A few years ago, I was taking a survey about work and life when I came across this question: "How much have your children affected your career?" I checked the box for "not much." After all, I was still working full time. The two little ones I had then hadn’t forced me to opt out or scale down. My free time was more limited, but I couldn’t see too many negative professional outcomes.
But when I thought about it more later, I realized I had assumed that this question was asking about negative consequences. In truth, my kids have affected my career a lot, but in a positive way. Shortly before taking that survey, I’d written a book on holistic time management called 168 Hours. Part of my platform as an expert on this topic was that I was caring for multiple small children. Several books later, I now have four children, and that fact comes up in almost every media interview I do.
I’m not the only parent who’s found that having children can give one’s career a boost. These positive pushes tend to take three forms.
Almost every new kid product or service on the market was launched because someone became a parent and realized that there was a niche to be filled. But even if you look beyond the standard "mompreneur" story, becoming a parent helps you see the world in a different way, and that can take your career in new directions.
Sheela Sinharoy says that when her son was born, she realized there was no reason, beyond luck, "why my child and I should enjoy the privileges we do while others suffer." So while on maternity leave, she applied to get her masters degree in maternal and child health. Upon graduating, she moved her family to Bangladesh for five years to work on maternal and child nutrition programs. She’s now working on her PhD in a related field. "I would not be doing any of this it if weren’t for my son," she says. "He didn’t just push me to focus so I could be better at my existing career, or to make more money or get a better job. He pushed me to do something meaningful to help others like him."
Children can give you a fresh outlook in many ways. Kate Hougen had always wanted to be a textile designer, but hadn’t taken the leap until her daughter’s artwork crystallized her vision. "If you look at kids’ artwork, it’s very bold, they love color, it’s very dynamic, they paint with abandon," she says. As she looked through stacks of work her daughter brought home from school, and looked at the bold black outlines, "it just sort of clicked." Now her company, Mira Jean Designs, sells textiles with this sort of playful and colorful vibe.
When you have little ones, life is no longer just about you, and that can make you bolder in many ways. Natalia Zhukovskaya switched careers from research to medical writing after having children. Her kids "made me realize the importance of a good salary and of getting fairly compensated for the amount of work put in," she says. "I value my time a lot more than I used to in the pre-kid days." Consequently, "I started to push for a higher salary and flexibility—without feeling guilty for daring to ask for more."
There’s also this benefit for introverted sorts: Kids build their own networks, and they will pull you in. "You meet a lot of other people, and you already have a common denominator," says Kathy Buckworth, who’s written six parenting books, including most recently I Am So the Boss of You. "It can be a great networking opportunity, especially for people who are hesitant to do that." Since many people do have children at some point, kids give you a new way to relate to people both personally and professionally.
Having a life outside of work means you naturally put limits on your work. That sounds like a bad thing for a career, but structure is often a good in its own right.
Mark de Clive-Lowe has always worked as a professional musician. There is an assumption, he says, "where if I’m a musician, music is my life." He continued to believe this when his first child was born, that "I create when I’m inspired. When the muse strikes me, I will make my music," but after his relationship with his son’s mother fell apart, he started to rethink things. Now, as a father of two, he realizes that music "is actually a craft," and "if I need to compose, I will sit at the piano and compose."
He structures his days to maximize his creativity while preserving family time. He wakes up early to write in a journal and meditate. After bringing his younger son to school, he sits down at the piano to practice for one to two hours. He then deals with email and administrative work, and he does his creative work from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. "It’s great how much can be achieved in that time," De Clive-Lowe says, and his music has benefited from having a routine. "To demystify the process has been of huge value to me in freeing up my time," he says. "It’s very contradictory to the archetype of a musician, but I feel more productive."
Work and life aren’t balanced on opposite sides of the scale, where if one wins, the other must lose. For many people, they push in the same direction—which is a liberating thought in a world that often insists that no one can have it all.