Moving laterally doesn’t mean going sideways
Capitalizing on the magical formula for staying in the game during the baby years…and then leapfrogging when you’re ready.:)
Working comes with a myriad of challenges for women. Add babies into the mix and you have something pretty darn combustible. Oh, the complexity, logistics, tradeoffs, constraints, agony and ecstasy, and the stress of whether everything is going to be alright. Are your kids going to be decent people? Are you going to be fired? Can you support your family and pay for childcare? Will you make it to doctor’s appointments? What are the things you should absolutely do and when can you just say “I have to skip it”? How do you handle things when the best-laid plans go awry? The ever-changing variables and unknowns are exhausting.
Chances are the whole baby thing will happen just when you’re hitting your stride and becoming awesome at whatever it is that you do. Chances are you’ve just “veni-vidi-vicci’ed” in your career. Chances are that you’re killing it and suddenly this little being, this person you don’t even know yet is destroying all of it and you at the same time. And yet, you want to be a mom, you’re excited and desperately want to make it work, but it all seems to add up to one big intractable problem.
There’s no doubt that it’s an utterly chaotic, confusing, confounding, complex time—there’s just no way around it. The good news is that many people—the weakest, strongest, and everything between—have been there and done that before you and lived to tell the tale. For all of them, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, expecting anything else will defeat you. The reality is it is absolute chaos, particularly in the early days. It’s going to be messy and exhausting and even downright brutal. Buckle up for a big roller coaster ride because the whole thing is a marathon with a spontaneous series of sprints when you least expect them in 38 degrees with pouring, freezing rain.
“Prepare for it like it’s war.” These were the words of advice conveyed by my husband’s colleague, just days before I went into labor.
Frankly, I really didn’t think I could do it but I forced myself. I am nothing if not a stubborn, rebellious bitch and I don’t like to be wrong. As part of that rebelliousness, I relish defying what other people think of me and what I will or can do—not sure if that’s good or bad, wrong or right, but it’s fueled me to a good place more than once.:) All of that was further turbo-charged by the fear of becoming a cliché story of the woman who goes on maternity leave and says she’s coming back and then doesn’t. I started hearing rumors that my boss was already looking for my replacement and that there were bets in the office among the guys that I wouldn’t return once I was a mom.
At home, I was further pushed (in a good way) by my husband who was encouraging but firm in his coaching that I should stay in the game, take things one day a time, and avoid getting overwhelmed or making rash decisions. He always says and does exactly the right thing, damn it. ☺ Quiet and caring but strong and independent, he always pushed me to have a life of my own and create my own value apart from him, knowing it would be better for me, for him, and for us, particularly over the longer haul. He could see the whole picture, how the movie was going to play out, far better than I could at that point. He wasn’t clouded by maternal haze and the post-partum emotional roller coaster. He could see the long game and was perfectly logical about what was best for me over time.
“Prepare for it like it’s war.” As the realities of being a working mom started to set in, I definitely started to understand what my husband’s colleague was trying to tell us.
So how do you make it all work? Looking back, one of the most critical things I did was evolve my role from one that was pretty intense—stressful with big deliverables, lots of face-to-face time with customers, loads of travel—to more internally facing. At the time, I wondered whether this “step back,” or sideways at best, was a bad decision, but it turned out to be one of the most important of my career.
To provide a bit more detail, I took a new role working in Engineering vs. Strategy/Product Marketing even though I’d never written a line of code and was far from being a STEM girl. When I started in the R&D organization, I took on a non-techie role as a release and launch manager but evolved to take on more responsibility for technical teams and operations, including build engineering and common components development (who knew I knew ANYTHING about either of those?!). This experience ended up being a fantastic complement to my more business, marketing, and sales-focused experiences and taught me all sorts of amazing things that ultimately made me more valuable by giving me a broader perspective on the business. The evolved role also significantly expanded and changed the relationships I had within the org. Beyond all of that, it most importantly helped me realize how much I loved and was good at something that I never would have imagined could be “my thing.”
Beyond equipping me with all sorts of new experiences, relationships, and skills, this new role enabled me to avoid traveling while also reducing my hours from more than full-time to about a 30-hour-week schedule. It also provided more predictability that enabled me to manage the mom thing while continuing to stay in the game—both from an experience standpoint and also from an economic standpoint (benefits, stock vesting, etc.). All of this was made possible by a few things:
Experience & Political Capital: I’d proven myself to be valuable to the company, so they were willing to accommodate me and do something unconventional and anomalous after I’d gone above and beyond to drive the company’s early success for over two years at that point, including achieving their first-ever license deal with one of the largest Tier 1 retailers for $5M that enabled them to raise a critical round of private equity capital (hence one of my 52 Commandments for Success about “Staying as close to revenue as possible”).
Flexibility & Employer Focus: I proposed the role in a way that it solved the employer’s problem and mine—i.e., I didn’t make my personal work-family challenge their problem. Even though I cut back my hours in a subtle way and stopped traveling (with some exceptions), I was willing to be “always available.” Also, even though I was officially getting paid for a 30-hour work week, I worked as if I was still salaried vs. hourly, which meant I put in more than 30 hours. The constraints around the terms of employment was more so I could say “no” occasionally or “check out” when I needed to vs. literally working 30-hours, clocking in and clocking out as one would in a typical hourly position. I realize this isn’t possible for all women, but I suggest trying to achieve it if you can.
Entrepreneurialism & Innovation: I executed the role with a level of entrepreneurialism and “acting like an owner” attitude and approach—i.e., doing things that weren’t asked and going above and beyond what was expected to achieve new things I saw would provide value to the organization and company more broadly. This approach enabled me to remain central to the organization’s success and I continuously re-earned my spot as a “go-to” person. I continuously looked for new ways to add business value and insight into how we did things—either on the sales/revenue success front or on the product delivery standpoint—capitalizing on the strong perspective I’d gained from being longer tenured and having been involved in several key parts of the organization’s operation over the 3+ years I’d been there.
Despite all of this great stuff, I still found myself a bit frustrated as I saw male peers get more money and opportunities that I aspired to have and knew I deserved. I felt like I was forever being left behind on what I assumed was a linear career path that required a defined set of moves at certain ages and times to end up in a certain place. Looking back on all of that, I laugh at and chastise myself because it couldn’t have been further from reality. Seeing how the movie has played out for me (and other women who’ve followed comparable playbooks), I can say that pretty much all of us have not only caught up on what was probably five-ish years of “treading water,” but surpassed those male peers once we resumed full-time roles and put ourselves back on more conventional, full-time career tracks.
Moreover, the key to long-term career success for me (and all of the working moms I know) was the following:
Build New Skills & Credibility: I created a “constraints breed brilliance” situation by capitalizing on the opportunity to take a lateral move that provided experience in something new and different, ultimately making me more valuable over my longer-term career journey.
Create Something Great & Ask for More: I kept my eyes and ears open for new opportunities all the time as I was starting to feel like my kids were in good shape. At the same time, I built out an analysis of the business that no one asked me to create, but I thought would be valuable to several executive stakeholders. Once I was ready to dive back into the deep end, I approached them with this “gift” and that opened the door to a bigger role, more money, and a more aggressive career path once the time was right for me. Amazingly, all of that got me back on track, and really even helped me leap frog beyond where I might have been at that point in my career if I’d just stayed the course I’d been on before having babies.
If you’re good, big companies (and sometimes small ones too) will accommodate you. They’ll let you evolve and grow. They’ll allow you to dial it back and then ramp up again. All that said, you have to be willing to evolve—your position, your pay, your childcare (the type and how much you pay), the other services you engage to support your life and your broader family, whether you are willing to travel or not, how much sleep you get, how much you do for your kids and how involved you are in their lives. You may have to check out a bit at times and let someone else run your life at home for you—I did. Those kinds of tradeoffs aren’t for every woman, but should you choose them, they can provide some amazing things, relationships, and experiences.
Capitalizing on the power of moving sideways can be an amazing gift for your career—both in the short-term as it’s happening and over the longer term because of the options it will open up once you’re ready to seize them. The timing of lateral move(s) can vary for each of us depending on so several factors—how many kids we have, our economic needs, what our partners do, the kind of career or industry we’re in, or more. Keep in mind that you will have to be the boss of your own career throughout this whole process—no one is going to do it for you, no one is going to look out for you (most likely), and no one is going to see the opportunities or the chess board that is your life in the way that you will. This is your game, so be prepared to make your move(s), and end up exactly where you want to be in that game of life.
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.