Navigating an HR Career and Motherhood
By Natalie Michael, CHRP
One of the career milestones that many HR professionals experience is becoming a mother. It is a seamless transition for some. For others, particularly those women who elect to have more than one child, it can be a confusing time riddled with joy and guilt.
For Deb Louvier, former VP, HR at Mark Anthony and an HR Consultant, her career transitioned very little after her first and only child. “I took a three month maternity leave and had exceptional child care. I also took on a role with limited travel so I could stay closer to home. My employers were all understanding of my role as a mother, and respected my rituals like driving my child to school everyday or always taking the first day off of school.”
For those women who make a conscious choice to stay home and focus on their children temporarily, their careers can take a new path. Debbie Aarons, an OD Consultant with VanCity, made the mutual decision with her husband that she would be the primary caregiver. To make time for this, she decided to work part time and move out of a management role. She sought out an employer who respected her need for balance and provided flexibility on those days when her children were sick or the daycare was closed.
Lana Chan, Manager HR with Pottinger Gaherty Environmental Consultants, got a promotion from Assistant Manager to HR Manager after her first child. During her maternity leave, she contemplated questions like, “Do I really want to stay home? What about my HR career?” Up until that point, she was career minded. “I didn’t know anything else but work.” After her second child, things shifted for her, and she decided to take two and a half years off to stay home with her children. Although she worried if she would get back into the workforce at the same level, she did. She sought out organizations that provided a flexible work environment.
After having children, many women seek greater flexibility. One HR consultant in Vancouver whose children are now in their twenties, continued to work full time after her first child was born. When her second child came along, she quit. Thankfully, her employer brought her back to do some consulting work on an “as available” basis. With this project, she got the consulting bug. She continued to do challenging projects and she made a point to be home when her children arrived from school.
For others who elect to go the consulting route, it can be more difficult. One former HR Consultant, who is now a part time employee in the field of HR, found consulting tricky. She did not qualify for maternity benefits and given that she wasn’t working full time, she found child care difficult to coordinate. “My work days changed and I found it hard to find a part time nanny with a flexible schedule. Many times, I had to return calls while my child was napping. It was stressful!”
Most HR professionals with children agreed that childcare is a critical ingredient to balancing an HR career and motherhood. Erin Ramsay, Director of HR at E-Comm 911, found that the quality of childcare was critical for a successful return to work after maternity leave, along with having clear expectations about work schedules with her husband and employer. “We were lucky to find a fabulous daycare. The owner is a woman who runs a daycare in her home with more than twenty years experience.”
Although her child care arrangements were excellent, Erin knew she did not want to have her child in daycare five days per week. “I took the job at E-Comm for a number of reasons, one being that I could take Fridays off. Now that my child is older and our family is used to me earning a bit more money, I take every second Friday of.”
Caroline Jellinck, a Partner at Ray and Berndston, an executive search firm, agrees that childcare is critical. “You have to have 100% faith in your care provider or it is difficult to go to work. I had four caregivers in about twelve years and was blessed with three great nannies (and one bad one). We also outsourced the running of the house – everything from the cleaning and cooking to arranging play dates. I learned that I couldn’t control everything that went on at home and still do my job at work – I learned to build trust.”
In addition to childcare, having a supportive work environment is key. A former VP, Human Resources of a $250 million dollar company, explains “We had eight maternity leaves on our team (five of them for 12 months) in my last company. When the women returned to work, we were as flexible as possible. We asked them if they need part-time, or different working arrangements. We were open to the reality that many women work and have children. We were able to develop a strategy rather than hoping the pregnancies wouldn’t happen.”
Another HR Business Partner had a different experience. “I had a boss who was not particularly sensitive to childcare issues. As I was a single parent, I could not rely on anyone else to step in and help. At one point, I was chastised for refusing to travel to Toronto for a weeklong meeting even after I explained my reason was that I was still breast feeding. I switched to a job that gave me more flexibility including an extra day off every three weeks.”
For women who do choose to work and have children, most of them have found that their children turn out just fine. Deb Louvier claims, “They learn quickly to become independent and confident and they develop their social skills.” A Vancouver HR Consultant with grown children asked her children how they felt about her having a career while they were growing up. Her daughter, who is now in her twenties, said she was always proud of what her mom was accomplishing. “There is no doubt in my daughter’s mind that she wants her own life to include a blend of career, and eventually family.” She knows from watching her mother that it is possible.
Regardless of what you choose, it is important to realize there is no magic answer on how to navigate this transition. Many women learn what is right for them from trial and error. Kirsten Bews, former Manager, HR at Blast Radius and now an HR Consultant, took her designated maternity leave after having her two children, and then returned to work full time. Now as an HR Consultant with greater flexibility, she realizes that spending more time at home is really important to her. “I want to be home for story time, to drive my children to school and to attend school events.” To her, these activities are important for developing a solid foundation for her children that will take them into their teenage years.
Many women agree that during this transition it is critical to spend time contemplating what is important, what balance means and how you will work with your partner or childcare providers. Of course, you also have to consider the needs of your children and what in the end, has you feel the most fulfilled. If you do make a trade off, realize that it may be temporary. You can have it all, just maybe not all at the same time.
Natalie Michael is Managing Partner of The Karmichael Group, a recruitment strategy and search firm. www.karmichaelhr.com.
An award winning HR professional, she has HR certification from Canada (CHRP) and the US (SPHR). She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and is currently completing her Masters in Organizational Development.