There is no time like the present |Make hay while the sun shines |Put your best foot forward
These sayings are extremely important for young women with both professional and personal ambitions, that is, women who want their heart to pulse with fulfillment in the home and the office. On one hand they want a partner, children, birthday parties, recitals and PTA meetings and on the other they want a career, promotions, corporate dinners, board meetings or to start a business.
For these women, I believe it is critical to make the early days and years count. Women who feel ‘called’ to have a family and a booming career should spend the time to discern and develop their true God-given talents and ambition as soon as they graduate from college or university. You should prove your worth both to yourself and to others from day one on the project or in the work place. So arrive earlier, find a mentor, continue studying through short courses and webinars, proactively find solutions to problems, deliver and surpass results, volunteer for projects and good causes, cross train, build relationships, develop a habit of religiously saving money, have faith and of course enjoy the ride. Don’t be ‘a damsel in distress.’ Don’t be looking for someone else in the team to solve problems. Develop a habit of proactively finding solutions yourself, because that is how you truly make an impact.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to take on projects and tasks for which you have no training. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg urges “Shift from thinking I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.” This is how many successful men and women do it and should be a key part of your game plan for professional growth as a woman. In other words, cultivate an attitude of fearless learning and doing that builds a track record of performance and respect.
Why? Not so that you can make under-30 or under-40 achievement lists and be pressured by society to achieve. No. It is so that when you are looking to start a family in a few years you would have already garnered solid experience and earned the respect of your team, your colleagues, your boss and your industry and can therefore leverage that confidence to change the way you work. Meaning you can use that legacy to work smarter – so that if for example, you have to work from home from time to time because your child is ill and you feel you must be there, the boss already knows that you have a great commitment ethic, will still deliver and are fantastic at what you do.
“Young men I call upon because you are strong,” the bible says. Young women should do their very best when they are young, strong and unattached as well. With all the talk of equality and quotas, don’t fool yourself, the primary care for your children is going to be on you, at least in the early years. Until extraordinary technological advances are made to enable the man to be pregnant, you will still be the one to carry your dream children for 9 nine months each; you are still the one to saunter into the office each day with swollen feet and ankles; the one to experience exasperating nausea and the distinct inability to wear a fitted suit. You are still the only one to breastfeed the baby or the one pumping breast milk at the office to refrigerate until you get home. So no matter how much equality we ask for and in fact receive, we are designed to carry much of the responsibility of expanding and nurturing the family. That is, of course, if you want one and plan on being actively involved.
Some young women want nothing to do with building a career but only have a passion for the home, while others can’t conceive the idea of mothering a child but get goose bumps when they think of events, projects and profit margins. And that’s ok, but honestly I think the dynamics may be a little clearer, not easier, just clearer for those two groups. For the woman who really wants both however, the juggling of responsibilities tends to be less straightforward. And for clarity, I’m not talking about women who have to work to support their family financially and who would much rather be a stay-at home. I’m talking about the woman who, in her heart, really wants to hone her professional talents and gifts while building a family. It makes sense for her to give herself a head start when she is childless, young and strong.
So what happens after children come in the picture? Do you slack off and hope the boss understands? Not at all. If you were putting your best foot forward all along you would have disciplined yourself to work at certain level and pace. Moreover by now, your boss would know that you are an asset and allow you room to navigate the family changes in your life. I know of many positive stories in this regard, albeit these women are at the managerial level. Of course, there are organisational ethos that support women (and men) in this stage of their lives, but why not also make it easy for ‘the powers that be’ to readily recognise the value that you bring to the table outside of the organisation’s rules? And why not strive to be ‘the powers that be’ in your early years so that you can make the rules for yourself and those under your care at the office?
Regardless of the authority you hold at the family planning stage of your life, working smarter essentially means ‘wielding your power.’ It means leveraging the track record you’ve already built. It is injecting and requesting more flexibility in your schedule, using technology to work from home when you need to or scheduling a conference call for the 20 minutes that you have to wait in the parking lot of your kids’ school when they have ballet. It means recognising and efficiently distributing the precious commodity called time. In fact, having a family and really wanting to actually be involved with raising your children, force you to be far more strategic with your time. So again, every hour at the office counts because between you and your spouse it may be your turn to do homework. And every hour at home counts because sometimes when you are at the office you can’t leave! Working smarter could also mean forging into the area of entrepreneurship. Having developed a respectable track record, enough savings and strong relationships, starting a business could be the next step and although the hours can be grueling they can also be extremely flexible and allow for better family time.
Working smarter in this phase of our lives however doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think strategically from the get-go. Think of how a forest is formed. In the beginning you have to do the hard work of preparing the land, planting the seeds, watering and waiting for the ultimate reward of stems sprouting from the earth and from stems plants and then trees. That’s what working hard is all about – doing the necessary ground work and investment which may vary based on your goal. Working smarter then involves pruning the trees, continuing to water and of course having the hard-earned opportunity to reap its fruits and shelter in its glorious shade. It’s all common sense, but I find that only a select few young women are deliberate about it.
Working smarter also involves being wise about getting help. In Jamaica, many working mothers hire a helper; my American friends don’t, largely due to their enormous costs for child care. But yes, employing a helper if you can afford to, is a smart move as the efficient, fulfilled and successful Proverbs 31 woman demonstrates. Nonetheless, you will still need to wisely manage your time since your helper should be there to strategically help and support, not parent your children. Mommy and daddy, for example, are the ones who must make the time to teach the kids life values such as conflict resolution, developing good friendships, managing money, choosing right over wrong; and your helper helps to reinforce those values. The key is to develop a strong open respectful relationship with your helper so that the arrangement is mutually beneficial. If you can’t afford to hire a helper, rope in your family and friends who share your values.
Of course all of these strategies work best when you have a real partner in a spouse; someone who is actually sharing the responsibilities of raising your children. Choosing a spouse is arguably the most important decision that a young women will make in her lifetime. Thankfully, more and more men are showing themselves to be real partners and are sharing family responsibilities but sadly many are still stuck in the 1920s! For things to work effectively for the woman who wants a family and a career, Mr. Husband will have to be an integral part of how the home is managed. In the mornings in one home I know about, the husband does what he is good at – getting the kids bathed and dressed for school. The wife does what she is good at; preparing breakfast and adding the final touches with hair grooming and softening dry knees. That kind of partnership is key to not only the woman’s success, but also the family’s overall happiness. It is also interesting to note that husbands and wives who share home duties equitably have better sexual relations, according to some studies.
In the end, there is no prescription or timing that perfectly fits every woman or every circumstance but the point is to develop a game plan early or at whichever stage of life you find yourself, so that you are not at the mercy of your circumstances but are in fact charting your course. Moreover, your game plan should be informed by your own vision, instincts and spiritual revelation, not by societal pressures or norms. I know one woman who after working hard in her younger years, married, and then went home for 7 years after her first child was born. Now she holds a very senior vice president position in a leading private sector company and her family continues to do well. Why she went home for 7 years? It was a spiritual decision designed to support her family at a critical stage. Another more popular woman after blazing a trail in the private sector while raising a family took a year off in her late 40s to re-find herself and reconnect with her children. Now she is back in full gear as the CEO of a major corporation.
What’s your game plan?
A mother of three girls, Shelly-Ann Harris is an experienced communication specialist, a senior manager in the private sector and sits on the board of a women’s rights / development organisation. Click follow at the top of this page if you would like to receive an alert when the next blog post is made. @harrisshellyann @ThoughtUpstream