Parents: You Can “Have It All,” Just Not at the Same Time

“The career ladder model has absolutely failed for women of our generation, and the next generation. It’s not working.”

Lisen Stromberg is a culture innovation consultant, award-winning independent journalist, and the author of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. She recently sat down with Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University Dean and author of How to Raise an Adult, to discuss the challenges and triumphs of putting your professional life on hold, prioritizing children and family, then successfully relaunching a rewarding career.

Julie: We came of age at a time that taught us, “You can bring home the bacon! You can be the breadwinner, you can, should, must be the homemaker!” We grew up [saying,] “I have to do all of those things.” So the expectations for us ratcheted up, and it was framed as opportunity. But nobody had a clue about how to do all of that, let alone do it well.

In some ways, we’ve all been duped. As we grew up, we saw the evidence that it’s impossible to do it all. Your thesis seems to be that pausing for parenthood doesn’t have to ruin your career. That is a transgressive concept. How do you know that this works in today’s workplace?

Lisen: Let’s deconstruct that a little bit. Every major research institute, the OECD, the World Bank, they all say U.S. public policies do not support working parents. That whole narrative of “You can do it all, you can be it all” is the same narrative that millennial women are being told, but there’s no structure there for them to do it.

Millennial women are going to go out there and rock it, and that’s great. Then, 64 million of them are going to become parents in the next decade, and they’ve got no support. Nothing has changed in our public policies. I worry that we’re going to see another generation of women and men hit the wall and say something’s wrong. The career ladder model has absolutely failed for women of our generation, and the next generation. It’s not working.

I was craving data, so I looked for the national study on professional women. Turns out there’s nothing modern. So I hired a market research firm to find out what’s going on. “You are a woman, you went to college, and you had kids, tell me what your career was.” That was the deal. 1,500 responded.

I’d thought maybe 25% [would have] paused their careers. 72% of respondents paused their careers. [Most] never expected to pause. Only 11% planned to pause their careers. The vast majority had to.

To me, that said it’s not transgressive, it’s reality. But we’re hiding it. We’re not addressing it. We’re not talking about it. I’m just opening that door.

Julie: So what is a pause? Is a pause a maternity leave? How long is a pause?

Lisen: Great question. I asked this woman, “Tell me about your career path,” and she said, “I went from 80 hours a week to 40.” For her, that was a pause. There are women who paused for 10 or 15 years. I look at the pause as when you put your career on the back burner temporarily. You switch your priorities.

I do talk about maternity leave as the first pause, but outside of maternity leave, what does it look like? And how do you navigate it?

Julie: The notion of a pause is terrifying for many of us, because we feel that we are failing to meet the expectations our dads and moms have of us, our community has of us. So how do you narrate the appropriateness of a pause? How do you help people understand how a pause might arise in their own life?

“The PTA participant was viewed as less competent, less committed, and so on. If that doesn’t define motherhood bias, I don’t know what does.”

Lisen: What I learned was that women who had paused completely left the workforce [for] no more than about two years at any given time. A number of women paused repeatedly for about one to two years. [Those] who had downshifted to work part-time were the happiest of all. They felt the most satisfaction as parents and the most satisfaction as professionals. The secret sauce is to downshift, and to put your family as a priority for a period of time, but not forever. Always keep your eye on your career.

We have companies creating Return to Work internships [for] people that paused their career. They’re providing a chance to get your skillsets up and running, get your feet wet, and prove to the employer that you’re worthy. There’s a great company focusing on tech called Path Forward. GoDaddy, Kyocera, and PayPal now have it. We’re seeing this moment [that] is going to change the narrative around the opportunity to pause. But yeah, it takes a person who’s able to say, “This is what I need to do for me right now, for my family. And I’m willing to be a trailblazer.”

Julie: What about this anti-motherhood bias, the perception in some workplaces that, “You’re not serious about your work. We don’t need you.” You’ve spoken about some employers who are actively interested in recruiting women who are returning, but let’s face it, that’s not everybody. So what are the reasons you pause besides having a baby? And how do you negotiate the end of the pause, the return?

Lisen: The best research [on motherhood bias] took two resumes. Everything on the resumes was the same—the name, the work, where they went to college, etc.— the only difference was one of them had PTA participation as a hobby at the bottom. [The resumes were] sent out into the world to find out what the response would be. The woman without the PTA participation was twice as likely to get a job interview [and] significantly more likely to get a job offer. The PTA participant was viewed as less competent, less committed, and so on. If that doesn’t define motherhood bias, I don’t know what does.

But when women are working consistently, we also see pay equity issues around when you have children. One child gives you a 24% hit in pay. Two children is a 44% hit in pay. So if you want to have pay equity, don’t have kids. In fact, white women without children make almost what men make in general.

[But] who’s the most productive person? Mothers. If you look over the length of our careers, we are not as productive right after the birth of children. Our productivity declines. Then about two or three years later, our productivity increases. In fact, over the course of our career, 20 plus years, [we are the] most productive. More productive than married men and working fathers, more productive than men without kids, more productive than women without kids. If employers can get that, they’re gonna get highly competent employees. And they’re just starting to figure that out.

So the question is, how does the individual do that? The number one thing for women who thrive professionally [is that they] never took their eye off of their career. They maintained their networks. They still went to conferences. Many of them are keeping their brands alive by engaging in social media.

They are doing volunteer consulting jobs that build their skills. One woman I interviewed participated in foundation fundraising work that allowed her to have access to Silicon Valley CEOs, so that when she was ready to relaunch her career, she automatically had a network who knew her. Boom. She got a job really quickly.

There are 185 countries that are part of the UN. Guess how many don’t offer paid leave? Two: the U.S. and Papua New Guinea.”

Julie: And while the PTA dinged the woman in the study that you describe…

Lisen: She wasn’t the president. Leadership positions in volunteer organization were actually a huge benefit.

Julie: Sometimes your PTA work turns out to be precisely what makes you attractive.

Lisen: Right.

Julie: So you said to pay attention to your brand. For those who don’t speak that language, what do you mean by that?

Lisen: Any time you post on Twitter or Facebook, you’re building your brand. If you’re spending all your time posting adorable pictures of your beautiful baby, your brand is about your baby. That’s great, but if you want to maintain your professional network, you also need to be commenting on whatever is happening in your industry. That consciousness around your presence is definitely a recipe for success.

Julie: I remember in an employment law class in law school, I [once] said, “Isn’t giving birth and raising the next generation a societal good? Don’t we need humans to do that? Shouldn’t we have public policy that supports that, instead of acting like it’s some problem?”

Lisen: I was astounded by the number of times when we have intentionally chosen not to recognize that we have women in the workplace, and that caregiving is a responsibility. For example, during the Nixon era we had bipartisan support for national childcare. Then, they decided that that was too Russian, that it was communist. So Nixon canceled it.

There are 185 countries that are part of the UN. Guess how many don’t offer paid leave? Two: the U.S. and Papua New Guinea. That’s absolutely outrageous. [It] means paid leave, maternity leave, is work-based, which is why only 13% of Americans have paid leave, why 25% of American women only take two weeks off after the birth of a child. And you wonder why we’ve got problems with under-resourced women going on welfare.

There’s an increase of stay-at-home moms. Guess where they’re coming from? They’re coming from the lower-middle income, because they can’t work. They want to work. Diapers are considered non-essential items, [so] they’re not part of welfare WIC programs, which means that mothers have to pay for them on their own. You can’t put a child in childcare unless they have diapers, so you can’t afford to put your child in childcare if you don’t have diapers. Think about that.

“Be conscious about the life you’re leading. This is your one precious life. Make decisions intentionally, rather than letting life happen to you.”

Julie: Diapers aren’t paid for by governmental systems.

Lisen: No, they’re not. And they’re $3,000 to $4,000 over the course of the child’s lifetime.

The vast majority of stay-at-home moms are middle class moms. They desperately want to be home with their children, or can’t afford to work. They may want to work, but can’t afford childcare. So they’re trying to figure it out on their own. If you’re a middle-class mom, and you’re not in the workforce because you can’t afford childcare, you’re waiting until your kids are old enough to get into school, so you can actually work.

Julie: I think one of the reasons the pause becomes a big pause is the extent to which we find ourselves invested in being whatever our community has defined as a “good” mother. “I’m obsessed with being on top of my child’s life, down to making organic gluten-free bagels [and] homemade cream cheese for the soccer team, so that I’m not one-upped by the parent who did it last week.”

When your sense of self is based on what everyone thinks mothers should do, it can be hard to go back to work. “Oh, what about your children? I love my children enough to stay at home.” So you say, “The power of the pause is the opportunity to have time and leisure to ponder the course of your life, to meditate on what brings you joy, reflect on your values, and what it means to have a well-lived life.” And then you say, “Busy stay-at-home moms are laughing into their much-needed coffee or wine as they read this.”

If we are of a certain age, middle class or beyond, we are making choices. We are choosing, “My life is my children and all their activities. I don’t have time to contemplate joy.” We’ve bought into that.

Lisen: I was right there. I wrote about this moment when I was rushing around making gift bags for my daughter’s fourth-grade trip. It was only later that I asked, “Is that really the best use of my time? Is that the best gift I can give her?” If you’re saying, “No, this is the absolute best use of my time,” go for it. I have deep respect for people who are making that commitment, [because] billions of mostly female human hours support our schools. On the flip side, the shifting of that human capital, the shifting of priorities, is a loss of what we as individuals truly have to offer the world.

Two women, who had taken [off] extended periods of time and then relaunched [their careers,] had older children, [like] high school or middle school. They told me their children became much more autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient because Mom wasn’t there caring for their needs. And I’m not here to judge women who did that. They said it was the best thing they’ve ever done for their kids. [So] there’s an opportunity here for us to contribute to our own careers in a beautiful, powerful way.

Julie: That’s what you’re preaching in this book: be conscious about the life you’re leading. This is your one precious life. Make decisions intentionally, rather than letting life happen to you. We can lose ourselves in the role of mother, daughter, sister, sibling, friend, career woman. We can lose our sense of self.

Ultimately, this book appeals to our right to say, “I matter. I need this. I chose this, even if most people would never understand it. I am old enough to know who I am, and what I want. I have the right to construct my work life, my family life, [and] my personal life in the ways that I want to.”

Lisen: If we all live that truth, if we all live with, “I honor your choices, I support you as you pause or relaunch your career, and I would like you to support me,” what a beautiful place we’d all be in.