Four years ago, I was starting my second job out of university, a step up in my career, when my cousin encouraged me to read Sheryl Sandberg’s newly released “Lean In.” Several months earlier, Marissa Mayer was hired as Yahoo’s CEO despite being seven months pregnant. In my own personal life, I was about to get married and I looked up to these women who, to me in my youthful state, seemed to have it all.
I heeded Sheryl’s advice as I leaned into my new job as a software product manager, sitting at the table, putting my fears aside, and finding myself a mentor to help me as I evaluated my climb up the corporate jungle gym in the hi-tech world. At home, my husband and I discussed children, but I pressed to wait a bit longer as I wanted to further establish myself in the professional world. At the time, putting children on hold was the easy decision.
Around that time, my friends started having children. I looked on as they took maternity leave, putting work temporarily aside to care for their little ones. After several months, they grudgingly returned to their respective work place, tiny tots in daycare, full of guilt, and juggling it all as best they could.
A few years passed and as my professional status changed, I was offered a tempting opportunity at a startup company. My husband supported me as I took the opportunity, even though he knew that meant I wanted to put our discussions regarding children on hold again. My mother– a successful career woman who raised two kids herself–kept reminding me that a new job wasn’t a valid reason to put children on hold.
Fast forward to now: I’m pregnant with my first child, and I’ve already started my maternity leave despite it being over a month before my due date. This wasn’t my choice, but startups tend to close shop quickly, which is what happened to ours. I now find myself pondering my work status during my third trimester–big belly, pregnancy glow, and unable to realistically job hunt in my current situation.
This isn’t how I expected to take my maternity leave. During those years that I spent building my professional career, I always envisioned myself working to the last day before I give birth, leaving an organized list of tasks to whoever would replace me during my leave. For years, my smartphone beeped with every incoming work email and I expected to stay, um, abreast of office goings-on while breastfeeding, eager to get baby and myself into a routine so I could go back to work as soon as my paid leave was over.
Last week, as I read about this year’s International Women’s Day campaign to #BeBoldForChange to help forge a better and more gender inclusive world, I couldn’t help but feel bad about my own professional pause. For some women, the ability to take a long, worry-free maternity leave is a blessing. For me, I find it stressful that I don’t have a job to go back to. Statistics show that women after childbirth have a more difficult time finding jobs than their male counterparts. The gap in my resume will remind potential employers about my status as a mom, encouraging the idea that I will be called on as the primary caregiver when my daughter is sick and needs to be cared for, regardless of my husband’s commitment to share the burden.
When Marissa Mayer took limited time off (less than a month!) after the birth of her twins in December 2015, she defended her choice, saying she’s the exception and doesn’t expect Yahoo-ians to follow suit. Mayer, who had a nursery built in her office after the birth of her first child, has resources beyond what most of her employees have available to them. Shortly thereafter, Sheryl Sandberg admitted to getting a few things wrong in her book, “Lean In,” regarding the difficulties faced by single mothers. She acknowledged her own privilege as she says the US needs to rethink policies to better support single mothers.
I no longer look upon these women as magical unicorns who have it all, perfectly balancing successful careers and happy homes. They are women who juggle their careers and motherhood in the way they best see fit for themselves and their families. Whether they feel guilty about not being home to eat dinner with their kids or about attending a board meeting remotely is their choice.
I hope to be able to return to work when I am ready. I hope my daughter will grow up, admiring her working mother who still finds time to come and cheer her on at every recital, school play, and little league game. Mostly, I hope my husband and I are successful in giving her a view of a household in which both parents work, yet share the household responsibilities, as well as sharing the joys (and tumults) of raising children in a more gender inclusive world.