I’ve always hated to say good-bye—to boyfriends, summer vacations, apartments, worn-out jeans, dead flowers. Lila Leff, the founder of a Chicago-based nonprofit youth organization called Umoja, puts goodbyes in better perspective in her Mommy Wars essay: “ I see [fill in the blank] as one of the greatest chapters in my life. But all chapters lead to the next chapter, and there is nothing worse than hanging around in a chapter after it has already ended.”
For me, one of life’s biggest challenges is leaving a job at the right time. I still regret leaving, at twenty-four, my first fulltime job as an editor at Seventeen Magazine in New York. In my thirties, I wrapped up ten years at Johnson & Johnson—one of the most understanding, family-friendly employers on the planet—to plunge into a dream job running the Washington Post Magazine. It was a thoroughly enthralling challenge; the only downside was that I saw my three kids for roughly thirty seconds a day. Five years later, I left the Post to write Mommy Wars. And last Friday, I stopped writing On Balance, after two years writing daily for washingtonpost.com about work and family issues. The time had come to focus on my memoir about surviving domestic violence, Crazy Love, which comes out from St. Martin’s Press early next year.
Transitions are always hard, whether you’re starting a new job, moving to a new city, or ending a relationship. But for working moms, quitting or changing jobs is fraught with anxiety all its own. The stakes have become far higher.
If you’re a working mom leaving a job to try staying home with your kids, the questions are, “Will I still be myself without my work?” and “What about my economic future?” and “Will I be able to return to work when I want to or need to?”
If you’re contemplating leaving a job for another job, the inner monologue includes: “Will my next employer let me leave when my kid is sick?” and “ Do they really mean the company is family-friendly? Or are their policies mere lip service?” and “Should I give up my seniority here for a challenge there?”
If you’ve been staying at home with children and are planning a return to paid work, the doubts hit hard. Can your children handle more time away from you? Will employers value your skills? Will recruiters return your calls? Will your partner adjust to handling more responsibility at home?
As we all know, the work/family juggling act is our own personal house of cards. Make a change—in childcare, a new baby, a longer commute, a lesser salary—and the deck could collapse. Stability is incredibly important for a mom juggling kids’ needs, career needs, and our own needs (remember those?) at the same time.
One of my favorite advisory sayings when contemplating change is “Leap and the net will appear.” But for working moms, the possibility of our children falling through the net is one that few can consider with comfort. I’m not suggesting men handle transitions blithely— just that women, master multitaskers, worry more about the effect a change will have on our juggling acts and our family’s well-being.
How have you managed a career change? What mistakes did you make? If you could rewind, what would you do differently? What’s your advice for working or stay-at-home moms stymied by fear of the unknown?