There comes a time in many women’s lives when they have to make a choice about their career. Mine was in the spring of 2014. And, for me, it was an easy one. I loved my career, had worked hard to get where I was, and enjoyed my role as a Manager at West Monroe Partners. I knew I wanted to keep working after having my first child. West Monroe was like my second family and the thought of leaving indefinitely just wasn’t an option.
I read all the “working mom” books and blogs I could find to prepare – routines, schedules, meal planning, accepting help from others, practice childcare for a week before going back to work … OK, got it. The Project Manager in me had all the boxes checked and the potential risks to derail my success identified.
The one thing I didn’t prepare myself for was the plateau, or at least what I perceived to be a plateau, in my career. I simply couldn’t dedicate enough time as others at my level to go above and beyond in all aspects of my role – even though I knew I was capable. And I wasn’t willing to take even more time away from seeing my daughter to do it. Time is fleeting and I didn’t want to miss the milestones in her life. Things became even more complicated after twins took me by surprise in the fall of 2015. I reduced my schedule by 20% and based my work related choices around local roles and what would allow me the lifestyle I needed for my family.
Were others wondering why I hadn’t progressed up the career model? Did that mean that I was losing the respect of my peers and the leadership team? After moving at a fast pace to where I was, this stall – whether real or perceived – made me question my value to the company and whether or not it was all worth it.
Finally someone gave me the reality check I so desperately needed – I had THREE kids at home and was able to spend a meaningful amount of time with them during the week and that I just couldn’t compare myself to others who were at very different stages in their lives. I think the exact phrase might have been – “Seriously, Reva? This is what you are worried about?!” The tough love worked. When I stepped back to think about how I felt about my life – not the noise from others and my concern about how others may have perceived me – I smiled. I didn’t realize until that moment just how truly happy I was at home and at work.
Once I had this a-ha moment, I did some soul searching on the what, why, and how I came to this place. The answer – it came with tradeoffs and I had accepted that those tradeoffs existed. I found myself in a non-linear career path at a place where people are so bright and driven that my experience defies the norm – and, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Looking back on the last few years, here are the 6 lessons I’d pass on:
- Don’t compare yourself to others. No one’s personal life is exactly the same, especially once you introduce kids. I found myself looking at peers and getting disheartened that they were passing me by at work. But when I talked to my mentors and trusted career advisors, they reminded me that my life is completely different and it wasn’t a fair comparison. I had to look holistically at my life versus separating personal and professional when assessing my overall happiness.
- Find role models and supporters. It doesn’t need to be a formal reporting relationship. Find people that you look up to and want your life to be like. There are so many strong women in leadership positions at West Monroe that I am privileged to know and to call my working mom advisors. There are also men that have fought hard on my behalf to land the roles and projects I wanted at the firm. Ask them about their experience and what they do to maintain their satisfaction at work and home. You’ll be surprised how candid people will be when you open up the dialogue, and how much they will want to help you.
- Eliminate the word “balance” from your vocabulary, it is all about satisfaction. Work-life balance as a working mom (or parent for that matter) is just unrealistic. I would describe it more as a constant juggling act. There are days I only make it home for the tail end of bedtime and there are days I am able to spend 3+ hours in the evening with my kids. The “balance” can swing wildly in either direction, but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself – Am I satisfied across all aspects of my life? If the answer is no, then reevaluate your priorities and what you can do to make yourself happy and be the best possible version of yourself. A great read to help understand this philosophy is Off Balance by Matthew Kelly – a quick read and personal favorite.
- Protect your boundaries. Just like your toddler, your colleagues will also test your boundaries. Once you start to stretch them and make yourself available, the precedent becomes set. Turn the auto-reply on and train your colleagues what an urgent issue looks like. I can only recall one client issue that was so dire it required a phone call on my weekly Friday off at home in over a year. People understand rules and they will learn to respect your boundaries and work around them. Be clear about your timelines and over communicate. After some time, your colleagues will get used to your new normal. The only person who can protect your boundaries is you.
- Outsource everything you feasibly can. The best piece of advice I have received is to think about what you feel most strongly about doing yourself and then find ways to outsource the rest. A friend of mine said she felt strongly about elaborate birthday celebrations complete with a chocolate cake from scratch for each of her family member’s birthdays – but she could care less about weekly grocery shopping. So she used PeaPod and Instacart to get groceries delivered. On the other hand, I feel very strong about weekly grocery shopping and wanted to spend time doing that myself. So I hired a cleaning service. Just like you would at work, prioritize all the day-to-day tasks and get as much help as you can on the things that matter less if you physically do them yourself. This applies to the workplace as well – if there are tasks you are doing that don’t directly relate to your role or others could do them with a little guidance, find ways to delegate. The great byproduct of this is that is creates opportunity for others.
- Compromise is part of the gig. You aren’t going to be at every happy hour and you won’t be able to attend all the evening networking events. Be selective in how you spend your time and what you choose to do. Just because you want to do it doesn’t mean you have to. A time will come that you won’t have to worry about this tradeoff, but in the meantime – embrace it and move on.
I still wouldn’t say I feel 100% at peace with this change every day in my, previously very linear, career path. Maybe I never will. But what I can tell you is that on the days and evenings I am off work and home with my 3 little ones, I feel so grateful that I still have a career that I love and am able to spend so much quality time with them – regardless of what my title is at work.