You know you have reached Wise Crone status when your inbox regularly fills up with heartfelt emails from exhausted and guilt-ridden Working Moms desperately searching for work-life balance.
I’m genuinely touched by these notes; it’s hard to reach out for help—especially when you’re supposed to be the grown-up in the room. And though I always make an effort to respond fully and thoughtfully, there have just been too many emails recently, all asking more or less the same questions.
So I’ve decided it might serve everyone best for me to share a (slightly edited) reply that I wrote recently to a former colleague who asked how best to move ahead in her career after the arrival of her new baby. It covers most of what I like to tell younger women—the stuff I wish someone had told me when I had my kids.
Please feel free to share this post with someone you think might find it helpful…or to leave a question or comment!
Dear New Mom:
Congratulations on your wee bundle and thanks so much for your note. I’m flattered, frankly, that someone may think I got it right. But it must be said off the top that there is not one clear and fail-safe route for navigating this transition. It’s very much something you do by feel and instinct—and sometimes by luck.
So let me do my best to answer some of your questions. Keep in mind that I am only able to answer through MY lens, so take what I say with several grains—hell, buckets—of salt. It is like parenting: you read a million books; talk to a million friends; and then figure it out for yourself.
You say you “need” to push your career forward. The first thing I would ask is: Why? Do you need more money? Do you need more challenge? Is it something you think you “should” want?
Start with the answer to these questions. If it’s a matter of “should,” stop right there. Do NOT compare yourself to anyone else or their career path. If it’s something else—more money, more prestige, more challenge—then use that to shape your choices. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
If your goal really is to be a Director of Communications, what you need to be able to do is to go into an interview and give very clear and very specific examples (complete with hard analytics to prove your successes) from your past work life that show you know how to: manage complicated enterprise-wide projects with multiple stakeholders; approach communications planning strategically (i.e., not just tactically–let’s do a video! Let’s do a brochure! Let’s do a web site!); set baseline metrics to measure the success of your projects; juggle many fast-moving balls; work effectively with the executive level of administration; work effectively with media relations teams (which does not necessarily mean you have to do the work yourself); manage a budget; manage people; build teams across silos; deliver projects on time and on budget; build a network, internally and externally; understand the strategic application and tactics necessary to support a digital comms strategy; advocate for yourself and others on your team; think big-picture rather than just within your silo.
So: do I think you need an MBA? Nope. And I have very little regard for the so-called “professional” programs that churn out “masters” of questionable skills and talents. I honestly have not been impressed with the calibre of work I see from people who hold these “degrees”, and they certainly do not influence my desire to hire them. What I want is concrete examples from the list above. I do understand credential-creep is an issue these days, but honestly: I think these programs charge too much for too little. You will be busy enough working and raising your baby—don’t waste your time. You would do better to get active in a professional association (such as IABC or CPRS) or something similar, and learn from your peers while building your network.
I am going to answer your questions in order, so there may be some overlap in answers and some skipping back-and-forth. You ask: how did I balance motherhood with career? Well, I never stopped working. For one, back in the day, we only got 15 weeks (!) maternity leave, and if you added on your vacation, you maybe had 18 weeks. And you didn’t get a top-up. They didn’t make it easy for working moms in the ’80s. I went back to work when my daughter (now 29) was 19 weeks, and when my son (now 25) was just four months old. It was horrible, really horrible, but I had good family support and good daycare and I negotiated a four-day work week (and took a 20 per cent pay cut!) and that helped. (I also got a best-selling children’s book—Adam’s Daycare—out of the experience, but that’s another story!)
When my first-born was about 14 months old, I changed jobs. I, too, felt I “should” be climbing the career ladder and went back to journalism, putting in 14-hour-days and kissing my baby good morning while she slept…and good night while she slept.
I worked in a place that called last-minute editorial meetings at 5 pm—just before I had to leave for daycare pick-up. Increasingly I would look around that conference table and think, “Who here has a life that I could emulate? Who could mentor me?” And the answer was: No one.
I cried on the way in to work and I cried on the way home, feeling I wasn’t doing anything well. And during that time an older, wiser friend shared with me a piece of advice that I have shared a million times since: Pick one thing and do it well. And so I decided I would pick motherhood. I started looking around for women I knew who had appeared to get the work-life balance right—and I found many of them worked part-time in professional roles, often as freelancers or contractors. And I did what you are doing now: I met with them and picked their brains and built a plan that would work for me based on their guidance.
Their guidance was, in a nutshell: Have a dedicated office space and teach your children to respect it when you are in it. Work the second your kids are on the school bus and stop the minute they walk in the door. Pick up again, if necessary—and it is usually always necessary—when they are in bed. Be fully present for them when they are present.
Visit an accountant BEFORE you start out on your own to ensure you are claiming everything you can. Get disability insurance while you are young—it’s almost more important than life insurance. (I did and thank God too because when I was 37 I was injured and took three years to recover fully.) Build a network and tend it. Always have your next gig on the horizon. Bill quickly on net 30 terms. Set up a GST account if you expect to earn more than $30K a year. Start with an 18-month financial cushion. That’s about how long it will take to build your clientele. Set a monthly financial target. Save 1/3 of what you bill in a separate account for taxes.
Back then, there was still a real demand for freelance journalists, and I was a good writer (still am haha!) and realized that I could commit to earning a solid monthly income with freelance gigs. Then one thing led to another and I was writing annual reports and speeches and on and on. And then one day, someone for whom I had done freelance work at a local university called and said, “One of our best people won’t come back to us unless we let her job-share…would you be interested?” And yes, I was.
(For the record, I often questioned my decision to stay in the workplace, but I will tell you that when my husband left me at the age of 53 after 33 years of marriage, I was shattered by grief, yes. I was emotionally shattered—but I was not FINANCIALLY shattered, as so many of my friends in similar situations have found themselves. In fact, from the outside, everything looked pretty much normal. My living circumstances didn’t change. I still ate the same food, bought the same clothes, took the same vacations. I was financially solid and independent. I am not saying your marriage will end and in fact, I hope it will just get stronger and stronger. But in my case, the choice to always keep a toe in the world of work was a life-saver. Not all my friends have been so fortunate.)
I worked part-time for almost a decade and it was perfect. But then my kids were in their high school years and I felt ready to take on more of a challenge, so I made it known I was looking for a full-time opportunity at the same institution and was quickly given an expanded role. Four years later, I once again let my network know I was looking for a new position…this time at a director level. And someone I had met over lunch let me know about something coming up at The University of British Columbia—and here I am.
So the lesson here was, don’t try to control all the moving parts. Pick one thing and do it well, and then build your life around that one thing. When you go back to work, could you maybe negotiate a four-day week? Could you talk to HR about job-share opportunities? They’re out there. Are you and your husband in a situation where you could maybe risk consulting? Is there a big project at your current workplace that needs a project lead that could be your first client?
Assuming you stay, be strategic. Start looking around for those big meaty projects that need strong leadership and offer lots of growth opportunities so that you will build skills that you can speak to in future job interviews. Don’t get stuck in the tactical mire—that’s sure death for your goal of wanting to be a director. Anyone can be hired to do tactics. Strategic thinkers are harder to come by.
If you think there is a skills gap on your resume, start making friends with appropriately skilled colleagues in other parts of the organization and learn from them. You don’t need to know how to do what they do…you need to know WHAT they do and how they can support you—and you can support them—to do your jobs well. Ally with them, don’t fight them.
In a job interview, you could deflect from your lack of concrete experience by saying something along the lines of: “Communications is a large umbrella; marketing is a spoke; public relations is a spoke; digital media is a spoke; media relations is a spoke. A good communications director doesn’t necessarily need the precise skills necessary for each spoke to flourish, but she does need to know what makes strong spokes and how to support them.” Or something less forced, but you get the idea. IE: You don’t necessarily have to know HOW to parse Google Analytics…but you need to know WHAT analytics can do for you, how to use them, and whose job it is to get them for you.
Think of your current employer like a mid-size city with lots of opportunities for someone who is engaged and flexible. Sit down with [a colleague we both know] and talk to her about her career path. She has two diabetic kids, and decided to build her career around them and their unique needs. She has done a lot of interesting stuff, and she could do it anywhere, but your employer gives her a good paycheque, good benefits and a shitload of flexibility. She just learned to ask for what she needed.
It’s one of the other lessons I have learned: if you don’t ask for what you need/want, how the hell is anyone supposed to know? So if you aren’t miserable at work, and if you have a reasonable boss, have an honest conversation about where you’re at. See what comes of it. That will inform your next steps. (It will also tell you how good a boss you have. Never underestimate the gift of a great boss.)
Re: whether you need experience outside of your current workplace, you can get that many ways—through joining an association or volunteer work for example. What I look for on a resume is a clear upward trajectory (especially with women, I don’t expect them to jump around because they may be juggling kids, but I do expect to see upward movement if they have stayed put). It really messes with your pension to jump around. You’re still young, but at some point, do pay attention to your pension planning. Even when I was self-employed all those years, I saved for my retirement through RRSPs.
Ok, that’s enough for one go, and I am happy to expand on any of this if you like. Please do not hesitate to ask. Remember, this is all just my opinion—your results may vary! Good for you for asking these tough questions. I know you will find the right path across the river, one stepping stone and a time…
All my best,