For many women in their 20's and 30's, the greatest professional hurdle they'll need to overcome has little to do with their work life. The most focused, confident, and ambitious women can find themselves derailed by a tiny little thing: a new baby. While more workplaces are espousing family-friendly cultures, women are still subject to a "parenting penalty" and high-profile conflicts between parenting and the workplace are all over the news: from the controversy over companies covering the costs of egg-freezing to the debate over parental leave and childcare inspired by Marissa Mayer's policies at Yahoo.
Here's the Plan offers an inventive and inspiring roadmap for working mothers steering their careers through the parenting years. Author Allyson Downeyfounder of weeSpring, the Yelp for baby products, and mother of two young childrenadvises readers on all practical aspects of ladder-climbing while parenting, such as negotiating leave, flex time, and promotions. In the style of #GIRLBOSS or Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, Here's the Plan is the definitive guide for ambitious mothers, written by one working mother to another.
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About the Author
Allyson Downey is an entrepreneur, writer, and parent who has built a career on the power of trusted advice. In 2013, she launched weeSpring, a Techstars-backed startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. weeSpring has received accolades from TechCrunch, Mashable, CNBC, and the Daily Mail, and it was heralded as “Yelp for baby products” by InStyle magazine.
Allyson has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts, and a BA from Colby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools, one of the country's top charter management organizations, and lives in Boulder with her husband and two children.
Read an Excerpt
A couple years after I finished business school, there was a point at which all of my friends were pregnant. It was like a chain reaction via email: “I’m having a baby in January!” “Me too!” “I’m due in November!” Though it felt like a bizarre coincidence, it shouldn’t have. Having each put in our time and, having established a little professional stability, it made sense that it was “time” to start families. (I mention this because a lot of newly pregnant women suddenly feel very alone. It doesn’t help that we’re expectedeven encouragedto keep our pregnancies secret until the end of the first trimester.)
No one talks about pregnancy in professional terms before you get pregnant. You might have a colleague who has taken maternity leave, or you might have done some digging during your interview process to find out what the policies were. But there’s no coursework or formal training in how to keep your career on track when you have a baby. My friend Margo called it “the missing class” in our MBA educations. “It would have been a lot more practical for me,” she said, “than the price elasticity of demand and microeconomic theory. Should we send a note to the dean?”
Many women, for instance, are astonished to find that they aren’t entitled to any paid parental leave after the birth of a child; to get any paid time off they need to cobble together accrued vacation time or sick leave. To really give us time to save enough funds, this information should be shared in high schoolnever mind in college or graduate school.
I certainly was astonished by the experience I encountered when I was pregnant with my first child.
In 2010, I graduated from Columbia Business School with a plum job lined up on Wall Street. I say “plum” because I consciously chose it; I had a strong sense of what I wanted, and I researched it carefully before deciding. For one, a commission-driven business-development role appealed to me: generate X revenue for the firm, get paid Y dollars. Since so much of the job was about meeting with clients, I could bend those meetings around my schedule. And because the concept of forced face time (the act of physically being present at the office, to signal that you’re working hard) was less relevant in this position, ducking out for a pediatrician visit or coming in after school drop-off felt very feasible.
Whenever I sat down to meet with a woman in the firm during the interview process, I asked her about balance and family. I raised those questions candidly, whether it was an off-the-record informational session or a formal interview, and I think I received candid answers.
At the time, I talked to every woman I could. Pretty soon after I started my job, I realized I had in fact talked to all of themthat the New York office had only a handful of non-administrative women in a staff of nearly 100. I should have seen that red flag early on: on the day when I received my job offer, two managing directors took me to lunch. After we made all the requisite small talk, they asked me to join the firm, and I asked off-handedly what percentage of the division was female. But while I had requested a number, they answered me in names. “Well, there’s ______, ______, _______ in New York and _______ in Boston. We’ve got _______ in San Francisco, and ______ in Chicago.” Now, I don’t think it was an exhaustive list, but they were doing the mental equivalent of counting their (non-secretarial) female employees on their fingers.
I saw this overwhelmingly male culture as a challenge. I was sure I had more mettle than the women who’d come before meI was more tenacious and assertive. I believed that, if I wanted it badly enough, if I worked hard enough, my gender need have nothing to do with my ability to succeed on Wall Street. And I was rightfor a while. The same calculated, meticulous, incessant follow-up that had served me well in previous jobs was starting to work for me in this role, too, and the firm noticed. In one of our quarterly check-ins, the managing director who ran the New York officeessentially my boss’s bosstold me that, in a field with a notoriously high attrition rate, he believed I was their best hope for success out of our incoming MBA class. Soon after, when I announced my pregnancy, I told him I planned to take only six weeks’ maternity leave because I wanted to signal how committed I was to the job.
A couple weeks later my doctorconcerned about pre-term labor, told me, “I want you off your feet. You should be working from home 75 percent of the time.” From there I went straight to my office, having emailed my direct manager en route. I packed up my laptop, pulled together documents for face-to-face meetings, got a network-access encryption key from IT, and left. I could make phone calls and send emails from anywhere; this wasn’t going to slow me down. And in fact the first problems I encountered manifested as just red tape details. My encryption key wasn’t working, but IT couldn’t get to it right away, and they didn’t know how to install the phone software I’d need to make calls from home in compliance with company policy. But then, because it looked like I was progressing toward labor, I had a few emergency trips to the hospital. I was 23 weeks pregnant; if you deliver at that gestational stage, there’s only a 10 percent survival rate. “If you can get to 24 weeks,” my doctor said, “it’s 50 percent.”
I fired off an email to my firm, sending it to both my boss and my HR contact. I explained that I had to be entirely off my feet, but emphasized that I would still like to work from home. I asked to set up some time to discuss logistics. No response. Voicemails I sent to the same effect also got no response. I emailed the managing director who ran the New York office. Silence.
I did this every day for two weeks. I also started Googling “employment protection during pregnancy” and “how do I find an employment attorney.” Wracked with anxiety, not just about my baby but now also about my job, I asked my doctor what to do. Was I about to lose everything in one fell swoop? “Copy me on your emails to them,” she said. “Ask them what additional documentation they need.”
Finally a response: I got a call from HR. The HR contact told me simply, “On Monday, you should call our insurance provider to initiate your disability leave.” She didn’t present it as a choice or offer me any alternative; the call lasted a few minutes and addressed only the human resource implications. No one asked me what I wanted. No one other than HR talked to me at all. I never heard from my direct manager, or the managing director of the New York officethe one who’d told me how promising my trajectory was. And that was the last day I worked on Wall Street.
When I resigned by phone, I worked to keep my voice level despite feeling like I’d throw up. I explained that I believed I had been the subject of pregnancy discriminationand that I couldn’t imagine returning to a workplace that treated women as I had been treated. I had one request, and that was for an exit interview with a senior managerso I could make sure someone in a decision-making role was aware of my experience.
Taken at 30,000 feet, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity about what exactly I experienced. Were the actions of my firm (or inactions, in this case) discriminatory, or were they more of an indicator of general incompetence or bureaucratic bungling? Why were so few women doing the theoretically family-friendly job I’d signed on for? Was what I’d experienced endemic? Were the men I’d worked with really that oblivious to what it takes to retain female employees? Or did they not really care about diversity, and see me (consciously or not) as a liability rather than as an asset?
Whatever it was that actually happened, I was certainly clear on how I felt: furious. I was appalled that this could happen to methat it had happened to me. I weighed the long-term costs of carrying this rage around with me. I wanted to just let it go, but it wasn’t going to dissipate on its own. So I pursued mediation, at the invitation of my employers.
I arrived in the morning with my lawyer, and around three o’clock that afternoon I walked out. Here’s what I didn’t have when I left that building: the sense of resolution I’d hoped for. A meaningful apology. An understanding of what would change. The belief that my experience actually meant something. What I did have: the knowledge that I’d done the right thing, and the right to tell my story.
There’s a happy ending to this story, though it’s more of a happy middle: I delivered a perfectly healthy, full-term, six-pound baby named Logan. I took a big mental step back to think about what I really wanted professionally. My career at the investment firm was dead: since they had nudged me out in the middle of my pregnancy before I could put a plan in place to cover the business I had been developing, I had virtually no hope of re-engaging those prospects. So I worked on my résumé between breastfeeding sessions, and I started interviewing when Logan was just a few weeks old. I accepted one of three job offers, at a non-profit that trains outstanding educators to become school leaders. My base salary was actually higher than at the firmand it was fine that I left every day at five o’clock. Then, a little over a year after that, I started weeSpring.
My path hasn’t been a straight-line trajectory, and none of it has been easy. (I don’t think any parent would use “easy” to describe her life!) But it’s beenand continues to beboth fun and fulfilling. And while I wouldn’t change anything about where I’ve landed professionally, there are countless things I would have done differently along the way. There were a handful of things I did right, like realizing I’d landed myself in the wrong job and needed to get out, and not signing any post-resignation documents without consulting a lawyer. But so many things that could have been easy seemed painfully complex, like understanding short-term disability. And even the things that seemed simple felt fraught. Not knowing exactly which and how many forms I needed to complete gave me that pervasive sinking feeling that I’d forgotten something important. Even just telling colleagues and clients that I was pregnant was a sweat-inducing experience: when should I tell them? What should I tell them? What would they say? Thenonce I returned to workthere were the logistical hurdles, like arranging a pumping schedule around meetings. I made countless missteps along the way, both big and small, and I’ve seen my friends and peers struggle similarly.
Federal policy is way behind the curve when it comes to protecting women. We have no national policy affording paid parental leave, which puts women in significant financial binds. There are some discriminatory protections, but it’s hard to prove discriminationnever mind shoulder the emotional and literal costs of litigation. And even with groundswell political changes, attitudes and culture are ingrained. As one woman put it: “People have their views on pregnant women and mothers.” Often, those views have nothing to do with you, or how hard you workand they’re not going to shift overnight. While we have to work within the reality we’ve got right now, know that this road had been trod before. You are not alone.
In lieu of that pregnancy-and-your-professional-life class we never got, I’m here with a step-by-step guide to making it to the other side of motherhood with your career intact and on track. My goal with this book is to help you avoid the landmines by sharing the stories of countless women like you who successfully traversed the minefield. And while there’s no single right answer to most of the questions working mothers face, there are a lot of wrong ones. Hopefully the insights in this book will help you move from open-ended questions to multiple-choice ones. Consider this a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure guide.
Back when I was in business school, I met with a woman who’d made managing director soon after her babies were born. “Live close to where you work,” she told me. “Time you’re spending commuting is time you’re doing neither of the things you care about.” The simplicity of that statement stuck with me, and I realized there are so many, many little things you can do to smooth your pathif you know what they are, especially ahead of time. I wanted to find out what those things were, and make it easy for other women to figure out how to make work work. Over the course of six months, I conducted extensive interviews with more than fifty highly successful women. I collected feedback and data from thousands more, sifting through the 1,800 pages I’d compiled of their advice. Put simply, I did the research so you don’t have to.
You’ll see I cite a lot of women working in big jobs at big companies, but I collected stories and insights from women all over the professional map. I heard from pastry chefs, ER doctors, legal assistants, schoolteachers, hotel managers, and nearly every other profession imaginable. Nearly 80 percent of them had income below $100,000, with about half of the total falling in the $50,000 to $99,000 range. The common thread among all is that they’re invested in their professional lives. Their jobs are more than a paycheck, and they want to continue to grow in their careers.
A lot of the advice you’ll find in this book is specific to the stages of pregnancy and parenthood, like sharing the news and prepping for your return. But it’s also all about context; being awareearly onof the realities of life as a working mother gives you some time to make a plan. Fortunately, these pages are rife with quotes from women sharing what they did, or wish they’d done, before getting pregnant. You’ll also find out how to initiate conversations with your manager and colleagues about pregnancy, and how to make sure your job gets donewell!in your absence. And if you find yourself sidelined like I was, you’ll know whom you can turn to and what your options are.
Part 1 covers all you’ll need to know or do before your baby arrives. Chapters 1 and 2 apply to most if not all women striving to maintain her nameplate on her desk while she welcomes another being into the world. Those first two chapters cover pretty much everything about maternity leave that is likely to come up. The next two chapters apply to specific cases: Chapter 3 is for women who are looking for a new role during pregnancy or maternity leave; and Chapter 4 outlines what to do should you find yourself the subject of of discrimination. Then, Part 2 covers your post-baby life, from making the most of maternity leave to re-assimilating into the office. There’s a lot on childcare, because Iand many of the women I spoke withbelieve that finding the right caregiver for your baby is critically important to your professional success.
So, again, while Here’s the Plan is a play-by-play guide, it’s also about preparedness, and I encourage you to start weaving your safety net as early as you can. Work your tail off and get ahead. As one commanding officer in the U.S. Navy said, “You can pay it forward when you’re young and have the energy.” You’re building the political and reputational capital you may need to cash in on later, but for now, “Blow through their expectations.” Even if you’re moving on to another employer, your reputation will follow you. Meanwhile, start practicing at making your career and your personal life fit together. Even the most progressive, family-friendly company isn’t going to solve that problem for you: you need to take ownership of that yourself. One woman likened the lead-up to having (and raising) children to running a marathon. “It’s not about waking up and running 26.2 miles. It’s getting up on Wednesday and running three miles, then doing five on Saturday.” Think of this book as your trail map, letting you know where the hills areeven if you’re not yet ready to run the whole course.
So let’s begin!
Table of Contents
Author's Note 1
Part 1 Making Your Plan 13
Chapter 1 The Ins and Outs of Family Leave 15
What Time Away Means 16
How Long Is Enough? How Long Is Too Much? 20
Overview of Family Leave in the U.S 29
Understanding Your Employee Handbook 31
Assessing Your Leave Options 33
Crafting Your Leave, and Negotiating It 36
Chapter 2 Putting Your Plan into Action: Preparing for Your Leave 45
When and How to Announce Your Pregnancy at Work 45
The Unpleasant Realities of Being Pregnant in an Office 59
Setting Priorities 62
Making Your Plan 68
Other Practical Matters 81
Chapter 3 Making a Change: When Family Planning and Job Searching Coincide 83
Interviewing While Pregnant or a New Parent 88
Chapter 4 Family Responsibilities Discrimination and Pregnancy Discrimination 99
A Brief Introduction to Pregnancy and Caregiver Protections 101
Discrimination in Legal Terms 102
What to Do 106
Finding an Employment Lawyer 109
What's Your End Game? 113
Part 2 After Baby Arrives 117
Chapter 5 Maternity Leave 119
Maternity Leave Outside the U.S 121
Reality with a Newborn 122
Feeling a Little Less Alone 124
Missing the Gold Star 126
Giving Yourself a Break 127
Hiring Helpers 128
Making Childcare a Family Affair 129
Networking with Other Mothers 133
Fear of Missing Out 135
Reconnecting with the Office 138
Chapter 6 Hiring a Caregiver 141
Finding Trusted Recommendations 144
Daycare Basics 145
Working with a Nanny 148
Nanny Share 101 153
Hiring an Au Pair 154
Chapter 7 Returning to Work 161
Managing Your Day 162
Managing Your Nights and Weekends 165
Working with a Coach 168
Reclaiming Your Turf 170
Setting Boundaries 172
Maintaining Your Privacy 175
The Guilt Trap 176
Looking Good, Feeling Good Redux 179
Working from Home 181
Dealing with the Unexpected 185
Life on the Road 186
Breast-feeding and Working 188
Baby Brain Is Real, but It's Not What You Think 199
Sleep Deprivation 202
Postpartum Depression and Anxiety 207
Making Time for You 212
Part 3 Paying It Forward 217
Chapter 8 What to Do to Drive Change 219
What You Can Do 219
What Companies Can Do 222
The Honest Truth 228
Practical Matters 231
Further Reading 236
What'll You'll Find Online 238