What I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting: Confronting Societal Norms as a Working Parent

By: Nicole Shaver

About two years ago – 12 years into my career with a rapidly growing professional services firm – my husband Josh and I learned that we would be welcoming twins.

Over 10 years with West Monroe Partners, I have watched both women and men navigate the journey to becoming working parents. I talked to many of them. I read all the books. Indeed, I learned a lot. But despite all the resources and advice, not everything has gone as I expected. In particular, I didn’t expect some of my biggest struggles as a working parent to be around confronting societal norms and expectations and worrying about and responding to what others think — or what I think they may be thinking.

Let me explain.

I am a people person. I place high value on my relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. My career is very important to me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I could see myself as a parent. In fact, Josh and I weren’t sure that having children was the right path for us, but we decided we would let things happen the way they were meant to before we got too much older. I found it difficult to talk about the uncertainty and having to acknowledge that it was a decision to have kids. While societal norms are shifting, there is still an unspoken expectation that people want to be parents. I was nervous about there being so many unknowns that surround having children and knowing I wouldn’t always be “in control.” I knew it was possible Josh and I would not play “traditional roles” and wondered whether that would affect the kind of mom I would be.

Once we decided to have “a” child, the news of twins was a huge surprise. I was scared and nervous — not just about my new role as a parent, but also my career. There were so many questions: Will I know what to do? Can a working parent still be a good parent? What will happen to those relationships that are so important to me? Will my career ever be the same? What about Josh’s role? Would he be happy staying at home?

Confidence in your childcare arrangement is an important part of feeling comfortable resuming your career. We came to the decision that I would continue to work full time and Josh would stay at home — not a stereotypical arrangement, particularly in this profession.

Josh had no qualms taking on the role of stay-at-home dad, and our arrangement works for us. But it has caused tension in an unexpected way: I have found it stressful and challenging to talk about it. Specifically, I often find myself justifying or over-explaining why we made the choice we did because it “isn’t how most people do it.” I vividly recall one of my first days back at work. In a leadership team meeting, someone asked how we were handling childcare. I offered a long explanation of “why” Josh stays at home. While no one asked for that explanation, I felt I owed it to a group of male leaders because I assumed bias. This discussion made me particularly nervous — more so than the feeling of being out of the loop after having spent time away from work.

Along the way, I am learning how to balance supporting Josh with a demanding job that requires long hours, some travel, and a physical presence that I find critical to building and nurturing professional relationships. I work with a diverse group of firm leaders, and those relationships have been key to advancing my career. It is hard not to feel conflicted when I choose to stay late because there is a lot to do, because having “face time” seems expected, because I want to connect with colleagues at an after-work activity, or because I want to meet some girlfriends for dinner – while knowing that Josh has been at home all day with the kids. At the same time, it is hard to say no to these things that I used to not think twice about.

There are times when I feel fairly settled and others when I don’t feel like I have it together at all. I’ve slowly come to understand that’s okay. I also didn’t expect how quickly that can change. Changes come so fast with the kids. But our company is also growing and changing very fast. I need to adapt continuously to see what works for my family, my job, and my team.

Lastly, I didn’t expect that my own needs might change. I have always tended to try to be everything to everyone. I have a hard time saying “no” to others and never thought much about making time for myself. Now, more than ever, I find myself wanting some “Nicole” time, and time is hard to come by.

These are things I didn’t expect when I found out we were expecting, probably because societal and business norms make it hard to talk about them. As professionals, we tend to feel we must have our best side forward at all times. To do otherwise might project vulnerability or weakness. I think social media has exacerbated this — it encourages us to display our desired selves and not necessarily our true selves.

I continue to learn that it is okay to be an “open book” — to express my feelings and not worry about telling people what I think they expect to hear, even if it makes me uneasy. I am lucky to work for a company that values and puts its employees first. That has made it easier to have tough conversations and to find the support I need. I encourage people to share their points of view with their employers, even if it could be a difficult conversation. This has helped Josh and me to be successful and happy (although tired) parents through the ups and downs of this journey. It has also helped me continue to advance my career. And I hope it helps those who now look to me as a role model for being a successful working parent.​

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Nicole Shaver is the Director of Accounting at West Monroe Partners, a progressive business and technology consulting firm that partners with dynamic organizations to reimagine, build, and operate their businesses at peak performance.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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