Planning for a Career and Children: Work Flexibility May Be the Answer

Career and family planning

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Recently I spoke with *Heather, a young professional who has had a successful career as an attorney. Heather is at a crossroads in her life: she will soon be moving out-of-state for her husband’s job, they are thinking about starting a family, and she is contemplating a career change.

Often women who are planning for a family (whether this means just thinking about it or putting the wheels in motion) begin to carefully scrutinize how their career will fit with children. What will that actually look like? How will it work? Are there other working parents in the office and how do they manage?

Career and Family Planning

Up to this point in her career, Heather’s legal jobs have required long hours and lacked flexibility. She wondered if legal work with 9 to 5 hours even existed. In addition, she felt she would prefer the job to incorporate flexibility, perhaps with the option to work part-time down the road. Would this be feasible? Would she need to change careers altogether?

It used to be that women who wanted to continue working after having children had to either be all in at 180 miles per hour, or step off the track and leave the workplace. In sociologist Pamela Stone’s book, Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, she reports that many of the accomplished mothers in her study felt they had no other choice once they had children but to leave work. In other words, they were pushed out due to rigid workplace environments.

Flexibility Doesn’t Mean Leaning Out

Thankfully today there are more flexible work options available, providing that middle ground between 0 and 180 mph. However, some employees hesitate to take on such roles. They fear they will be stigmatized as uncommitted workers and penalized for pursuing such paths (i.e., the “flexibility stigma”). The truth is that working a flexible schedule does not necessarily mean the employee wants to downshift her career, lean out, or veer off the advancement track.

When continuing to climb the career ladder is desired, individuals should focus on finding organizations that encourage flexible arrangements for all employees. In addition, these companies would ideally support flexible workers with career advancement opportunities. These are the organizations that embrace a true flexible workplace culture, not just pay lip service to it.

A perfect example of this strategy is Elizabeth Zeigler’s article in Fast Company, How I Became CEO after Starting as a Flextime Employee. In 2001 (when flexible work was nascent), Elizabeth searched for a company and boss who would allow her to work part-time and give her the opportunity to still grow her career. Sixteen years later the same consulting firm appointed her to CEO.

You can also read more about organizations that have been recognized for their work-life efforts in this post: Lists of Best Companies for Flexible Work.

You Can Pause Your Career

Some women may not want to continue on the career fast track once they have children (or they were never on this path in the first place). They seek flexible work as a way to slow down or “pause” their careers. This allows them to keep a foot in the workplace door, continue building their job-related skills, and spend more time at home. But even in this case, women can still return to high-powered jobs later on and climb to the top, if they so desire.

In her book—Work, Pause, Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood without Killing Your Career—Lisen Stromberg highlights one group she researched, the “Cruisers,” or those who downshift their careers for some time. For example, she profiles Debbie Lovich, a partner at Boston Consulting Group. When Debbie’s daughters reached middle school, she felt she needed to be around more. Thus she took on an administrative role at the firm that allowed her to work 9 to 5. Once her daughters were older, she ramped up again to work as a partner.

Flexibility Exists Even in Unexpected Fields

As an attorney with longer work hours, Heather wondered if she needed to leave her industry altogether in order to find a flexible arrangement. She also mentioned that she felt dissatisfied with her current career path. Although the legal field is notorious for its more traditional, face-time culture, there are pioneering employers even in these types of industries.

We discussed exploring two potential options. First, Heather could look for another type of work in law that may be more flexible and enjoyable. She could pursue flexible work in her field by checking out websites promoting such roles, including FlexJobs.com (view additional sites in this post: Organizations that Help Individuals Find Flexible Work).

If Heather is unable to find another legal path that fits her goals, her second option is to consider interesting career paths outside of law that tend to be more flexible. This route may take more time to figure out. She could start by reviewing reports of the most flexible industries (see FlexJob’s top 24 flexible career fields). In addition, she can browse flexible job postings as mentioned above to view the types of positions that are posted in each field.

The good news for Heather and other future parents is that there are more flexible work options today than in years past. Some of these opportunities even exist in that muddled middle gray area, falling between a full throttle speed and completely jumping off the career track. The bigger hurdle just might be figuring out what you want or need in terms of work, identifying where that ideal is available, and then getting your foot in the door.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Readers: How are you planning for children and your career?

Be sure to join Women, Work, and Life’s Facebook page where I discuss strategies for better life balance and slow living, in addition to flexible work, returning to work, and career change. If you are not on Facebook, you can follow me on Twitter @EmilySeamone. Also, sign-up for my newsletter to keep on top of the blog series as well as other posts and information. I look forward to seeing you in all these places!

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