With the news that Apple, Facebook, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase are covering part of the cost of egg freezing, corporate America is making it easier than ever for women to delay childbearing. But while this policy allows women to extend their fertile years, the conversation about how to support women who want to start a family earlier in their careers is far from over. “There are plenty of women who have found the love of their lives early and are ready to have a baby at a younger age,” says Sonali Mathur, CEO of online education startup Test Rocker. “Having a child in your twenties or thirties should still be on the table.”
Mathur, 31, speaks from her own experience. She had her first child, Liam, six months ago and is currently living through the tribulations of being a brand new working mom: she’s battled breast pumps, ached about leaving her newborn to go on business trips, and faced long days in the office with little sleep, among many other everyday struggles.
From the outset, Mathur knew that having a baby at the prime of her career would be a challenge, but over the last 15 years, she had invested just as much effort in laying the foundations for a happy family as nurturing her professional ambitions. She met her husband, Aman, when they were high-schoolers in Mumbai. The couple jointly decided to attend the University of Notre Dame, then several years later, they went to Harvard Business School together, before tying the knot. And while most women don’t end up marrying their high school sweethearts, the majority do get married before they turn 30. (According to Pew Research, American women get married at the average age of 27.) Many of these women will face the pull of wanting to start a family at the exact moment when they are hitting their stride in their careers.
Going into her pregnancy, Mathur was fully aware that there was a decent chance she would lose her resolve and abandon her career altogether when her baby was born. This trend has been borne out in study after study. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg famously references research showing that 43% of highly qualified women with children abandon of their careers. The women in that survey were driven and ambitious: they performed well in college and many went on to receive graduate or professional degrees. They were, in short, just like Mathur.
Mathur did not want to opt out or be another victim of the leaky pipeline. So rather that waiting for the inevitable moment when she might feel the overwhelming urge to quit, she decided to pre-emptively arm herself with the tools to stay put. As an MBA worth her salt, Mathur developed a tactical six step plan of action that began before her pregnancy and took her all the way till six months after her baby was born. Although it has been a bumpy ride, her approach has proven effective. Her baby, Liam, is about to turn six months old and Mathur is as excited as ever to her job. Here is how she did it.
For Mathur, ensuring you don’t drop out of the workforce begins years before you have a baby, when you are just growing your career. “You need to feel strongly about about the mission of your company and how it allows you to use your skills because the opportunity cost of having a baby is so high,” says Mathur. “You’re going to to need that passion on the other side of the pregnancy to balance the strong pull you will feel towards your newborn.”
In her own case, Mathur loves that Test Rocker helps students bridge the gaps that exist in the current education system. But perhaps more importantly, her role at the company involves giving employees purpose and direction. The knowledge that there are other people who rely on her besides her family, was an important source of motivation to go back to work.
“Women sometimes do a poor job of understanding how valuable they are and how they fit into the tapestry of their company,” she says. And more than knowing their own value, Mathur says women should ensure managers and colleagues recognize what they bring because they will need to rely on their goodwill and flexibility as a new mom. “If there is some initial turbulence and you need some flexibility, you want everyone to understand what you bring to the table because you will need to cash in your chips,” she says.
While there are far too many biological variables that make scheduling a pregnancy virtually impossible, Mathur says that it is worth trying anyway. Most couples plan the year they will start trying to conceive, but Mathur suggests taking the process a step further and thinking about the months when having a baby might be easier. Since the summer months were slower for both Mathur and her husband, they took this into consideration in their family planning efforts. “It sounds very unromantic and calculated, but this was an excellent moment in training ourselves to be parents,” she says. “When you have a baby, everything has to be deliberate and this was the first step to thinking ahead for the sakes of our child.”
For Mathur, this attempt at scheduling worked, which she considers very lucky. But she points out that, at very least, it is possible to delay the pregnancy for a few months if something significant is happening in the near future. “Apart from your career, there are other things in your life you might need to account for,” she says. “Are you moving house? Is there a sick parent or someone you might be taking care of? These are conversations you need to have with your partner.”
Most women put up a big “Do Not Disturb” sign during their maternity leave and Mathur fully supports this. She asserts that employers should give women their privacy during this time to allow them to bond with their newborns. But she makes the case that women might want to casually check in from time to time so they don’t feel completely out of the loop upon their return. The key, she says, is to do this in a subtle way. Once a week, she asked a colleague to provide her with an update about what was going in the company, which she then reviewed at her leisure. “The whole office should not know that you’re doing this because it can be a confusing message to them,” she says. “This is not about making myself accessible to my team, but feeling connected to this job I love so much. Find a trusted co-worker or confidante to help you out.”
This process kept Mathur excited about the traction the company was having in her absence and made her return to work much easier. She was able to jump right back into her job, even though Test Rocker had signed several deals in her absence. “If you’re working in a fast-paced environment, when you come back you don’t want things to seem alien to you,” she says. But these check-ins also helped her as she transitioned into her new identity as mother. She describes how overwhelming it can be to suddenly be sucked into the uncharted territory of feeding and cleaning your baby; remembering your other roles in life can be a welcome relief.
For high achieving women, the idea of needing help might go against their basic instincts. However, for Mathur, having friends and family members step up during this period was one reason she was able to recover from her pregnancy so quickly. Her parents and in-laws were willing to come from far away to help look after the newborn, cook, clean walk the dog and tackle the massive amounts of laundry new babies produce. “I was able to get some stamina back by taking walks with Aman and eating healthier food,” Mathur says. “All this little pampering adds to how physically ready you will be to go back.”
But Mathur says that even if family members are unable to come help, it might be worth investing in a night nurse or a nanny right after the baby is born. Some women might feel that hiring help signals inadequacy as a mother, but Mathur believes that it really does take a village to raise a child. In the modern world, where family members are scattered around the globe, finding other sources of support may be the key to getting back on track in your career.
Mathur also strongly feels that women should empower their partners early on to be involved with the baby. “Women sometimes inadvertently send the signal that they are best qualified to handle the baby,” she says. “I harbored no such illusions. Aman and I both went to business school: we know equal amounts about business but zero about babies.” She says that there were times when Aman made mistakes, like putting on the diaper wrong resulting in messy leaks, but rather than being critical, Mathur let him know that she was also a bit lost. In the end, this approach meant that Aman felt equipped to take on major parenting responsibilities, like singlehandedly looking after three-month-old Liam when Mathur had to go on a business trip to Dubai.
For Mathur, one of the hardest issues involved breastfeeding. Before Liam was born, Mathur had committed to breastfeeding him for one year, something she had watched her friends manage to accomplish. However, she struggled with pumping enough milk. As a CEO, she did not have the flexibility to pump every two hours and occasionally had to travel for work, so not having enough milk to feed her baby with was proving to be a growing source of stress. One day, Mathur had a meltdown.
“My baby’s entire sustenance was dependent on me and he had nothing to eat. I remember Aman asking me if I would quit my job,” she says. “I thought, that’s crazy. I’m going to quit breastfeeding.”
Mathur’s doctor gave her the green light to quit breastfeeding, saying that Liam was healthy, and this was the right decision for her. In the days that followed, she avoided the temptation of scrutinizing how other mothers have managed the process. She says that both sets of grandparents expressed disappointment, but perhaps the most disappointing part for Mathur was that she ended up going against her own expectation for herself. “You can go crazy comparing your choices with others or even looking back at your own childhood,” she says. “The point is, you need to be strong and do what works for you and your baby.”
In the midst of this angst-ridden time, she enlisted her husband’s support. Once Aman understood that this was the new plan, he stood by Mathur and helped her fend off the negativity. “I needed to see the support in his eyes, because the guilt felt so heavy to me,” she says. Together, they devoted themselves to finding the right formula for Liam, testing three separate varieties until the found the one that worked and finding the nipple that worked best for his mouth. Eventually, Aman found bottle feeding incredibly empowering, because it allowed him to feed Liam at night and bond with him.
Eventually, women will inevitably arrive at a point when they feel they cannot manage both their jobs and their children. This moment arrived for Mathur too–or perhaps more accurately, a flood of little doubts began to assail her. However, she decided to table the decision to quit for six months and push herself through the difficult times. “The first six months are the hardest,” says Mathur. “Your baby is very dependent on you, you are severely sleep-deprived and you have a new identity as a mother that you might not feel particularly prepared for.”
Mathur says that she has felt better about her decision to go back to work every single month. “One part of it is that you learn to adjust to this lifestyle, but more importantly, you learn that your kid is fine without you,” she says. “I’ve taken this time to see Liam with other people and the thing is, he’s happy. He has his own little life. Seeing that gives me comfort.” At this stage, six months in, Mathur has found a way to balance the pressures of home and work, although it is never a perfect science.
For driven women who are committed to their careers, it is easy to believe they will be able to jump back into the workplace with no trouble at all after their baby is born or that they will somehow be the exception to the rule. But the truth is that there are a million unexpected pressures that pull new moms away from their job, even jobs that love. While Mathur says there is a lot that companies need to do to create more supportive family workplace policies, women can also proactively develop a plan of attack so they are not blindsided by the tough moments to come.