And did my career go down the toilet? Actually, no it didn’t.
While the motherhood penalty is real and affects women in different ways, for me personally having kids before 30 has boosted my career. Many people have written about the fantastic ‘soft’ skills working mothers bring to the workplace (like time management and people management) but I found a few more unexpected benefits that i’ve outlined below.
These are my experiences only and I appreciate that no new parent’s experiences are the same. Nor do we all have support available (both at home and at work) that enable a career boost after having kids.
Network of mums and dads
I now have a much broader network of amazing friends, colleagues and clients who are also parents of young children. Because I had my kids a bit earlier, many of these parents are 5 to 10 years further ahead of me in their careers and experiences. This has given me a broad network of informal mentors and sponsors to assist me with my career (and who also get the whole working parent thing) and open my mind to new skills and perspectives.
Babies can be great ice breakers
Take your baby to an event or to work and you will have no shortage of people wanting to talk to you. And guess who will seek you out like a heat seeking missile? Women with older or grown up kids – that is, women at the peak of their careers. And when they are happily snuggling your baby, there is your opportunity to drop in your “I have been meaning to ask you….”
People assume I am more experienced
Have you ever walked into a meeting room and your (white, middle-aged male) client gives you a mildly derisive look when they realise that your (white, middle-aged male) boss won’t be attending? It is so frustrating not to be taken seriously when you look young – and female to boot. Drop in the pre-meeting small talk that you have a toddler and people routinely assume you are at least 5 years older (or perhaps it is just those extra bags around your eyes).
It is so easy to get caught up in your day-to-day work of your job that you can’t always take the necessary step back to think about your broader career goals and develop the other skills that are essential for leadership. Clearly, you don’t need to have a baby to take time off work, but there may be an opportunity to take advantage of being on parental leave to strategically broaden your network, skills and experiences. You can, for example:
- Attend that conference you have always been interested in (but which has always been too difficult to attend when you were working full time) – and unapologetically take your baby (if the organisers have an issue with your plus one, it’s not worth attending).
- Invest in your professional and personal networks – such as making an effort to get to know new mum friends, be a mentor, and get regular coffees with friends and colleagues
- Pick up a related side project – I joined the board of a not-for-profit during parental leave
- Learn! – exercise your intellect by reading widely, taking online courses and discovering new podcasts
Leverage your absence
Being away from work on parental leave made my boss realise how much I contributed to the team. It seems counter-intuitive, but returning from parental leave was actually the perfect time to angle for a pay rise and a promotion (especially as my role in the team was back filled by a more senior lawyer from another office). I’m certainly not suggesting that you inadequately hand-over you work, but your absence will inevitably leave a ‘gap’ in your team – work-wise, but also culturally.