Career Confusion and the Paradox of Choice

This month marks one year since I took a new job, returning to full time work after a year of part time while my daughter was a baby. My daughter is 28 months old now, and I am halfway through pregnancy with my son.

This past year has been one of the toughest years for my professional life. I’d say it’s rivaled only by the quarter-life crisis years that I experienced in my mid 20s. I’m 32 now, so those pains have faded somewhat, though I’ve carried their memory as a grounding that helps me see the good in the roles I’ve had since then.

That difficult professional time resolved when I moved from chemical engineering to software product management. I’d been spanning both areas for a few years while I worked a day job in environmental remediation and an all-the-other-time job with my husband on our startup, but at the start of 2011, at 27, I made the switch to software for my day job. I was relieved that I had found the right career track for me, one which used my analytical skill and passion for technology and had abundant career options in NYC.

While there have been challenges since then for sure, I can’t remember a period of such sustained professional stress as I’ve had since I took my current job.

So many nights I’ve been so preoccupied and worried about work that I had insomnia. In the fall I had to up my therapy from biweekly to weekly, a frequency I hadn’t needed for a few years. I’ve cried at the office or over work more times than I can count.

And that’s all just from my feelings about this job, not even going into how I feel about working full time while my daughter is under school age (not that the two emotional drivers can be fully separated).

I’m extremely fortunate to be in a career that has more jobs than qualified candidates, but one consequence of this is that I am aware that I have choices and don’t have to be where I am if it’s not the right fit for me. I tested the waters, speaking to recruiters and interviewing at another company a few months back. Already pregnant and feeling I didn’t have enough time with my daughter, I decided to test if I could find a new job while still positioning myself for the work-life balance I sought.

I came close to an offer in a role that was exciting and felt like a sweet spot for me in terms of the product and company culture, but they were only willing to go as far as one day working from home. Working from home with a toddler is either not caring for the toddler or not working. So when my boss finally agreed to my request for a 4 day work week (at 80% pay), I decided to stay at my company, at least for now.

At first that brought renewed peace and confidence that I was at the right place for my values at this point in my life. But the following months saw a lot of change in my role, with a new boss taking over a large portion of my responsibilities, and a lot of stress with the remaining ones. Luckily my old and new boss are really open to finding me a spot that better matches my schedule, strengths, and desires.

So I’ve been soul searching again, assessing what is stressing me out about this job.

I’ve learned a lot this past year, and I believe I’m stronger professionally from these experiences. I’ve learned how a different company works, operationally and culturally, and tried my skills in a new pool of office politics, which were things I sought. But I feel a lot of my distress comes from not liking what I’ve found. I’m plagued by the thought that no matter what the role, this company isn’t the right fit for me.

The amount of discontent I have and the amount I see around me in the peers I admire even has me questioning whether product management is the right discipline for me as I advance in my career. I suspect that it’s not the discipline but the flavor of it that seems expected here that I’m unhappy with. I want to be somewhere where my core motivators of creating great user experiences and working with exciting technology don’t feel like they’re so often compromised.

Perhaps I could find a better fit on a different team here. Is it the role or the company itself that I need to get away from?

And then there’s the question of how much I can stand being away from my daughter and our new son after maternity leave, which should be the last 3 months of this year. Last time I had a really tough time even being away 2 days per week when my daughter was only 3 months old. I think from around 6 months to 16 months I was very happy with the 20 hours per week, 2 days in the office work-life balance. But if I can’t get my hours reduced that much, I might rather stay home full time than be away from home more days than I am there. It would be tough on our finances but I would be willing to take on the things needed to make it work, and my husband says he would support that. I suspect he might even be grateful for it, except for the lack of paycheck.

There are so many options, which I’m grateful for. But with it there are so many questions. And I feel like I’m in some sort of limbo, where I’m in a confusingly ambiguous role and just biding my time until my son is born. I tell myself how fortunate I am to have these options, but it’s tough to be happy when I’m feeling emotionally triggered in meetings, conversations, and emails from my coworkers day in and day out. I’m so thankful that my daughter and husband are there to keep me grounded at the end of each day. I only hope that I’ll be able to make the right career choices for me, and that I can be present for them and enjoy this time together until our family grows.

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Back to full time

It’s the end of the day on Friday, and I’m on my way home following my first week at a new job. It was not just my first week here, but also my first week back at full time work. I feel so many different emotions over this transition.

I am very excited and happy about my new job. I think I made the right choice. There were stresses at my old job that were making me very unhappy, so I decided to see what else was out there for me. And I found that there was quite a bit. I was upfront in my interviews that one of the things I wanted was work/life balance and that a flexible schedule was important to me. I was pleasantly surprised at how many companies were willing to work with me on that.

After much consideration I accepted an offer to work at the one company where my department head would be a woman. She is a C-level executive and we have several things in common. I’m really excited to work with her!

So when I’m at work things are great. When I’m at home and my daughter is up I like to focus on spending time with her, and that’s great too.

When I’m commuting… That is the worst right now. I find myself with time to think about what I missed of my daughter during the day. And I just want to be with her Right This Minute!

She is handling it all pretty well though. And the new income has made it possible for us to rent a new, big, clean apartment – we just got the lease and will get the keys next weekend! The income should alleviate our financial stress, and the home will provide a new comfy refuge that home has not been for me lately (we’ve had a serious cockroach problem). And I’m learning new things and getting new opportunities. Taken together, these things should help a lot with our general happiness and put us in a better position for baby #2 down the road, so that I can hopefully spend more time with our children again when we get to that milestone.

On working part time

Last night was my company Holiday party. At the end of the workday, my coworkers and I bundled into our winter coats and set off to walk together towards the Hudson River, our destination an event space called Studio 450, on the 12th floor of a building in the west 30s. After waiting for a ride up in the elevator, we were greeted at the door by servers offering a signature drink (the Mathematician, themed after our company’s work), and walked into a two floor space with views of the NY and NJ skyline all around us. I spent part of the night downstairs with the music and food, and part of the night upstairs at tables with Cards Against Humanity set out, letting loose with what was mostly the engineering cohort.

Many times, I reflected on how different this was from my first Holiday Party with this company, when we had 140 people worldwide and only one Manhattan office. Now we are up to 600 people, about 450 of them spread across our (temporarily) 3 Manhattan offices. There were so many faces I didn’t know, and yet I still felt a strong sense of kinship with all of these people.

I would often bump into people that I don’t work with day to day, and one question would come up often: “So, are you back full time now?”

To which I would smile and say, “Nope.”

It’s been roughly a year since I negotiated with my boss that when I returned from maternity leave, it would be part time. We didn’t put an end date on it, we just said we’d continue to check in to evaluate how it was going. I feel incredibly thankful for the arrangement that I have. It is wonderful to maintain my professional self, and yet to spend 5 days a week home with my daughter, watching her grow and change and just being there for her.

Professionally, there have certainly been some sacrifices. I am not in the office everyday, so I miss face time and less import meetings, and I have to sometimes take a sidelines role in projects I’d like to be more involved in. Whereas I once saw all company outings as a chance to network and thereby increase my effectiveness and enjoyment of work, last night was typical of where I’m at now – I darted out at 8:30 upon hearing that my daughter was hysterical, saying “Mama” and signing for milk but rejecting the bottle. I barely slept last night, but my reasons differ from most of my peers.

But it’s so worth it. I have decades to continue to build my career. I am so lucky to keep it moving along while I spend the time with my daughter now.

Working Motherhood is hard

I know I have it good, because I only work 2 days out of the home each week, but even for me this is tough. I miss my little girl so much. And I know she misses me too. It’s especially hard on days when the nanny tells me that she is fussy. Yesterday she cried for 30 minutes; the nanny said she tried everything but Precious would not be soothed until finally she fell asleep. On days like that I just want to go home and hold my baby!

That night, she fell asleep on the nursing pillow and I stayed there with her for an hour before moving her to bed.

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Heading back to work

Well, here I am 12 weeks from the birth of my daughter and heading back to the office today.

I feel nauseated.

I’m running late, though I got up when I planned to. She was in a great mood, as she usually is in the morning, all smiley and full of coos and squeals. By the time our new nanny arrived, I had nearly everything ready to go.

I just wasn’t in a hurry to leave.

I’m going to miss my baby girl. And I’ll worry about her, because already she is very attached to me and is more upsettable with others. And she has been fighting the bottle, so I worry she won’t eat much.

I cried yesterday, to think it was my last day of full focus on my baby.

At the same time, I am looking forward to returning to my work. I feel so lucky that I have a job I love. I can’t imagine how I would get through this if I were at one of my previous two jobs. I feel certain I would have decided to stay home. But not now. Now I have a place to go where I will see people I’ve missed, where I will contribute to projects I care about in ways I enjoy.

And all of that will be at a part-time workweek of 2 days in the office and 2 partial days at home. The rest of the time is hers and mine, to continue to enjoy each other as she grows.

I feel so supported to have this option. I worked hard to get here, making calculated choices with a future like this in mind. But I am also so extremely lucky to have the skills and opportunities to make it happen.

I think it will be good for me. I even think it will be good for her, to become comfortable with others too and with my absence. And as she gets older, it will be a good model for her of possible ways to mix motherhood and career.

So I know today will be hard, but I think it will be good.

Part time return to work after maternity leave

So I spoke to my boss yesterday, and while some details and final approvals remain, it looks like I should be able to return to work part time after my maternity leave. I am so thrilled and happy and excited!

I feel really lucky because I know not everyone is in a position to make this work. I work in software, doing a typical M-F work week, in a position with lots of meetings and a benefit to face to face interactions (for user interviews). So I want sure if my boss would think it could be done.

I had been planning a transfer to a department with less meetings and less face time, thinking when it was time to have that conversation I would have a better chance there. But I have made myself very valuable for not only the company but the current department. So when my boss offered to hire someone for me to manage and mentor, the other biggest thing I wanted for my career but had been told wouldn’t be available for the foreseeable future in my current, I came back and said that I would love to stay to do that but only if part time is an option. 

Luckily, it seemed like it was an easy answer for him – he’d rather have me part time than not at all. And while it may not be simple to work out, he trusts I can make it work. He said we would come up with a plan and present it to the higher ups but that he doesn’t anticipate a problem.

So now I’m looking at hiring someone to train now who will help cover my maternity leave, having my first baby in January, and coming back on April to a part time job where I get new experience directly training others in my role, picking some of my favorite parts of my job to keep for myself, and working only part time so I can watch my daughter grow at the same time.

I am on cloud nine!

Advice on negotiating a part time return to work – when and how?

So I’m expecting my first baby in mid January, and I will be taking the full FMLA allowed 12 weeks of maternity leave. And one of my biggest worries with having a baby is how we will deal with happens after that.

I’m not sure if I’ll really want to go back to full time work right away when the leave is up. My therapist, psychiatrist, and some friends have suggested that if possible, part-time work would be great, and I think they may be right.

They’ve advised me to wait until it’s time to talk about coming back from leave to have that discussion, which made sense when I talked with them.

However, I am in a really good negotiating position right now. So I’m contemplating having this discussion early, which frankly would be a huge relief.

That’s where I’m looking for advice. Should I bring it up now? Could that affect my pay during leave? What should I do to prepare and what should I expect?

I’m eager to hear any advice people can share! So jump on over to the comments and tell me what you think!

For more details on why I think now might be the right time, read on below:

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