Round-up: The not-so-career-killing third kid

Over at BNET this week, I’m getting a lot of comments on a post called “More kids won’t kill your career…unless you want them to.” This summer, I kept seeing headlines claiming that having a third child was the “kiss of death” to one’s career. This rather alarming announcement turned out to be based on an Australian study finding that women with three children were less likely to work outside the home than women with two children. Of course, the whole correlation/causation issue comes up, but looking closer at the numbers, I realized that one could have put an entirely different headline on the study. Because it turned out that a solid 55% of Australian mothers with three kids had jobs. That was a lower percentage than those with two kids, but it’s still more than half. I guess a headline claiming “Majority of moms of three in workforce” just wouldn’t be as catchy.

So I wrote about that over at BNET, leading in with the stories of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. Whatever you think of either of them, the truth is that they’ve built big political careers in a male-dominated field while having fairly large families (as have plenty of Democratic women too — see Jennifer Granholm, Nancy Pelosi, etc.) Then there are women who’ve achieved amazing things in other fields: J.K. Rowling, for instance. Or WellPoint CEO Angela Braly (3 kids). The point is, three kids does not have to be the kiss of death. And in fact, is not for the majority of the Australian women the researchers studied.

I also posted “What’s your bedtime ritual?” That last hour before bed is a good time to do something relaxing or personally fulfilling. Many of us wind up just watching TV, because it’s passive and helps you unwind. But there are other things that can help a person unwind too. I’ve been trying to read outside, enjoying these last few days of summer as the weather takes on a bit of a chill. It’s quiet and relaxing, and if I’ve got a good book (which I’m trying to keep in stock from my local library!) then it’s a very pleasant way to get myself close to sleep.

Finally, today (Thursday) I posted an interview with Adelaide Lancaster, co-author with Amy Abrams of The Big Enough Company. These two women founded In Good Company, a shared workspace in NYC (where I’ve spoken in the past). They shared “4 Secrets Happy Entrepreneurs Know,” pointing out that when it comes to entrepreneurial ventures, bigger isn’t always better. I think that’s a fair point, though I think there’s another side too, in that many small business owners don’t think big enough. They’re scared to hire people, to invest in the business, to take risks that might result in sales growth around an order of magnitude (rather than just inching up). Obviously, you have to figure out what you’re in it for. A relaxed lifestyle is good. So is cold hard cash. There are good arguments for both! That would truly be a good company if you could combine the two!

7 thoughts on “Round-up: The not-so-career-killing third kid

  1. I think a better question would be “what happens economically to women between the 15th and 85th percentile in income when they have 3 children instead of 2?”

    High income women (physicians, successful businesswomen) hire help or have a stay-at-home spouse. Middle income women (nurses, engineers, teachers, accountants) take a hiatus if the kids are closely spaced. (And they usually are, because college educated women don’t start having children early enough to space them 20 years apart, as a rule) Low income women have childcare provided by boyfriends, mothers, sisters, friends, or husbands if their children are young or use before/after school care for school age children if they work regular hours.

    One of my friends, who switched her career from forestry to finance after a child hiatus, has a saying I like a lot- You can do it all, but not at the same time. For many women, this is the case.

  2. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the cost of childcare as a major factor here. Unless the kids are spaced far enough apart that the oldest is in full-day school by the time you have the 3rd, having 3 in a daycare center is prohibitively expensive for many, even for those with healthy incomes. I know when I was working in a full-time corporate job with 2 kids in daycare I made a good salary, but paying for 3 kids in daycare at once would have cost over $3300 a month and would have meant we couldn’t pay all of our bills. No one I worked with had more than 2 kids if they had a working spouse, unless the oldest was at least in 1st grade by the time they had their 3rd. And even then you have to pay for an after-school program for the oldest until they’re old enough to be home alone after school.

    1. @Erin: The childcare costs issue is a tricky one. The argument that three is so expensive in daycare that you should just stay home kind of ignores that if you drop out of the workforce, your income falls to zero immediately. So even if $3300 would have taken all of your after tax income, so would staying home. And even if it would have taken slightly more than your after-tax income, the problem is that your income doesn’t just drop for the years you’re out of the workforce. Some research (Sylvia Ann Hewlett) has found it drops for a long, long time afterward. Paying for childcare when your kids are young is somewhat akin to paying for college. You’re net negative for a bit, but long-term net positive. The other broader issue is that it depends on what your childcare arrangements are. I’m always amazed how low a percentage of people with full-time jobs use day care or nannies — there is a lot of family care going on too with extended families. Nice if you can get it, of course. In our case, we hired a full-time nanny when we had the second kid, so having a third doesn’t add any immediate costs. There’s actually a pretty steep per child decline. Though of course, then we start the clock over on how many years we’ll need full-time care. But as you’ve pointed out — people manage to lower out-of-pocket costs by spreading the kids out over 7-8 years too.

      1. Hewlett’s research focuses on women in corporations. It doesn’t really apply to women in education, healthcare or retail work where continuity only minimally affects earnings. Her research definitely applies to careers like business, engineering, marketing and law, where careers have a trajectory.

  3. I suppose it depends how you define “killing your career”. Since most of us have a long career span that stretches from our 20’s to our 60’s (or beyond), I prefer to think of careers in chapters. Some chapters are fast paced, and others may involve an off-ramp for a time, with a return later. Of course women can work straight through these phases, but I tend to see a more fluidity in the careers of friends and clients with 3 kids. Personally, i had 3 kids in 4 years, and with the very demanding job my husband had in terms of hours and travel, it made it very difficult for me to stay in the workforce at that point. Fast forward, I am in a career now that is different than the one i had before my third child, but I have never been happier and might not have landed in this chapter if i wasn’t for the off-ramp I chose to take. It’s not easy to negotiate these off-ramps and on-ramps, and I would like to see more attention put to how to make that possible,and not only for women. For instance Goldman Sachs runs a great program called “Returnship” ( that i led a session for yesterday. iRelaunch runs 1-day Back to Work conferences for on-rampers. Wouldn’t it be great if taking a break didn’t mean killing your career?

  4. Liked the BNET article immensely, but I was horrified at the comments posted by some of their readers. I’m saddened to see that there is still a hard, vocal core of people very invested in the idea that women should be satisfied by motherhood, and motherhood alone. It seems to me that the so-called “mommy wars” have gotten pretty one-sided.
    (signed, a career-oriented mom of three whose third made not one whit of long-term impact on said career)

    1. @Michelle: Yes, at some point I stop wading through the comments. They go multiple directions. Some people think having more than two kids is immoral, and want to share that view as much as possible. Others persist in seeing motherhood and a life apart from motherhood as mutually exclusive concepts. Hopefully people will eventually get over this.

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