If you ask a new parent, they will all tell you that there are days that the meaning of success is getting out of the dressing gown before noon, and minimizing the times you have to change your clothes because of baby puke splattered all over them, before resorting to getting back into pyjamas before sundown. In fact, for many of us it is not just days, but weeks and months that take on this routine. Managing the level of chaos that’s inherent in starting a family is tough, even without taking a career into consideration - and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or has a nanny.
But decades of women before us fought for the chance to be both mothers and career women, and whilst there are still significant societal biases, it’s a path many of us choose. Indeed, starting a family alongside growing your career can actually make you a better boss along the way. Recent research has shown that women are the breadwinners in up to a third of households in Europe - a significant leap in recent years which reflects underlying changes in European society, from better provision for maternity leave to an increase in single parent households.
So, if you’re considering starting a family (or on your journey already), how do you ever achieve the elusive family/career balance? There is no single answer, and the debate about balance will rage on, but you can make a start on finding a solution that suits you with these following ideas.
1. Know Your Rights
If you’re considering starting a family, you should invest some time in learning a little about local labour law related to maternity and parenthood. As unsentimental as it may seem, the journey into becoming a family, is a revelation of aspects of employment law you’re not likely to have needed to know anything about beforehand.
Maternity provisions in the US are notoriously poor, with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act providing for only 12 weeks of unpaid leave after childbirth. However, individual states have brought in legislation in addition to this minimum, with 25 states being more generous, one way or another. Check out the situation in your state as soon as you can. In the UK, the legislation is somewhat more favourable to working parents.
Of course, companies can - and frequently do - offer maternity benefits that far exceed the minimum required by law, so if you’re still not impressed, then don’t panic just yet. Start with checking out your company policy, which should be set out in a handbook or contract.
Chances are you didn’t pay much attention to the company stance on maternity or parental leave when you signed up, so this is a good time to get familiar. Before you know it, you will be as clued up on this section of the handbook as you are on the holiday rules.
In an ideal world, this step will be one you take long before your plans to start a family have taken shape. Figure out if the business you’re in right now is the right place to be with a baby from the perspective of pay and benefits, while you have the time to make a change if at all possible.
2. Be Realistic
Once you have started your family, and are considering when and how to return to work, you might find that your views about what will work best for you have changed somewhat since your pre-baby self. Be kind to yourself and don’t feel that you have to stick to the ideas you had before the baby came along. Whether that means you decide to take longer off work - or actually decide that your planned lengthy maternity leave isn’t for you - you have to do what feels right at the time.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in terms of career development either. There is absolutely no reason why you cannot continue on the same trajectory as you were on, prior to leaving to have your family - but do not feel you have to if you don’t want to. It’s a point sadly missed that Sheryl Sandberg, in writing about women ’leaning in’ to their careers, to accelerate them, also describes that it’s OK sometimes to ’lean out’, and refocus for a while on things other than the aggressive pursuit of career advancement. You have time, and pushing too hard and ultimately crashing out will help nobody.
3. Ask For Help
The key to managing the practical juggle of family and career, is knowing who to ask for help. Have a network in your professional life who can help you out if you need them - your boss should be a key supporter here, and if that is a prickly relationship, then build the bonds you can with colleagues and your HR team. If you get stuck and can’t come into work, will be late, or have any other sort of emergency, the last thing you want is to be nervous about who to turn to for immediate support if you can’t simply leave your desk and walk out.
The same goes for your ’home’ life. It can be hard for young families to build and maintain the friendship bonds that make life so much more enjoyable - and also mean you have someone to rely on if you need a helping hand. Your partying days might have to be put on the back burner for a while, but your social life should not be - both for your own sanity and so you can find people local who could help, if your baby needs to be collected from nursery, or even if you simply can’t remember what fancy dress your kid is supposed to be coming into school in tomorrow.
4. Remember What is Important to You
Every working parent will have their fair share of horror stories. Learning too late that your baby has crayoned on your case notes or puked on your suit is par for the course. Throw in a few sleepless nights and you may find yourself wondering whether it is all worth it.
When it comes to jugging family and career, the practical juggling act is only one side. The emotional roller coaster is equally important, and can be just as much of a challenge on a day to day basis. It is really important to keep in mind what is important to you, and what drove you to return to work after starting a family in the first place. It might be the social interaction, it might be ambition to contribute and achieve in work, or it might be to be a role model to your kids. There will be times you doubt your own judgment, and having these reasons crystal clear before the crisis comes, can help you get through it.
For those of us who balance family and career, you will have days when you feel like the luckiest person on earth, combining the best of two pretty different worlds and ’having it all’. These days are almost always followed by periods when teething, tantrums and even teenage antics make for sleepless nights, which quite quickly make you wonder if trying to be both parent and employee is fated to end in disaster. It won’t make these moments any better, but believe me, that is normal too.
Even the best jugglers - especially when they’re trying something new - will find that things come crashing down around their ears every now and then. Roll with it as best you can, and you will find that juggling a career with starting a family is not only doable, but can make you happier and more focused both at home and at work.