Dear career women on the rise, our future leaders, millennial change-makers, and my 25-year-old self, Until you have kids, you can’t really comprehend how much life changes. How much your career changes. Everyone with kids tells you that — and you roll your eyes and say you know. But I don’t think you really know. I certainly didn’t. When I was working my ass off in college / applying to law school / working my ass off in law school / applying for jobs / then working my ass off as a lawyer, having kids wasn’t on my radar. Yes, I always knew I wanted a family, but when I was in the grind, I had on my rose-colored glasses. I was surrounded by peers who didn’t have babies — we were bonding at happy hour, loving the novelty of business trips, and working late because, well, we could. Work-life balance wasn’t a thing. Work was my life, and my life was work. And I loved it. In my mind, my career path was just straight up, with no detours along the way. I cared about how many vacation days I was granted, but family-necessary work policies like paid leave and flex time never entered my consciousness. It never crossed my mind to ask about them. Stupidly so.
In my mind, my career path was just straight up, with no detours along the way.
I’m here to tell you: Ask about them. And do yourself a favor: Ask about them before you really need these policies. Because, chances are, you will need them. You can plan all you want, but life gets messy. Life with kids? Super messy. I knew it would be “hard.” I’m telling you, multiply those expectations by 10. Your career can and will still go on, and you will still be successful, I promise, but the journey won’t be exactly how you envision it today. While I was a labor lawyer, I had two kids in my early 30s, took two maternity leaves totaling 18 weeks off, and traveled thousands of miles for work. I’m a self-confessed worker bee; I’ve had a job since I was 11. I never thought I would stop working, so I pushed through all of the fatigue and just kept going. Then my husband started his own company, which meant more traveling for him and more time alone with the kids for me. It was tough. I never got a break on the weekends, and I would return to work on Monday bleary-eyed and exhausted. Even then, I managed. But when my four-year-old was having trouble in preschool and started to need me (and I mean really need me), I had a hard time forging ahead at work. Thankfully, my husband was supportive of my decision to quit; he knew we all needed someone at home. My priorities had shifted, and I made the choice to pause my 12-year law career. I underestimated how much having kids was going to change my career focus; my time at work was often interrupted by home matters, and my time at home was distracted by finishing work tasks. I didn’t plan for it, and I know now the more you prepare your career for having a family, the easier you cruise over those bumps in the road.
I underestimated how much having kids was going to change my career focus.
Now, I am in no way saying you should "Lean Out" because you think kids will derail your career. But rather, make sure you’re working at a company that cares about this stuff. So what really matters? Here’s a little scavenger hunt for you: 1. Find out the number of weeks of paid family leave — not the number of ping-pong tournaments (though those are fun, too) — your company offers. 2. Ask how many men have taken more than two weeks for paternity leave (hello, Mark Zuckerberg). 3. Count the number of women in leadership roles. 4. Count the number of women in leadership roles who have kids. 5. Count the number of women in leadership roles who have kids and whom you would consider role models. 6. Count the number of eye rolls a woman gets for leaving work “early” to relieve the sitter. 7. Count the number of work trips you have to take in a given month. Trust me, they get tougher and tougher. 8. Scan the company’s marketing and PR language. Bonus points for commitments to professional development, equal pay, and gender diversity. 9. Explore whether the company supports a women’s group or women’s initiatives. 10. Is there free food? If so, run. (In all seriousness: Free food is awesome, but there’s a theory that some companies are just trying to get you to have every meal at work.) These work policies and cultural cues can either catapult your career with kids or stop you in your tracks. Having a senior female role model will be critical. Looking back, I wonder how I would have done things differently if I had a strong female mentor when I was at my breaking point — someone who could look into the future for me because she had been there. But I didn’t, and I decided to opt out. I can tell you: It’s not easy to get back in. I don’t regret my decision, and I do believe this was the path I was meant to take. I just wish I had been a little smarter from the start to make the finish line feel a little closer. If you do decide to take a career break, there are a few things you should absolutely do. Keep those business networks going. Continue to do things that challenge you. Discover what you’re truly passionate about. Take a class. Stay engaged. And write it all down. Because when the time comes to return to the workforce, you’ll need all that information to get back in the game. So, to the 25-year-old me, here’s what I will leave you with: Continue to have drive and ambition, but know that your career is a long journey, and that every woman’s path is unique. You can’t compare yourself to another person’s decisions. Be a little more forgiving. And find a work environment that cherishes paid leave. And ping-pong.
Jennifer Gefsky is cofounder of Après, a digital recruiting platform that connects women looking to re-enter the workforce with companies seeking talent and diversity. A lawyer by training, Jennifer was an Associate at Proskauer LLP in New York City, where she practiced labor and employment law before becoming deputy general counsel and one of the highest-ranking women at Major League Baseball. At age 30, Jennifer was recognized as a “40 Under 40 Rising Star” by Crain’s New York Business. After almost a decade at MLB, Jennifer “retired” to raise her three children, until she and Niccole Kroll came up with the idea for Après.