Despite my evolving feelings about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, one gem of wisdom that I continue to find critical as I’m coaching those who plan to become working parents in the near future is, "Don’t leave before you leave." Women take themselves off their career paths and out of workplaces that could potentially be supportive because of looming fears that they will be overwhelmed—needing to do it all and look perfect while doing it. Yet Laura Vanderkam points out in her book, I Know How She Does It, that often times the more senior roles bring greater autonomy and control over one’s schedule—so continuing on the rising path can offer more flexibility than most women assume.
Instead of taking yourself out of the game prematurely, if you’re considering starting a family within the next three years, I recommend these three paths forward:
1. Learn the art of authentic self-promotion
As I continue to point out in my writing, workshops and work with clients—doing good work is important. But it is not what gets you a larger budget for your project, head count on your team, promotions or raises. Most importantly, it does not help you make a bigger impact in your organization or in the world. You MUST tell people about the good work you’re doing, the work you’re proud to produce and the teams you’ve built. I’ve outlined ways to practice this skill in my 5 Commandments Of Self-Promotion. If you plant the seeds of your value early and often, when it comes time to have conversations about flexibility to navigate working parent life, you will find yourself having a vastly different dialogue than if you begin proving your value at the very moment you need support.
2. Practice boundary setting
How do you envision your working parent life to look? Truly, you will never know how it will go until you get there, but you can run some experiments and simulations that include setting clear boundaries around time. You can practice leaving the office at 5:30, perhaps exercise or cook a healthy meal instead of ordering in. Make your health a priority during this time, and beyond the benefits you will receive in energy, you will learn the art of asking for what you want…and holding to it. You can always get back online for an hour or so after you’re exercised, fed and on your couch—if you think it will help you get a better night’s sleep and start fresh in the AM. Notice how it feels for you to set different boundaries. What comes up? How can you work through it with your leaders? How can you be more efficient with your time while you’re in the office so that the organization will not be negatively impacted by this change?
3. Build out your network
Seek out other working parents who appear to be doing it well. Learn from them. Nurture these relationships so you can expand your understanding of what’s possible and be inspired by all they’re pulling off. Also, use this time to find advocates within your company and beyond. Before I had my first daughter, a former colleague was looking to recruit me into his new organization. I was transparent—as I have a tendency to be—and told him, "I’m on the path to having a child. If you have something flexible to offer in a year or so, I’m in." Eyes wide, he was not expecting that to come out of my mouth, and yet he hired me a year and a half later for a flexible marketing role where I controlled my hours.
As with anything in life, the more intentional you are about what you want to create, the more likely it is that you will make it so. While you don’t need to switch gears to get on what you assume is the mommy or parent track, you can begin thinking about your vision—redefining what success looks like for you as you enter working parenthood, while testing the waters to see if you’re in a place that will support you in claiming it.