Motherhood, Ambition, and Practical Tips for Achieving Flexibility
by Maya Uppaluru, guest contributor
At some point late in my pregnancy, I was getting coffee with a former boss. We talked about my career trajectory and the types of roles I was thinking of moving onto next. With two kids of his own, he said something that I’d heard many times before but had never taken seriously: “You know, just be aware that once you meet that kid of yours, your priorities may change.” I think I laughed and said something like, “Sure, I get it.”
Of course, I didn’t truly get it until my daughter was born.
I’ve always thought of myself as an ambitious person, and was determined that motherhood would not slow down my career. Women are inundated with messages about how we won’t be able to have it all: a fulfilling career, a loving marriage, and healthy, involved relationships with our children. Prior to and throughout my pregnancy, I was determined that those statistics would not apply to me. But something did change in me after her birth.
It started toward the end of my maternity leave. Looking at my three month old, she seemed much too small to be in daycare. I took additional unpaid leave in order to make it to four and a half months, and even then, it felt too soon. I was still sleeping in 2-3 hour time increments. I knew there was no way that I could go back to the schedule I had maintained before her arrival, which had often involved long hours and constant email accessibility. I started transitioning back to work two days a week, then three days.
For a variety of reasons, I ended up switching jobs that summer, moving to the private sector but on a significantly reduced hourly schedule. It was a somewhat risky move. I’d only ever worked in government, and the billable hour was a new phenomenon to me. But it has worked out so well in so many ways for me and my family. It’s allowed me to spend generally three to four hours with my daughter every day, from early daycare pick-up through playtime at home and then dinner and bedtime at 8pm. Sometimes I log into my email again after bedtime, but it’s almost always my choice to get caught up or just finalize a few things that were left hanging from the work day.
More than anything else, this flexibility has allowed me be truly present in my daughter’s first two years of life. I’m far from having figured everything out, but here are some things I’ve learned that could help those seeking a similar part-time or flexible arrangement.
Authentic communication with your boss and/or clients
Part of this is luck and part of this is choice. I am lucky that I have a boss who is also a working mother, who also enjoys spending time with her kids! We have been able to have authentic, honest conversations when things are messy in our households or when a child-related situation requires flexibility. Similarly, I am (concisely and cheerfully) honest with my clients - many of them also working mothers themselves - about setting boundaries so I can spend time with my daughter or even pump when off-site.
It’s possible that I’ve just been lucky, but I believe that calm, confident honesty about your family situation can help to normalize working parenthood for everyone. My honesty has not only been respected by my colleagues and clients, but also appreciated by those who have young children themselves. Authenticity, as well as setting realistic deadlines and delivering on those deadlines within the context of your personal boundaries, helps to engender a larger culture of trust.
Don’t try to be everything to everyone all at the same time
There have been a handful of particularly stressful days over the last year and half. The clear pattern is when I attempt to do everything related to motherhood and working, all in the very same moment.
The most disastrous of days were early on, when I tried to work from home when my daughter was sick. I’ve realized that a serious sick day means my husband or I should stay home and focus on our daughter. We’ve also taken the tag-team approach to sick days, with both of us working from home and trading off care-taking duties when the other needs to be on a call or get a deliverable sent out. Either option is much better than trying to do everything, if you can help it.
Be present where you are
Mindfulness is almost a cliche these days, but I didn’t actually understand the vital importance of this skill until having a baby. For the most part, and this is by no means a perfect science, I try to really be at work when I’m in the office, and be with my child and my husband when I’m at home. This mental and emotional compartmentalization takes discipline. And it doesn’t always work exactly as I’d like. But for the most part, it helps to make sure that the time I spend with family is really quality time.
At home, this means leaving my phone on silent, in a different room, or on a different floor of my house when I’m playing with my daughter, and turning off the TV after her bedtime so my husband and I can really catch up. At work, it means cutting out some of the internet browsing or office kitchen small talk that add up over time. Instead, I try to focus with laser-like intention on being as productive as possible in a condensed work day. Because I really love my work, being present, intellectually engaged and challenged in the office can also be a much-needed “break” from the stresses of parenting, in its own way.
Rethink self doubt
I’ve also occasionally been plagued by self-doubt. After investing time and money in my legal education and career, am I falling behind my other talented, hard-working, full-time peers? Will they be in line for promotions that will take me longer to achieve, because of my choice to work a reduced schedule?
The thing is, there is always someone else doing “more” or “better” than you. Social media takes the highlight reel from others’ lives and puts it in your face, so you constantly wonder if you’re measuring up.
In those moments of insecurity, I think about how my daughter looks at me. She doesn’t think I’m lacking because of my salary or title; to her, I am all she needs. I think about the afternoons we have spent together because of my choice (and ability) to be part-time, walking around our neighborhood or playing at home - moments that are filled with magic, hilarity, and a pure joy that I never experienced before becoming a mother. My daughter is my little teacher, showing me how to be content and live in the present, without regrets about what I did yesterday or anxieties about I should be doing tomorrow. I wouldn’t give up those lessons for anything.
Flexible or part-time schedules are not without their complications. Many mothers report that they end up working full-time hours anyway and get paid for part-time, leaving them feeling over-extended and frustrated. However, many have been able to find arrangements that work for them and their families. Some of it is luck and some of it is privilege - I recognize that not everyone can work part-time.
For those who can and want to, I think success with flexible work is also driven by self-awareness, open and honest communication, receptive employers and colleagues, boundary setting, and giving full attention to the task in front of you.
What’s been your experience if you moved to part-time work after child birth?
Maya Uppaluru is a health care attorney living in Washington DC with her husband and their (almost) 2 year old daughter. She has written on health care policy, motherhood, and parenting for publications including The Lily and Harvard Business Review.