There is a point in life when it seems so clear where your career is headed. You are young, maybe single and having a family is still ahead of you. But then, for so many women, life happens. Responsibilities for kids or parents create new demands. Work changes and you or your spouse are required to relocate. The straight path that once seemed so clear, so simple is now anything but. Yet, if we are lucky, life offers us second, and third and even fourth chances and, although the journey may be anything but what we once imagined, our careers once again thrive.
Lisen Stromberg knows this story. She knows it because she lived it as a high-flying marketing executive turned stay-at-home mother turned journalist and author. She also knows it because in writing Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, she has surveyed and interviewed thousands of women gathering their stories of what works and what doesn’t.
Not long ago, my daughter asked me how I had planned my career so that I could be the mother I am. I told her I hadn’t. I told her I have spent much of my time on the defense, zigging and zagging in response to the things life put in my way. I told her I had regrets and ongoing self-doubt that still nags me to this day. I told her of the financial challenges and the compromises and the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” that are the reality of having pulled back and paused my career. And then I told her what the women I interviewed told me: I don’t regret a thing.The deeper truth is that I had limited options. With one premature baby and a second who required I spend months on bed rest, my family had to come first—not forever, but for a while. When I became a new mother, there was no clear path for those of us who wanted to be deeply engaged with our families and still have rewarding careers. The workplace was unforgiving and unyielding to women like me. Sadly, I’ve learned my experience is still the norm.
Yet, Stomberg’s wonderful new book is full of ways parents, both fathers and mothers, can re-frame their careers and have what they want in life. She suggests that pauses in careers can be just that, not ends, not steps down, but a shifting in priorities to match the circumstances of our lives. And pausing, she offers, will likely become a more common event in the careers of our children.
Work, Pause, Thrive is full of stories of women who moved through these three stages with the blueprints others can use in their lives. It is incredibly well-written, thoroughly researched, inspiring and a guide to the life you can have if you are 25 or 55.
We were lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Lisen Stromberg and ask her a few questions:
G&F: What do you say to our daughters, the young women we are sending off to college, when they wonder how they will manage to combine work and family life in a way that maybe their mothers could not?
LS: First, I would tell them that the good news is the workplace is finally changing. There is increased recognition that women AND men need workplaces that support them as parents. Smart companies are adding all manner of family friendly policies. When they are looking for jobs, they should be looking beyond pay and promotion opportunity to how the company treats work/life integration. Does the leadership put family as a priority? Is flexibility truly baked into the company’s DNA or are they simply paying lip service to the notion of balance. And, I would remind them that they are likely to have a number of jobs before they are ready to have children so their first job or two may not be where they end up.
However, that doesn’t mean that young women AND young men shouldn’t be giving thought to their dreams and goals around their roles as parents and professionals. In our 24/7 work-first culture, it can be hard to have a family and a career. And yet, we women do it all of the time. But, we do it best when we have partners who are equally committed to being engaged parents.
G&F: What is the message to our teen and young adult sons about having the careers, marriages and families they too might want? How is it different than what they might have seen from their fathers?
LS: For years, men have been robbed of the chance to be deeply engaged fathers because we still have a stigma against men as caregivers. We bias mothers as the “better” parent, but that only harms women and men. The more we keep men locked into the straight-jacket of primary provider, the more we keep women locked into the role of primary parent. By breaking beyond these gendered norms, men and women win and so do their children.
G&F: Is there a point at which you have just been away from the job market for too long? Did you hear stories of women who had been home with their families for 10, 12, 15 years and reignited their careers?
LS: I interviewed 186 women and surveyed nearly 1,500 more and learned that the longer you pause, the harder it is to relaunch. 63% of women who had paused for less than two years reported they found relaunching “easy.” Meanwhile, 68% of women who had paused for 11 or more years found relaunching “difficult.” If you are don’t want to kill your career, pausing for a shorter period of time is the smart strategy. That said, I interviewed many women who had paused for extended periods of time and still managed to relaunch to great success.
G&F: You had traveled the road you were researching yourself, pausing and then thriving. What surprised you from your studies of others’ lives? Was there a finding about which you thought…if only I had known this when I was 25, 30, 35?
LS: Great question! I wish I had understood how hard it is to be a mother and a professional in this country. Unlike that vast majority of developed countries, our public policies and our workplace cultures do not value families. As a result, women bear the weight of being primary caregivers whether they are in the paid workforce or not.
Also, if I had known that it would be possible to pause my career and then relaunch in a way that met my personal and professional goals, I wouldn’t have spent so much time agonizing over my decision to down-shift my career. I would have had more confidence in my choices and my path. In my research, I was reminded again and again that the women who truly believed they had value and did not doubt they would be able to successfully relaunch were the ones who were able to truly enjoy their professional pauses. I wish I had had that confidence. I didn’t then, but thanks to the many inspiring stories I heard, I do now.