It should be noted that career pauses don’t just happen when children are young. Many women wait until their children are older to pause. Consider Monica Johnson, my friend from the Not-So-New Mothers Group: She continued working full-time as a start-up CFO until her kids were in high school. Then, their busy athletic schedules and a series of related sports injuries, coupled with the fact that her children would soon be leaving the nest, finally convinced Monica to downshift her career.
“I knew they would be heading off to college soon and I wanted to be able to spend as much quality time with them as I could before they left,” she told me. Today, Monica works as a part-time CFO on a consulting basis for a number of early-stage companies. When her youngest heads off to college, she plans to fully reengage in the workforce.
Another subgroup of women who pause are those with elderly parents. Women who never considered pausing when their children were young are now being forced to as their parents are getting older. As a result, a later-in-life career break is becoming more and more of a reality for working daughters.
In truth, pausing is likely to become the norm for more and more working women. The classic career ladder paradigm you know, the one that says you’ve got to climb one rung after the other until you finally reach the top doesn’t work for those of us with caregiving responsibilities. As a result, women are disrupting the paradigm and fashioning non-linear careers that allow them to integrate their personal and professional goals.
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Sadly, almost every single woman I spoke to shared that she had suffered deep self-doubt, regret, and insecurity while she reframed her focus away from her career to her children. When they tried to reengage professionally, some felt they faced significant roadblocks. Sexism, ageism, and a perception that their time away from the paid workforce meant they did not keep their skills fresh and relevant left them feeling resentful and angry.
Despite it all, the vast majority reported they wouldn’t change a thing. And they are not alone. The Pew Research Center reports that 87 percent of those who have quit their job to care for a family member are glad they did, as are 94 percent of those who have reduced their hours and 88 percent who turned down a promotion.22 Putting the needs of one’s family ahead of one’s career can be hard, but for the vast majority of those who choose to do so, it is exactly the right decision. It is time we come to recognize that those who place the personal before the professional aren’t failures; they are career innovators who have the courage and grit to risk it all for that which matters most to them.
We need a new narrative that recognizes the realities of women’s (and men’s) lives. We need to understand that, for most, pausing isn’t a choice, it’s a last-resort solution. We need to support those who pause to care for family. And, we need to help them keep their pauses brief so they can bring their full talents back to the workforce as soon as possible.
It is time we come to recognize that those who place the personal before the professional aren’t failures; they are career innovators who have the courage and grit to risk it all for that which matters most to them.
If we don’t make these changes, another twenty years will fly by and the next generation of highly skilled, well-educated talent will do what my generation has done. They’ll hunker down and find private solutions that may work for their families but don’t do anything to change the system for all.
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