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On Ramps and Off Ramps, and Why It’s So Hard

Everywhere I go, I hear talk about how hard it is for women to get back into the work force once they’ve left. The women discussing the topic haven’t necessarily themselves left — they’re thinking about it and are terrified by the horror stories they’ve heard.

Everywhere I go, I hear talk about how hard it is for women to get back into the work force once they’ve left. The women discussing the topic haven’t necessarily themselves left — they’re thinking about it and are terrified by the horror stories they’ve heard. Having fought long and hard for their MBAs or CFAs or other qualifications, having slogged it out in corporate America for the rewards of high salaries and prestige titles, they’re rightly wary of throwing it all away for a few years of baby bliss. What, they want to know, is the true cost of taking time out?

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They are right to be concerned. Ann Crittenden estimated that stepping off the career ladder cost her somewhere around a million dollars in terms of lost earnings, lost social security, and pension payments. And she had a job that allowed her to work freelance!

And it’s clear from research at Harvard and Wharton that getting back into the corporate workforce is really tough. You’re still expensive but (from the blinkered perspective of your bosses) not really up to date. Many will assume that, if you’ve had a child, you can’t think properly any more and you will be constantly distracted by doctors’ appointments and school pageants. However enlightened the management, years away from work take a real toll on your confidence. Not your competence — I think parenthood actually makes people more competent not less.

Yes, there is a lot wrong with the anachronistic, rigid career structures that still characterize most corporations. But I think one reason on ramps and off ramps prove so tricky to negotiate is that we start with the wrong mental model.

I hear it all the time. “I’m going to take a few years out and then, when the kids are settled and in school, I’ll go back to work.” Sounds fine but it’s all wrong. The kids aresettled. Yes they go to school — but then they have homework, and school clubs, and peer pressure and girl friend/boyfriend problems, and guess what? The issues they bring home are bigger and harder and more complex and more time-consuming than diaper changing ever was. The few years you were going to take off recede endlessly until, some 20 years later, you lift your head, look around and wonder what happened.

Your children need you more as they grow older, not less. That’s the dirty little secret of motherhood. When they’re tiny, they need feeding, changing, dressing and some fairly undemanding forms of engagement. Many people can provide this. As they get older, they need moral guidance, health guidance, social guidance — and also help with trigonometry. No one but you can provide this. And your kids probably won’t accept help from anyone but you. Sorry girls but it’s true. It gets harder, more emotional and more stressful.

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When my sister first told me this, I dismissed it, thinking it was just a typical big sister passive-aggressive ploy. It wasn’t. She was right.

It’s important to think about this because it has severe repercussions when it comes to thinking about career planning. If your kids are going to get more demanding, not less — when is the right time to take time out? (That is, assuming you ever can. Many women can never afford this.) Can you engineer ways of ensuring that kid-crunch and career-crunch don’t coincide? Do you want — as some women do — to take 20 years out? One of the best female entrepreneurs I’ve ever met did exactly that — and went on to create a world-beating business.

No one can tell you what to do. What we can do is tell each other the truth so we start with the right information. And the truth is, your kids will demand more of you as they get bigger and older, more articulate, and more discriminating. Every mother I talk to knows this but most of us had to learn it the hard way. It’s time we started pretending that the hard part was child birth. The hard part is just life.

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