Podcast: On putting in the hours when the kids are little

This week I experienced the main segment of the podcast as a listener, and not a participant. Sarah interviewed Rebecca Fike, a lawyer, exercise enthusiast, blogger (LagLiv!), and mom of three. I was out of the country and not clear on how my internet access would be at the point when Fike could squeeze us onto her calendar. But since Sarah has been a longtime LagLiv reader (I started reading her through Sarah’s blogroll links) it made the most sense for her to run this one.

Anyway, the interview was fascinating on many levels. Among Fike’s strategies: in her house, there is a morning parent (her husband) and an evening parent (her). So if she wants to go into work early, she can just go. But then she understands that since he is completely unreachable in the afternoon (he runs a swim school and is in the water) that time is her responsibility. Ground rules like that can help a household run smoothly.

She also made an interesting point on outsourcing cleaning. They stopped going out to eat (more or less) in order to afford a weekly housekeeper. Fike noted that when she and her husband were doing more of the cleaning, she would get mad at the kids about their messes. Now, when she won’t have to deal with all the fall-out, she can be more calm about it.

Fike made the somewhat uncommon choice to have her first child during law school. So she’s never experienced work not as a working mother. She spent the first few years of her career as an associate at a big firm before transitioning into a (highly competitive, hard to get) job with the SEC.

As she reflected on life with little kids and older kids, she noted that she was happy she put in a lot of the long hours when her kids were little. Little kids, she said, were pretty simple. Happy to see her when she came in the door. Not terribly aware of her schedule and her choices, and they had fewer specific things that they had opinions on her being there for.

Older children are different. They choose when they want to interact with you. They have more specific events that they notice if you’re there for. So Fike was happy that she put in those long hours as a Big Law associate, learning her way around the legal world, and then getting the opportunity for her prestigious job with the government, when her kids were little. She has a lot more flexibility now, when she believes it matters more.

This is somewhat the opposite of how a lot of people plan their careers. The standard mode for people who scale back at some point is to scale back when the kids are little. Then, when they’re in school, the idea is that they’ll scale up. That can certainly work, but there are hazards to this approach too. It can be hard to get back into the workforce, or even to scale back up from a very part-time position. If you are scaling up, you might not have as much control over your schedule as people with more seniority. That means you might not have the flexibility to go to, say, the karate belt testing at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, or at least not to repeated events like this. And while your kid will likely not remember that you took her to gym class at age two, she will remember stuff that happens when she’s ten.

Anyway, careers are complicated things. We can’t always plan exactly how they will go, but I’m curious how many people reading this made the conscious decision to “lean in” when the kids were little, partly to have more autonomy and flexibility later on. Or if you made a different choice, I’d love to hear your thinking about that too.


29 thoughts on “Podcast: On putting in the hours when the kids are little

  1. I think for many people, the choice to scale back when the kids are little is not really a choice. This is because little kids have so many needs, and because Many people simply cannot afford the support staff required to oursource as much as would be needed to “lean in” at that age, and are too fatigued to do everything themselves. That said, if you do have the resources to do it, and aren’t a baby person, it’s a great alternative. I have so much fun with my older child! As they get older they have fewer needs overall, but have greater needs for you specifically.

    1. This is really well said “as they get older they have fewer needs overall, but have greater needs for you specifically” — I am going to remember that when I have bigger kids. Thank you.

    2. @Omdg – very true that many people are forced out by economics or family situations. But for those who do have a choice, this is an interesting alternative way to think of the question.

  2. I love babies. The opportunity to stay home with kids without the pressure of needing to return to work before I was ready was absolutely awesome.

    I have something to compare to – with our first child, I went back to work when he was 12 weeks old. It was really, really hard. Mentally, emotionally, physically… I was so sleep deprived I barely functioned. I felt so sad I couldn’t spend all the time I wanted with my baby.

    I was fortunate to be able to stay home for 1 year (after quitting my postdoc) with our second child and 1.5 years (lab lost funding & I lost my job) after our 3rd child was born. Yes, my career was impacted. But I was so happy to be home with the kids…

    Now that our kids are older, I am working full time again and I like the work/family balance we currently have. I have a good job that pays nearly twice as that previous job I lost. Our kids, while still demanding, no longer trigger that “drop everything and hold me” alarm in my head. It’s quite possible that in some ways I would have been better off if I “leaned in.” But…that time home with my kids when they were little,- treasure beyond words 🙂 Even though I was in survival mode both times, even though none of the babies slept through the night… I just felt so laid-back and relaxed, it was like I had the complete freedom to soak up the joy. There were tough moments, lots of them – but that’s the always the case (even now that I am back to work with wonderful childcare, older kids, and a cleaning service).

    1. @Natasha – I think I need to write a whole post related to your comment, partly because I think people have very different reactions when they have children. I love babies — I did have four of them! — but I have never felt like I wanted to spend all day every day with them. For me, getting some space to work on my own projects as soon as possible was key to being happier as a new mom. I think in the past I was somewhat self-conscious about this, but I have come to see that people are just different. Also, my work is flexible and since I work for myself, no one is making me do anything. Consequently, I had no desire or reason to step away from it for any length of time. I think people should be able to take longer leaves (as a business owner, I’d note that unpaid is going to have to be part of any longer leave) if they want and not suffer career consequences. However, not everyone wants to be out for a long time, and that’s cool too.

      1. Laura, please write the post! When I had my twins I had 6 months maternity leave (I am a university lecturer and their birth coincide with summer holiday so I got an extended break). At that time my husband even begged me to go back to work, apparently I was really snappy and angry all the time, and more so at him (oops!). I do feel better after getting back to work, which made me feel guilty of not feeling happy and joy with my newborns all the time, and instead really happy at work! However, when I had my third I could finally understand the thing called newborn joy. Apparently with my twins I was so stressed with all the logistics, health issues of premature birth, post-partum depression etc there was much less joy for me.

        1. @Kristanti- we shall see, maybe I will write it. While there is nothing inherently noble in work, there is nothing not-noble in it either, and for some of us, what we do for a living is also a major source of our identities. I am a writer (and performer – I am realizing how well speaking taps into that!). I have always done those things. I would do them for free and I have done them for free and I am incredibly grateful that people pay me well to do both. Just as I think I would be missing out on a lot by only focusing on work, I also feel I would be missing out a lot by only focusing on another aspect of life. There’s no reason to feel guilty about feeling that way.

      2. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that others didn’t love babies 🙂 That really came out wrong.

        Yes – I agree completely that everyone is very different and reacts differently to parenthood! I did feel a very intense urge to be with babies constantly – but it was like a switch that got flipped off when the kids were about 1, and then I was thrilled to get back to my own life and interests.

        There is no one “right way” to parent, and what works for one family would be absolutely terrible for someone else. Same thing with maternity leave: some people begin to “climb walls” (as some of my colleagues described it) when staying home while others are not ready to get back to careers until the babies are a bit older. There is so much unnecessary guilt that goes with making parenting-related choices.

        “Leaning in” is one option that works great for some. Stepping away for a short time (in the great scheme of things, 1 year or even 1.5 is not much) and then getting back to career-building worked out great for me. Re-defining career success and establishing a career that works with your lifestyle may also be something to think about.

  3. This was a great interview. As a fellow lawyer expecting my second child, I appreciate the perspective and am totally inspired by Rebecca’s very full, enriching life. It was also fun to hear her voice after reading her blog for close to a decade!

  4. I loved this interview. I can so relate to leaning in early and have more flexible time later. I had my oldest during medical school, my 2nd in residency, my 3rd in fellowship and my 4th as an attending. This meant that when my older children were babies and toddlers I was working 80 hour weeks and it was really hard, but residency was always going to be hard (I have never heard someone say residency was a breeze). Now I am an attending in a private practice and I essentially make my own patient hours. My work hours are pretty set (I work in a specialty with few emergencies). Three days a week arrive home when my older kids get home from school. I do start early. My husband is definitely the morning parent. This works well for us.

    And to SHU’s lament that working early does not work for patient care: I actually see patient starting at 7 am 3 days a week and my 7-9 am spots are my most coveted appointment spots. It might not work in a hospital-based practice, but it works so well for me!

    1. @Gillian – from studying a lot of time logs, I am seeing that medicine can indeed be a very “family friendly” line of work. I think people get hung up on the residency issue – and yes, as you point out, it will be tough. But you can work part-time and still get paid well. You can generally scale up or down without huge career ramifications (since medical productivity is relatively straightforward). Some specialties have crazy hours, of course, but not all of them.

    2. We actually have been discussing some extended hours on some days, and I did put in a request for the early shift on some days! So we will see. But not entirely in my control due to staffing – would be different if I owned the practice though!!

      1. @SHU – I’m taking my kids to a doctor’s appointment early a few weeks from now, and it is really nice to get it done BEFORE school so we don’t have to deal with the whole absence/tardy thing (well, I hope – if we’re the first appointment hopefully we don’t have to wait too long!). Extended hours are really nice for parents in general, though of course they’re then harder on the physicians who are parents!

        1. As a parent and physician I love early hours. My husband is an attorney and no one expects to see him in the office before 9. As a result, we, like your guest, have a very clear demarcation in parenting responsibilities between morning and night. Somethings aren’t perfect–I was frantically texting my au pair this morning to make sure the Valentines went to school today (my husband is out of town). I can also see if you are a dual physician household and your partner in in the surgical specialties, like SHU, YOU might be the morning parent. That said, I will walk out of the office today (with a big stack of admin) at 1:30 and have seen patients for 6 hours, which for most physicians is a full day. I also don’t find the morning to be super great quality time with my kids. It is all rushing to get out the door to school, so I really don’t feel like I am missing much there.

  5. It is worth noting that Rebecca also has an afternoon nanny who works till six pm? So her career is not very flexible even now. I just wanted to put that out there as law is one of the least family friendly professions if you ask me.

    1. @Clare – the billable hour aspect of law has long been fascinating to me. She doesn’t deal with that (I think) in her government work, but it so defines life for many lawyers, and has such interesting psychological ramifications. Any hour you take must be paid back. It can result in feeling so tied to the clock that I’ve had a lot of lawyers find they simply can’t track time outside the office.

    2. I think it definitely depends on the kind of law you practice. Government and nonprofit is very different than a big firm, which is different than a small firm or a solo practitioner. I work in a nonprofit and while I put in some more time earlier on in my career, I’m at a point now where my salary is higher and my work hours are so conducive to family time with my two small kids and husband- I’m home at 5:15. I sometimes log back in at night but I am given the freedom to run my own cases.

      I think I heard in the podcast that the nanny helps with the evening activities, like drop off and pick up- due to her being the only parent available at that time.

  6. Dear Laura and Saura,

    This podcast was wonderful. I am writing this comment based on Laura’s request of other choices made(taking a break when the children are young vs older). I have 2 children, aged 20 and 15. I was a full time tech professional and manager for the first 22 years of my career and decided to leave the corporate world when my daughter was 15. Their younger years made me feel guilty especially when they were sick and I was doing long hours, but I had the support of their grandparents and I focussed on the career knowing children are growing up with lot of love and care around them. But in their teen years, I felt it helped if I am around for them to talk about their stuff as and when they feel like it rather that when I choose to be back from office and ready to listen. Now they value it so much more that I have prioritized their needs. Now I am a SAHM volunteering on many engagements and focus on my hobbies giving me a lot of flexibility with how and when I spend time with them.

    1. @Krishna- Thanks for sharing your story. I think this echoes the earlier comment about older kids needing less, but needing more specifically from you. Even with a 10-year-old I can see that one never knows exactly when he’ll be willing to open up. Whereas for the 3-year-old it’s pretty much all the same.

  7. Loved this podcast, it really resonated with my own experience. I did take long maternity leaves (am based in the UK) but travelled frequently and worked longer hours/ some weekends when the boys were small. Now they’re 12 and 10 i’ve found a role within the same company that is less travel and no weekends as they need ‘me’ more. I’ve had different childcare arrangements every year since having them and am looking forward to September when they’ll both be at senior school and no more paid childcare needed – that money will be going on a much longed for cleaner!

  8. I loved this episode, most especially for the insight between the different types of neediness between toddlers and older kids.

    I’m always impressed at mothers of babies who had their heads together for any sort of strategic planning. I had twins and there was literally no strategy for years 🙂

  9. I just want to say that I really enjoyed Sarah’s response to the question about “filling up” weekends to the caller that wondered if she really wanted to have children and lose her fun and satisfying weekends with her husband. About a year ago I wrote a piece for Red Tricycle, responding to a similar comment about how “bad” we make parenting sound sometimes: http://redtri.com/seven-reasons-i-will-appreciate-my-children-this-year-despite-the-memes/. In summary: “Raising children will always be challenging, but few challenges in life manage to teach us about God, love, kindness, empathy and thanksgiving on a daily basis.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *