Someone once asked me, what are your experiences as a software developer and a parent? How do you balance the two? Especially as a senior woman who took a bit of time off to be a parent and then came back – how does that work? This was in the context of having a brand new baby coming. I’m far from that, and that gives me perspective that I didn’t have then. In hopes of helping someone else, here’s one person’s perspective…
First off, I will be very honest and say that I would not do it differently, I don’t think, but it’s not always been an easy road, and I’ve not always been comfortable with my choice. First the timeline:
- Worked for 10 years after graduating from college
- First kid born in my early 30s
- Telecommuted starting when oldest was 6MO (we moved for spouse’s new job), while she was cared for by nanny
- Left workforce for a while after 2nd kid (1st one didn’t get me out of the workforce, but the 2nd did)
- 3 kids total over 5 years
- Returned about 6 years after I left to a group very close to the group I had previously worked with (diff. company because of acquisition)
Been working for 10 years since, doing all kinds of different things, both technical career path and leadership roles.
Choices and Consequences
If you choose this path, I recommend going into it with your eyes open and aware of the consequences (it’s not necessarily the right path nor necessarily the wrong path, just choices have consequences…).
My salary is lower than it would have been, had I not taken those 6 years off. My salary was slightly higher than my husband’s before I had kids. After and after taking time off…… not so much. That, plus cumulative years of not saving for retirement definitely have a financial impact. I am fortunate in that I am still married to my husband (26+ years now) and he is also in this business so making a good salary. But many marriages don’t work out, and sometimes even those that do have risky parts and accidents and that financial hit is harder on the one who took time off (who is more likely female). Some people never recover from this hit.
I would be higher on my career path than I am, had I not taken those years off. My company went through an acquisition and the levels were reset. The jobcode was the same, but new levels had been added while I was gone, and my old level was now 2 levels higher (if that makes sense…). Now I’m at a flatter startup, which doesn’t have such stratified levels, but the consequence still carries forward. Caveat Emptor again.
With one child, frankly, I was a better parent when I was working. For me, leaving the workforce and focusing on parenting with two and then three kids was both fun and not mentally challenging enough. I have raised 3 STEM oriented daughters, and have modeled for them that women can be excited and technically challenged and still be female and “Mom-orial”. When I was home and past the crazy, sleep-deprived days of early baby-hood, I had to challenge myself to keep my brain active. We walked and studied physics by dropping things and I was the tech-oriented Girl Scout leader and volunteered in my kids’ elementary school math classes and… And my kids went to lots of different activities and weekly to the zoo and the science museum and on woods-walks and other expeditions because frankly, for me, I went NUTS when at home all day every day. And so it was great and great fun. Are my kids better for it? I don’t know… It was definitely a luxury rather than a requirement.
The previous one is the key – the best expert on each of us is ourselves, and you might discover things you didn’t realize about your by choosing to continue to work. Or choosing to stay home. Or choosing a blend.
Plan for a return transition
American society at least tends to encourage women to take a career hit to raise children, and once women are out and immersed in that world, it can be hard to imagine a transition back. Between the negative self talk re family (how could I do all the things I do with my kids *and* a job?? What would be the impact on my kids? On my family? On my *life*? ) and the macho interview environment where taking a break stands out like a sore thumb and the interview stories are filled with gotcha deep algorithm questions and “what have you done on git lately?” (not all true, but that’s what it can feel like), returning can seem like a postponable, daunting task. And it is, if a person lets it be. What would you do if you were not afraid? comes to mind here.
I was able to return to the workforce easily because my old workgroup was staffing up a new project and people still remembered me from 6 years before. Someone looking for a recruiting bonus called up and asked if I wanted to come back. I was thinking I’d look for a job in another year or two (once youngest was in school), but was flexible enough to jump on this one. I sent a resume back saying “part time” and “telecommute” and they bit immediately. As a telecommuter, I still had a nanny (my kids got out more than I did), but was at home. My older daughters were very proud, another benefit of being a working parent.
My transition back to the workforce was also hastened because my older sister passed away about 4 weeks before my old colleague called up. Her death served as a reminder that life is short and one doesn’t always have the luxury of “I’ll do that in a few years when an opportunity comes around again…” Do what you love while you can, and for me, I love both parenting and writing software and am able to do both. Mostly.
The keys to making that transition possible were my ability to be flexible, the fact that I still networked and people remembered me, and I kept up with the fields I’m in, doing lots of reading, etc. Very important if you do decide to take a break.
Bring your all and be ready to flex
And that’s the most important thing for me – it was “take a break”, not “leave the industry.” Attitude matters. I love writing software, the act of creating something to match the system in my mind. I love doing it with an awesome team, and I love organizing that team so that we can do cool stuff and everyone’s head is in the game. When that works, there’s no better feeling in the world. When it doesn’t, well, it’s good to have a family to lean back on, to have crazy dance marathons in the kitchen and to go for walks.
And I love, love, love being the parent of 3 teenage daughters as well, and seeing the people that they are becoming. And modeling for them that it’s OK to be female and technical *and* a parent. Even in the really hard moments when life is horribly out of balance.
Babies are small, very time-intensive, and as they discover the world, very delightful. In some ways, it really is a new love affair with life itself (but with much more sleep deprivation), and it’s hard to balance that with work when everything is attuned to exploring the world with new eyes and protecting this new life. As our children grow, it is amazingly cool to see how they and the world interact, and modern parenting comes with an endless supply of activities and engagements that can leave parents *and* children breathless with busyness and awash in the mundane. And I know of some people who revel in this, and some people who use it as a protective barrier to justify not taking risks and some people who balance that with their own adult interests. Only you know what the right choice is for you and it’s OK to discover that you do or don’t prefer a particular or binary choice, or that the right thing to do changes over time.