Over the past few years, a lot has been written about women in the workforce, about how they should not quit, how they should “lean in” and the rest of it.
After having followed the classic given-up-work-then-returned-to-it trajectory, what I’ve learned is that there’s no magic formula. There are many, many factors that determine a woman’s career arc. Sheryl Sandberg believes it is the man you marry. I believe it’s your mother’s ability to live near you. The man you marry may not be the only deciding factor, because even if he’s willing to support you, there still may be no answer to where you’ll leave the baby.
So, what I have learned is this — a woman must prepare for the fork in the road long before she reaches it. Almost every woman I know has faced a work-or-kids quandary in her life. And while some have managed to do both, most have taken a particular road depending on their situation, and then looked back wistfully at the other. It’s the ultimate quandary that women (mostly) face. And there are no set rules.
However, the best you can do is prepare for that day when the paths will diverge. There won’t be a Cheshire cat to tell you what to do, and you’ll need to figure it out on your own.
So, here’s what I would say to young women out there.
There will be a fork. And you will need to deal with it.
No matter how distant that classic fork in the road might look from where you are today, there is likely to be a day when you will reach it, unless you don’t want kids. However, before I go on, I do want to add that many women, for various reasons, do not come to the fork even after having kids. But for that to happen, a lot has to align, and I’ll get to that shortly.
Back to the road.
The day you’ll want to have a child (or children, if you’re brave enough) the road ahead of you will split in two. The first road will be the professional one, the one you’ve been on so far and would want to, in a perfect world, stay on. But it’s not a perfect world, you’ll have to pick. The second will be a leafy one (or so it will seem) and it’ll take you down a domestic path. What you do from here will depend on many, many factors.
You’ll take one road, depending on your personal situation. Many will take the mommy one in the hope that, at some point in the future, the two will converge. From where you will be looking, it will be impossible for you to tell if the roads are running parallel (heaven forbid) or if they will meet in the not-so-distant rosy future when, one day, you will magically get out of your sweatpants and buy formal clothes to go to work again (you won’t get into your old work clothes, just accept it).
But the question is — how do you stay on the first road?
Stay with one company. A rolling stone gathers no credibility. And you’ll need it
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you should not look for growth, or stay with a job even if you hate it. Figure out your options, give a few things a try, but plan your timeline. Once you are in your late twenties, say 26-27 being the cut off, stick with one place (you won’t find the perfect place, so decide on one and stay with it). It’s a life lesson I have learned. I can tell you that it will work in your favour.
How? Read on.
You want to get to a negotiation vantage-point
When you want to have a baby, you will not only need support at home, but also at work. However, finding an understanding boss is harder than finding the perfect man (whatever that is). But, if you stay with a company long enough, you will, by virtue of having being around, make yourself largely indispensable. I am not saying that just by being around you’ll become essential — I assume you’ll be productive. But the bottom line is that once you become an old hand at a place, you’ll have earned yourself what I call a negotiation vantage point. I cannot stress enough on how much you will need this once you have kids.
When a boss has to think about hiring someone else, retraining her, reinvesting all that time in her, or letting you work a bit flexi, but still getting his deliverables, chances are she or he will choose the latter (actually, I can bet on it). I know friends who leave work at 3 in the afternoon and then log in from home. It works. No one will let you do that if you are replaceable or new around the place, even if you are bright.
True, there will be raised eyebrows when you rise from your desk at midday. Learn to ignore them. As long as you are delivering, it’ll be hard to question you. Also, do not, ever, be bashful about getting up from your desk at 3 o’clock. Stay when you are needed, but don’t be on the back foot. Women feel guilty easily, and bosses are masters at playing on that guilt.
Invest in a good maid or upgrade the existing one
A friend once told me that the key to staying at work is getting good help at home. This is sometimes harder than getting that perfect boss, or, the perfect man (had to say it), but the thing to remember is that when you get her, keep her. Make it worth her while. Pander to her needs, within reason. She alone enables you to leave the house and work. Always remember that.
The friend who told me this, and who is now a hair’s breadth away from the much-coveted corner office, applied this in her own life. And it worked beautifully. Of course, in her case she also got her mother to live near her house. That’s hard to manage, but if you can do that, that’s going to be a killer move. If your mom can move next door to you, you’re set.
This brings me to the point about women who never leave the professional road, even after having kids. These women, broadly, fall in three categories.
• One, whose mothers either live close by, or move willingly and take charge of the kids (preferred state).
• Two, the ones whose moms-in-law do the same (not an ideal state), and it works somehow.
• Three, whose husbands quit to be at home with the kids (not so common, but a great alternative if it happens).
• There is, of course, another fourth category — those who are fine with leaving the kid in a crèche or with a nanny at home. But that’s a personal choice, or in many cases, a compulsion.
The point is not to dread the fork, but to plan for it. And, while this may not be the fairest of things to say, if your mom can help you tide over the initial years, it’s really all you’ll need to stay on the road.
This article was first published in the Huffington Post.