How Becoming A Parent Supercharged My Career
I’m just going to put something out there: I think that raising kids can be the best career move you’ll ever make.
Yes, I know this flies in the face of popular opinion. Our heads are full of stories about cultivating a fulfilling family life versus having a successful career. The gender pay gap reminds us of the negative effects of maternity leave. Business sees it as a burden with zero commercial value.
But there’s another story to tell.
Like the rest of my generation, I had internalized the family vs career mentality without question. My experience of maternity leave with baby #1 did nothing to change that view, and while I was excited to return to work—to talk to real-life adults again (hooray!) and solve new problems—my confidence had taken a pretty significant beating over the previous six months.
A few weeks into work, I noticed that my ‘returner’ experience didn’t chime with what I’d been led to expect. My role involves a lot of negotiation and the new me (let’s call her Mum-Me) instinctively took a different approach to deal-making. She came up with creative ideas to increase the value of contracts; she spent more time listening than speaking; and she asked a lot of questions. Not by design, but because it felt like the best way forward. It delivered results: better terms, a faster process, and stronger relationships at the end. Winner.
Mum-Me was also getting a new kind of attention. Senior executives asked her thoughts on the latest strategy; she was asked to coach and mentor ambitious colleagues; she was asked to present and teach.
Finally, the penny dropped. Like the exec team, I’d been on an extended ‘away day’: stepping back from day-to-day work, taking a macro view of the business, making new connections. Like the exec team, I, too, had taken an intensive and applied course in soft skills: communication, prioritization, empathy.
But my executive leadership course was called maternity leave. And I largely funded it myself.
Curious, I asked my husband and friends about their experience. Story after story rolled in. I started to collect a list of the skills these new parents shared; the skills they developed looking after their kids and then applied at work—often to great effect.
Pretty cool, huh? Fun fact: all these soft skills directly map to those named as ‘most desired by employers’ in LinkedIn Learning’s 2019 report. Businesses, take note.
I’d need a book to go through all the great—funny, heartbreaking, inspiring—stories that sit behind this list. But I can’t resist sharing one of my favorites.
I have a friend who is quite senior in the British police service. When I asked about the greatest gift parenting has given his career, he didn’t hesitate: a commitment to giving feedback.
Dealing with constructive criticism isn’t easy. Even with the best intention, people get sad or frustrated or angry and the relationship (and sometimes performance) suffers. Management theory tells us feedback is important, but most of us avoid it at all costs.
As a father, he now sees it differently: “With the kids, my job isn’t to make them better children tomorrow. It’s to make them amazing adults in the future.”
If that means telling them something they don’t want to hear and receiving a barrage of emotion in return, he can live with it. He’s in it for the long haul. And if he wants to build a high-performing, effective and trusting team at work, he’ll take the same approach. Hopefully, with less screaming.
When we identify and voice the skills we develop as parents, we can use them more effectively outside the home. We can demonstrate their commercial value and start a fresh conversation around parenthood at work.
Call me idealistic, but if we look at parental leave through this lens, maybe—just maybe—more mothers will return to work. Maybe we’ll see gender-balanced leadership teams and reduce the pay gap. Maybe we’ll all start to see parenthood as an asset rather than a penalty.
The relationship between family life and work life doesn’t need to be parasitic. It can be symbiotic. And it could just give you the skills you need to lead—your way.