and now I’ll stop and follow orders. I’m going to save my energy for my family, not fighting Corporate America.”

    2. I don’t think I was treated differently. I’d already moved into a position that didn’t require much overtime and my schedule was already fairly flexible. I found that I had to defend myself more against misperceptions about being a work-at-home mama rather than just being a mama at all.

    3. I always thought I would work full-time after I had kids. It has surprised me how much I would love to be a sAHM, at least while my kids are little. I never thought I would want to do that. It’s not an option right now, though, so I try not to dwell on it.

    4. I don’t think you have to reconcile the two. Champion the rights of women who choose to work outside of the home. Champion the rights of women who choose not to work outside of the Champion everything in between, every possible combination that allows you to maintain your sanity and do the best by your children (however YOU define “your best.”)


    1. Thanks Jen. So maybe, in response to the comments everyone has on item #4, I should clarify something. Not that the overall discussion isn’t important, but I was looking at it more like this: currently, it is pretty much illegal to fire an employee if the reason for firing her is because she’s pregnant. But let’s say, completely hypothetically, that this pregnant employee starts failing to meet deadlines. Let’s say she says it is because of the pregnancy — forgetfulness, foggy-headedness, running to the bathroom to throw up too much, etc. On the one hand, public policy (and perhaps the law, depending on interpretation) says that the employer must do its best to accommodate these temporary setbacks and allow her to continue her employment while also allowing the workplace to continue functioning and the business to increase its bottom line. I guess, if in theory, pregnant women like this don’t do a great job, why is it public policy to protect her job, when another, non-pregnant employee in her scenario could just be fired? I’m playing devil’s advocate here — I’m certainly not saying we should return to the bad old days when pregnancy was a legal basis for firing an employee, regardless of whether a performance issue was real or perceived. But I do sometimes wonder about how we have all these protections, yet the reality may be that the protections give some pregnant women the ability to purposely slack off a bit at work and know that they will be able to get away with it. I know, I know, terrible thought, right? But these are the things that I wonder about … how do you practically distinguish between a reasonable accommodation and an unreasonable burden upon the business?


      1. Yikes. “Reasonable accommodation” is a slippery slope and is highly subjective. To me, it is reasonable to accommodate a pregnant woman who is somewhat off her game if her performance is not egregiously bad. Even if it was, it’s for at most nine months, possibly not even that long because many of us feel good in the second trimester. But that’s just my opinion and my employer may or may not agree. I’m trying to wrap my brain around “reasonable accommodations” right now regarding my son’s life-threatening food allergy. How much can I ask the school to accommodate him? What about PTO functions, dances, field trips, etc.? I don’t know yet. I’m not sure if you can legislate or define this any further. If the law says “reasonable accommodation,” it’s up the employer/school/whatever to determine what they think is reasonable. Then it’s up to the pregnant employee/parent/whomever to decide whether they agree with that definition of reasonable and if not, pursue increasing levels of escalation (legal remedies or otherwise) until they are satisfied. Yes, this may mean more lawsuits, but I for one am okay with the legal system being used in this way. To me, this type of thing would not fall into the bucket of “nuisance lawsuits” or anything.


      2. LOL! I am laughing at myself here, because I’m the one who started down this slippery slope by using “reasonble accommodation” which has an actual basis in law — not the laws concerning maternity leave, but the ones concerning disabilities of employees and yes, students, in the case of your son’s food allergies. If you have real questions along those lines, let’s have an off the record conversation next time I see you. Under a federal law referred to as “Section 504” and possibly others, you have the right to demand that the school district take certain measures (and yes, “reasonable” ones in light of all the circumstances) to prevent your son from having a life-threatening allergic reaction while at school or at school-sponsored activities such as field trips. At least in the food allergy context, there is a ton of case law on this, especially in schools.


  2. Wow! Such an important post, Melanie! ( I think I say that about all your posts!) Really, really good discussion ~ we NEED to talk about such things. ♥


  3. oops, Nursing while typing and pressed send too soon. Go figure.
    4. I agree completely with Randi. Choices. We all want women to have choices. Not every woman feels the same about parenting, working, you name it. And just like anything else, some people are better than others at balancing everything, doing it all, leaving some work undone or just knowing a grandparent, trusted caregiver, or partner is taking care of the kids while they pursue their work. That wasn’t my story, but I’ll get to that.
    3. My 25 year old self had no idea at all what it would feel like to have her own child (though she thought she did) and would not listen to her mother, so I’m assuming she wouldn’t listen to me either. But I’m not sure I would have wanted to know back then either. I’m kind of glad I got a chance to give my work my all for a while before having kids.
    1 &2 combined….Well, I”m a teacher…one of those jobs that some people consider to be great when you have kids, great hours, etc. Well, not the way I did it and for me to be happy and successful doing it, it just wouldn’t be like that. I know a few women who I think qualify for some or all of what I described above next to number 2, and are able to teach full time and parent fairly blissfully. For me, I was going to be miserable trying to do it all, a fact which, unfortunately, I did not realize until after my first child was born. I finally felt I had the hang of the crazy career I’d chosen when I had my daughter. The plan was to take about 9 months off and then go back to work. My dad had just retired and would watch the baby for me at my home. Sounds perfect, right? Well, as time rolled around for me to go back to work, I just couldn’t stomach the thought of it. The money would be needed and I didn’t know what else I could do but I Just. Couldn’t. Do it. I couldn’t go back to staying late (often til 8 or 9 at night) and I certainly wasn’t going to be able to get my work done at home unless I holed myself in another room or did it after she went to bed. The latter seemed like the only possible option…but one that would leave me with little to no sleep and unable to do a good job teaching or parenting. Thankfully, it worked out miraculously that I was able to go back to my school part time. This brought/ brings in a little money (though admittedly not enough) and got me out of the house, doing a little bit of what I love. (And as a bonus, I still get to watch my former students growing up). As for question number two…my principal introduces me to people as a stay at home mom. It’s funny, since I’m obviously at work when she says that. The truth is I never know how to introduce myself, as a former teacher, a teacher, whatever. My career is so much a part of my identity and now it’s been several years since I’ve done it for real. I’m not sure when I want to go back to the real deal, since I’ll want to be around for volunteering/ spying on my kids and their teachers, school plays, etc…and yet I genuinely miss it (and could really use the money). I don’t think there’s any way to know ahead of time how you’ll feel parenting until you find yourself doing it. Meanwhile, if you figure out a meaningful and lucrative career that doesn’t require lots of take home hours or emotional exhaustion, please let me know so I can pursue it until I feel that I can successfully teach and parent. It’s something I spend plenty of time considering, but haven’t figured out yet. Thanks for your post!


    1. Hi Steph 🙂 … Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I can’t believe your principal introduces you that way. I mean, you are right there, at work … is she trying to imply that you are not really working unless you’re working full-time? Sheesh. Anyway, I hear you on figuring out this meaningful and lucrative career thing. I think you also face the issue, which I think you alluded to, of others assuming that teaching is this “easy” job that offers a lot of flexibility and plenty of time with the kids. You have summers off, right! But forget about correcting papers all weekend, planning lessons in advance, using your own time and resources to make sure the kids get what they need because the school/district itself is not going to be able to do so without that extra effort … so my hat is off to you. And finally, yep, at 25 I was truly clueless. I mean, that’s the only way any of us can be until we have our own kids. Even those of us who took care of kids as teenagers or work in a school or daycare still have no idea what it’s like when it’s our own.


  4. GGood luck. Returme to work after 8 weeks and missed so much. Like you, I have some flexibility at work, a non-profit agency, and it makes the balance earisr. It is sitill a struggle with sick days, school breaks, volunteer rrequests in class during datime hours.


    1. I have wondered about the non-profit work environment. I think a lot of us assume that it is an easy, family-friendly work place, but maybe it is just the opposite … you are all working so hard on whatever the organization’s mission is, with a limited budget, probably somewhat understaffed, so I imagine that could cause long hours and a good deal of stress. But at the same time, I can see it being flexible like you say. I think one issue is that flexible does not always mean that you have plenty of time for everything you need to do in a week. So while you can shift around your working hours or the time you need to be in the office, you end up just working more over the weekends or at odd hours.


      1. It depends so much on the agency. You are right that flexibility definitely doesn’t mean that you have time for everything, because you might have to work later the next day or on the weekend. I’m blessed to work for a non-profit agency that is incredibly supportive of family obligations and has a 35 hour work week, with good time off and benefits. Though it can be hard to limit myself to those hours sometimes, I recognize that any pressure I feel is internal.


      2. Employer support truly makes a difference. And if they say “35 hours,” I presume for you that means literally 35, not, “come in the office for 35 hours but then work an extra 15 hours at home on top of that.”


  5. As a former 30-something new mom, my answers are:

    1. Yes, I cut back deliberately. Felt too guilty to return to work so stayed home for 11 months. Not good for me mentally or financially. Then worked part time — 3 half-days a week to start, moving up to 3 full days, until younger son was in kindergarten (10 years all together). Financial needs once again brought me back to full-time work. The 3 days work/2 days home was a good balance, for the most part. Wish I could still afford to do it.
    2. I did not return to my former employer. I subcontracted as a lawyer and helped in husband’s business on the side, so there were no real expectations of me other than that the work get done. However, I remember discovering that the main difference between working 25 hours and 40 hours is the shmooze factor: part-timers can’t spare the time. People would try to engage me in idle chitchat while I was up against a daycare deadline and had to dash. So if you work part-time, you’re probably doing the same amount of work — you’re just not hearing all the office gossip (which is also important, in terms of feeling connected, but surprisingly time-consuming).
    3. I would say to my 25-year-old self: RELAX and don’t be so hard on yourself. Do what you want to do (if you can afford it) & what is best for your family, and who cares what anyone else thinks. Also, GET THERAPY. My 25-year-old self did get therapy and did do what she wanted to do in terms of work hours, but did not relax and still hasn’t. I did not have lofty career goals, though — just wanted to be able to use my brain for something interesting.
    4. CHOICE. It’s all about the right to have choices. We want all women to have those choices, not just the ones who make a lot of money, so that’s why we champion those laws. No guilt about that.
    As for gender roles at home, that’s different. You have to engage your partner in the process and never give up. Don’t expect him.her to KNOW what you think the baby wants. You can say, “Oh it sounds to me like the baby is hungry. Will you give her this bottle and I’ll do the next one?” Remain silent if Partner dresses child peculiarly. No one really cares, unless it’s picture day at school! Develop patience because your pace is not the Partner’s pace. So if s/he can listen to a baby cry for 5 minutes before being moved to act, but you can stand only 2 minutes, then you must either learn to adapt to the 5 minutes or do it yourself. HOWEVER, do NOT say, “Oh never mind, I’ll do it myself.” That’s discouraging the very thing you want Partner to do. His/her way will be different from yours, but that’s ok. Keep your eyes on the goal: FUNGIBILITY. You want your child to seek out either parent to wipe her nose, not just mom.

    Look for lots of other opportunities to show your child that Mommy can do anything Daddy does. Your employment is only one facet of the picture. Have her watch you unclog the drain or fix things around the house. You’re doing it anyway — you simply need to make sure she notices. For example, my sons have no inkling that moms were once the traditional cooks in the family. They saw both parents cooking.

    As a lawyer, working somewhere other than a demanding law firm can ease your pressure a lot. I work for a public interest firm that is very family-friendly, offers lots of vacation time and is unionized. When I started there, my kids were 5 and 11, and over the years they had various urgent and/or chronic needs. I got total understanding and support from my employer (I did a lot of work at home) as long as I didn’t abuse the situation.

    Here’s something we ought to push for: doctors’ and dentists’ offices with working-parent-friendly hours. And what’s with the damn school plays? I would often drive 45 minutes at top speed so I would be on time to hear my son say his ONE LINE, then drive 45 minutes back to work. Tell the schools no more matinees!


    1. Thanks for this comment Randi. I was struck by what you said about just wanting to use your brain for something interesting, rather than having lofty career goals. About a year ago, another lawyer I met who was probably in her late 40’s or early 50’s, with teenagers at home, said the same thing to me. She was returning to work part-time after a long stint as a SAHM, which had followed making partner at her old firm. She told me she no longer cared about partnership or the need to be an important person with an important title (as judged by the rest of the world), and that she only wanted to do interesting work. With small children in tow, or maybe just because I was headed this way anyway, I now feel the same. I want to do something important, but important in the sense that it has a lasting positive impact on others, or comports with my personal mission or values, not because of the title or prestige that may or may not go along with it. And it would be nice for the work to be interesting and challenging too, intellectually — not working insanely hard for the sake of someone else’s bottom line, but not so routine and simple that anyone could do it with little care or effort. As for the partner contributions, I’m lucky enough to have a heavily contributing partner … actually, I really do think he does more than I do around the house and with the kids, especially in the evenings when I tend not to be around!


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