Career derailment. I should have seen it coming.
I knew it would be hard, of course I did. When you’re a lawyer working in the City, working late into the night and all day at the weekend, you’d be naive to think that having a kid and keeping your career on track would be easy. But knowing something is going to be tough doesn’t mean you can do something about it. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Looking back on that time now, with the benefit of hindsight, research and years of experience under my belt, I realise I was wrong. There was plenty I could have done differently to prepare for what lay ahead, if only I’d known.
It took just under two years, from the time my first son was born, for my career to go off track. In this blog I am going to share the 6 things I should have done differently to avoid career derailment, in the hope that when it’s your turn, you’ll be able to avoid the same fate.
1. Do my homework
I should have done my homework. I knew I wanted to have kids one day, and still carry on working. I also knew that many who had tried it before had struggled to make it work, and had either switched companies to go somewhere more forgiving, or they’d left their career behind entirely. If I knew this, why didn’t I make the effort to find out more? To avoid career derailment I should have done my homework. I should have connected with those who had trodden the path before me and found out (a) what the main challenges were that lay ahead and (b) the best advice about how I could overcome them.
2. Be better prepared
I should have been better prepared. Instead I approached the biggest transition of my life with the flaky excuse that I’d “cross that bridge” when I came to it. If only I’d found out more about what it would take to be a working parent – resilience, people on my side, assertiveness to name but a few – I could have prepared myself better. To avoid career derailment for example, I should have built and nurtured my key relationships within my organisation. You know, the relationships with people who make or influence decisions about things like flexible working and who would be willing and able to support me on my career path, and make a case for me if things got tricky.
3. Find a role model
Don’t get me wrong, I did look for a role model. But when I saw there was no other female lawyer in my organisation who had kids and was making it work, I jumped to the conclusion that it couldn’t be done. If only I’d looked harder for a role model to inspire me and help me keep the faith. To avoid career derailment I should have looked further afield, beyond my firm. I would have found that there are women in high flying careers who are making it work, and perhaps that would have given me the courage to become the first role model in my own firm.
4. Build my network
I should have built my wider network. Truth be told, I didn’t do any networking before I had kids. I didn’t feel I had the time, hardly saw the point and felt too protective of what little spare time I had left at the end of a working day to dedicate more of it to my firm’s needs. I hadn’t realised that building a network wasn’t just for attracting clients for my firms benefit, it was about making connections for my own benefit. Best case scenario: I’d bring in business for my firm which would count enormously in my favour when it came to convincing the powers that be of my value and that they didn’t want to lose me. Worse case scenario, i.e. if things didn’t work out for the best, I would have a wide network of contacts outside my firm to call on if I needed to jump ship.
5. Talk to my partner
I mean really talk. Not just about our plans to have kids someday, but how that would work, what that would actually look like. It’s because we didn’t have this conversation that we fell into the situation where his career carried on as normal, and mine took all the hits. It was me, not him, that went part time and reduced my salary; it was me, not him, who became the default parent, who always had to make arrangements if our baby was sick, and who carried the weight of the domestic burden. This wasn’t our plan. It just evolved that way. To avoid career derailment I should have talked to him about so many things: Who would do the heavy lifting? How could we share things equally? What impact would it have on our respective careers? How would we share the domestic burden at home? And if it was today, how would we split parental leave?
6. Remembered why I work
When you have a kid, a funny thing happens, especially (but not only) if you’re the mum. That kid becomes the most important thing in the universe to you. Kind of like the sun. And so it should be, right? Problem is, just like the sun they give off such a brilliant dazzling light that it puts everything else in the shadows. And you forget. You forget all the reasons why you were working in the first place. Not the money bit. That bit you stay acutely aware of. It’s the other stuff; the other reasons you work. The reasons you ended up in your chosen career in the first place. If only I’d reminded myself why I had studied and worked so hard over the years. If only I’d remembered how important security and independence were to me, and how much I valued recognition and achievement, being challenged and having the opportunity to learn and grow. To avoid career derailment I should have kept in touch with my values and remembered why I work and what I would miss when I was gone. Then it wouldn’t have been quite so easy to walk away.
Interested in more on this topic? Download What to do now, before you have kids, to stop career derailment when they come along a Free Guide for anyone planning to have kids some day. Download your copy here.