Have you ever felt the fear that once you have a family there will be a catastrophic effect on your career, equivalent to a train derailment and you will find yourself on a whole new path?
If you have, you’re not alone. As a result, many women put off starting a family until they’ve reached a certain career or other goal. Perhaps becoming unrestricted to practise law, reaching partnership, or something more personal like travel or education. For me it was all about travelling the world and being a senior associate before I started a family.
However, even achieving these goals doesn’t stop the worry. Worry that you won’t get the next promotion, the next salary increase or the good work opportunities once you become pregnant or return to work. Worry that your whole career path will be affected and you’ll have to be content where you are for a long time to come.
Now motherhood definitely is a whole new path and it doesn’t always feel like you are running on smooth train tracks, but it doesn’t have to be the cause of a career derailment.
There are steps and actions you can take to ensure that having a family won’t negatively impact your career. In episode 21 of The Juggle Podcast, Lucy Dickens and I discuss 7 things to keep in mind to help you feel empowered about your career rather than worried when it comes to starting a family. Here’s a summary.
1. Set goals
Most lawyers tend to be pretty good planners. Break the upcoming changes into three areas – your pregnancy, your maternity leave and your return to work. How do you want to act, think and feel during these times? Do you want to be working right up to the last minute of your pregnancy? Do you want to be in frequent contact with your firm whilst on maternity leave? How do you envisage working when you return from leave?
Whilst it is important to plan and be purposeful, it is also fundamentally important to accept that things change. Perhaps you will have terrible morning sickness and not be able to work as you anticipated. Or perhaps you will return to work 2 days per week only to realise that you would rather be in the office more often.
So set goals, plan to achieve them and also plan to change them as needed.
2. Stay in touch when on maternity leave
Staying in touch on maternity leave can be a touchy subject for some. There is an often expressed view that maternity leave is a time for cutting ties from work and focusing 100% on your baby and family.
Contrary to this, we recommend that you do anything but completely cut ties. We suggest that you keep in touch whilst on maternity leave in a way that suits you and your team. This might be by casually dropping in for lunch or morning tea on a regular basis, attending work social functions, formally coming in to attend team meetings from time to time, or perhaps regular one on ones with your boss. (You may even be able to negotiate the use of paid keeping in touch days under the Fair Work Act.)
Why should you do this? To ensure people don’t forget that you exist, who you are, or that you are a lawyer as well as a mum. It is also important to ensure that when you come back to work you are ready to go, rather than needing to catch up on what might be a whole bunch of workplace changes.
3. Network outside your workplace
It is also important to keep yourself known and active in your industry, not just your specific workplace. By keeping yourself involved in your industry, and maintaining client relationships (even if on a much smaller scale), you continue to maintain your profile which is highly important in the competitive legal environment.
There are a variety of options for this, and they are not always the obvious ones. You might be a regular at industry group functions, or perhaps you take the opportunity while on maternity leave to join a committee and keep involved with the industry in that capacity. Many of the Women Lawyers committee members have continued on during maternity leave. This is particularly useful when you want to avoid having a “gap” on your resume.
If face to face is too hard, try working on your online presence instead. LinkedIn is a huge professional networking platform and is widely valued by many. Even if you are not posting your own content you can always follow along and comment on what others are doing or saying.
Whenever you experience a major change in life, like starting a family, it is important to have someone that you can rely on to help you navigate that change.
The obvious starting point is mentors within your own organization, who can keep you abreast of changes at work whilst you are on leave, and who can champion you when you can’t be there to do it for yourself. But don’t stop there.
Look further afield to see if you can find a mentor external to your workplace as they can provide a great different perspective. Places to search include formal industry mentoring programs, or programs run by universities. Or you might just feel brave enough to reach out to someone you know and admire and ask them to help. The key to selecting a good mentor is to find someone you can relate to, who is a few steps ahead on the journey and can show you how it’s done.
5. Flexible working
Despite what a lot of social media would have you believe, flexible working is not the ultimate solution to managing the juggle of a career and family. However, it does have a key role to play.
Flexible working is about working when, where and how you want. In a previous episode of The Juggle podcast (episode 17) we spoke about the core things to know about flexible working. Two of those include the need for creating strong boundaries so that flexible working doesn’t become working all the time, and related to that, the benefit and burden of technology which can mean that you are contactable at all times. In other words, flexible working has its downside and you will need to be prepared to manage expectations of yourself and others to make it work.
As high achieving individuals, it’s not uncommon to hear of female lawyers becoming a bit bored whilst on maternity leave. A way to get over this without rushing back to work might be to allocate some time to personal or professional development. Not only does this ease the boredom, it also helps you grow and develop as a person and professional.
Options include everything from regularly reading industry news or magazines, to doing online courses, to one day workshops, to completing formal diplomas or degrees!
It is particularly important to keep up with changes happening in your area of law to ensure that when you return to work you can hit the ground running, and your supervisors and clients have trust in you to do so.
7. Prioritise and review
Motherhood and a career are not mutually exclusive – and one doesn’t have to massively derail the other. When you become a mother, it’s OK to slow down the pace, pick up the pace, or just stop altogether for a while. Do what’s right for you. Be mindful about the life you want to live, focus on your goals, prioritise them, review them regularly and be prepared to adjust.