Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with a lovely young executive at a well-known organization about how to manage "motherhood in the workforce." She had discovered after the birth of her second child, that balancing work and parenting was not as easy as she thought it was going to be, and was seeking wide perspectives on working vs. staying home.
She felt the pull to stay with her kids full time, but struggled with the finances, loss of professional mobility and trying on the identity of a "stay at home mom." In my experience, most people do not particularly want to "stay at home" for 18 years. It is nice to work, make money, feel productive, and receive recognition for your efforts. No one promotes you to "Vice President of Mom." No one gives you a new car or a bonus vacation to Cancun. Staying home can be boring, monotonous, demoralizing and exhausting. It can also be the most rewarding era of your life. How to have the best of both worlds?
This dilemma is well worn for women, and is a relatively new existential crisis for men, who may want to curb their career and stay home. Let's face it; having kids in the modern day requires some sort of adult to be at home for nearly two decades. Either a parent or grandparent covers the home base, or a third party is paid. It is really that simple, and yet impossibly complicated.
When I first became a parent, it was absolutely inconceivable to even imagine the finish line of my kids growing up, going to college and being adults. I could hardly manage the schedule for the next week, as each stage held it's own consuming preoccupations.
It is precisely because of these myopic and relentless demands of the RIGHT NOW, moments of parenting, it is so hard to create any sort of game plan to anticipate when it is important to stay home and when it is ok to kick ass at work.
As couples become parents, and particularly after two kids or more come along, inevitably the moment arrives when the P&L sheet of the economic checks and balances of both parents working comes into play. For many couples, the costs of both parents out of the house is actually a negative sum game, and it is just easier, cheaper and more sane to keep one parent at home. For others, even after taxes, gas, grown up clothes, babysitters, extra wine and therapists -- financially there is no other choice.
I have been a parent for 20 years now. I have my relay team crossing the finish for the next seven years until the last of them graduate high school. During my journey, I had two kids with one husband, got divorced, was a single mom, got remarried and then had unexpected twins. I had no idea what the finish line would look like as the day-to-day demands of parenting took all of my creative energy. Through the years I worked, started my own businesses, ran a board, stayed home, tried to put on the professional gas -- and sometimes had to slam on the brakes so hard the airbags deployed and the world came to a crashing halt.
The decision of how to juggle work and home can be agonizing. There are elements of guilt on both sides. Those who return to work feel guilty they are missing out, or should stay home for their child's enrichment, and those who stay at home can feel infantilized or discounted professionally. Rarely do we escape the ebbs and flows.
As I look back on the spectrum of raising kids, I see a distinct pattern that may help create an algorithm of when to put on the gas professionally, and when to tap or slam the breaks. It is a great formula for an individual to explore, or for couples to layer together. In my experience, the twenty-ish years of raising kids can be broken into three distinct blocks of years. I call these stages: 5-10-5. My advice for each: Brake, Gas, Break.
1st Five Years: 0-5, Brake. (As in Put On the Brakes)
The first five years are completely consuming. The number of changes in such a short time is staggering. In rapid succession a couple moves from a preggo belly to birth, a helpless swaddled newborn, a pink cheeked teething baby in a bucket car seat, a roaming toddler trashing every room incessantly, a pre-school pumpkin pie, and a triumphant kindergartener going on the bus.
These years can be expensive in child care costs, requiring a special someone to manage not only the needs of the baby, but the quirks of the new parents who are dealing with their own issues becoming parents. I recommend finding time in the professional career of one or both parents to put on the brakes. The guilt of missing these years can be searing, and if one or the other can grab a part time gig from home and hold down the chaos, it will be well worth it.
Second 10 Years: Age 5-15, Floor it (As in Step on the Gas)
I believe the elementary/middle school age is truly the highway cruise control years in the grand scheme of things. During this decade, life is time consuming for sure, but predictably so. Kids are settled in the routine of school, tend to still love their mommy and daddy, and are content to have "play dates" with friends and the occasional soccer team or gymnastics class. I do NOT go for the craziness during these years of booking the kids into every single class, team or experience known to man. That is the recipe for ADD, anxiety and possible divorce, as it tips any sort of hope for balance out the window, and creates little time for anyone to recharge.
These years, kids adore young adults, and it is an awesome window to spend more time in the professional career. Maybe open up the spare bedroom to host a foreign exchange student to join the family and help out, or develop a network of local high school or college babysitters who are happy to color, play pig on the basketball court, read books and go for frozen yogurt.
If ever there are years to step on the gas of your career -- this is it. These 10 years can build the wealth you need to prepare for college and start socking away a retirement fund. If the kids have a routine in place, they are not as affected by mom and dad being at work all day, and other adults can have a wonderful enriching impact on them.
Final Five Years: Age 15-20, Give Yourself a BREAK
Once your kids hit high school and early college age, be prepared for the shit to completely hit the fan. Get your parachute straps checked once, twice and then check them again. High school is a WHOLE NEW BALLGAME. Your predictable, lovely children who may have started driving you crazy as "tweens" now give you a level of anxiety you never knew was possible -- and will leave you pining away for those sleepless nights of the newborn years you thought were so hard.
Not only is high school tough because kids have a zillion hours of homework, are expected to excel in ALL subjects, take 18 AP exams, lead a charity non-profit, be the captain of a sport and the student council president -- I will tell you a secret; they are all still dumb asses. Just like we were. They are like BBQ chicken on the grill -- they may look fully cooked on the outside, but are still raw in the middle.
Teenagers and toddlers are exactly the same. They are unable to understand the consequences of their actions, and even the best and most risk averse kids will be faced with alcohol, drugs, sex, cyber bullying and managing lots and lots of stress without much practice.
I remember when I was in the coasting years watching several older colleagues of mine at the peak of their careers step out of the workforce when their kids were in their final years of high school. It was a complete mystery to me at the time. I could not comprehend why anyone would want to be home when they had kids who were driving.
Now I know.
These final five years of parenting is a good time to indeed, take some time off and give yourself and your not-quite-grown up's a BREAK. They need you, you need them, and someone has to hold the umbrella up.
Now, how does one devise a career to cruise along until kids show up, and then initiate the 5-10-5 plan?
That, my dear, is the challenge we all need to solve together.