Monday, January 18, 2010

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Let's Talk about the Challenge of the Professional Woman Deciding to Start a Family

Many professional women have a difficult time deciding when to have a baby. The challenge has to do with the decision to sacrifice their climb of the corporate ladder for a kid. Waiting a little longer has its benefits: you may be farther along and more senior at your job and so much so that while you are on maternity leave, your clients may wait or you may have proven your value to the company enough and established yourself as virtually irreplaceable.

There is no doubt that the benefits of waiting are generally increased financial security, advanced maturity and perhaps a mental and psychological ability to better handle the responsibility of raising a child. However, we all know that if you wait too long, you run a risk of having a challenging time conceiving or maybe not being able to conceive at all. That is another conversation for another day.

I am one of those annoying people who always pesters her friends of child bearing age to have a baby whenever I get a chance. Yup I am that nosy body. A couple friends confessed to me that I am the reason they had their first child; they were tired of me harassing them to have a baby. Call it the Catholic in me! You know how we're always trying to make sure earth is amply populated, as if that is a big problem. ha!

In any case, I was also that professional woman who grappled with when to start a family. I worked in the DC office of a high pressure top New York law firm. Among the 60 lawyers in my office were at least 10 married women of child bearing age, all eager to have children, but none willing to be the test dummy for how the firm would react to a pregnancy.

It was eerie to me to see us all, metaphorically speaking, looking at each other daring the other person to jump first. The law field is and can be cut throat, especially around the time I worked there, everyone was on their best behavior trying to prove to the partners that they were worth the 6 figures they paid us and better yet, worthy of partnership in a few short years. Being elected to the partnership met the brass ring and a healthy cut in the revenue the firm would make, that could mean millions for some, if they played their card right.

Needless to say, the men in my firm had an easier time not having to worry about a break in the climb to the top. After the first woman decided to take the plunge, would you believe that 6 of us later followed suit within in the next two years after?

The concern is after you take off for maternity leave after having your baby, you can never be certain what the state of your position will be like when you return, especially for professional team jobs.

I know when I left for 5 month, my responsibilities were dispersed among remaining associate s who used that time I was away to develop bonds with my clients, my partners and get a better and intimate familiarity with my cases. Needless to say, when I returned, none of them was all too eager to give me back my caseload. It all went downhill from there and after a year or two, I left that law firm.

Some of the women at my firm felt guilty about coming back to work full time and did not want to leave their small babies home with a nanny or in a daycare all day all week. Luckily, the firm was flexible and allowed part time. The problem with part time is you take a pay cut because presumably you are in the office part of the time, but in a legal environment, you can't really not work once your 20 hours are fulfilled especially if there is an ongoing assignment for a client or a deadline. Your professional responsibility is to the client. So there you are getting paid half the salary for the same amount of work. What a conundrum!

Then there were those whose husbands made enough money that they didn't have to return to work if they didn't want to and they got to stay home. Lucky chicks. The only problem with this option is after your kid and maybe subsequent born children get school age and you find your self itching for some daily adult interaction and stimulation and to be challenged again, it isn't that easy getting back on track. By the time you get back in the workforce, the men in your graduation class have moved on. Some are senior professionals, and sometimes your value has been degraded by your absence. You almost have to start over in some instances. The high power go-getter ladies who were driven enough to be trying to shatter the glass ceiling are not too keen on answering to someone younger than they and therein lies the problem with that alternative.

It's a topic for conversation and matter that affects women's childbirthing choices and the professional work space. I'm not certain the American workplace will change much even with laws like Family Maternity Leave Act (FMLA) in place. Attitudes persist. I know I used to regularly bump heads with women who elected not to have children at all. Surprising to me, they were the hardest on me and had no sympathy for children related absence from work on interruptions. Go figure!

Not much to do, but here are a few tips I can offer from my experience and my awareness of other professional women who have been in my shoes:

1. Analyze how the company/firm has responded with other pregnant women. Have a conversation with one and interview her of her experience.

2. If you are junior or a rising professional, work hard to obtain client contact and develop a relationship with your clients so they are comfortable with you and develop a preference for working with you. It makes it harder for another whipper snapper to try to outseat you and take away the client.

3. Before you start the process of "trying" work out your budget with your spouse/partner and make sure you have a cushion in case you decide not to return or you get back and find yourself unhappy about tasks being taken away from you and you start to look for something else.

We can plan but as always life doesn't always go according to plan.

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