Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures

This is for International Women's Day. See feMOMhist for links to other stories.

I was rather surprised to hear a younger woman tell me that I am an inspiration. I really feel like I am barely holding on, especially when my husband is gone for extended trips. I can't even hold on to my white blood cells lately.

But, on the outside, it looks like I am holding it together. I have a 36 hour a week job with flexible hours and the ability to work from home when my health isn't great. I am married to a field scientist and we have a (mostly) healthy child. I volunteer in my community. I have friends and hobbies. Except for my health, this is the life I that I wanted since childhood.

I have a really oddball job where it is a miracle that I found such a good fit and they found such an ideal candidate. The job requires a PhD in CS, EE or something related like math, physics, robotics or another computationally intensive engineering discipline. (Although I was thrilled to discover one of my coworkers has a PhD in neurobiology!) I've written before about how computation jobs can be highly compatible with child-rearing. With a few more years of experience, I am even more convinced of it than before.

Rather than get all rah-rah, I thought I would post a few helpful tips for the long slog ahead. Yes, it can be slog, but enjoy the journey. Here are some of my lessons learned:

1. Choose your partner wisely.
Cloud is a big proponent of that. I would like to add that the new age sensitive man will always promise that he will be an equal partner. Will he deliver?

2. Bank time.
Working parents are always short of time so bank it for the future. How does one do that? Time travel is, unfortunately, not possible.

You trade money for time and buy yourself some time. So bank yourself a lot of cash and spend it to help you with housework and childcare in the future. Buying help is useful if your new age sensitive man turns out to be a liar or he splits. Hope that doesn't happen, but be prepared just in case.

You can also bank time by taking good care of your body before children, BC. Finding time to exercise can be difficult after kids, so it helps to start with a good base fitness level.

Learning to cook healthy meals at home also banks time. The time to learn how to cook is NOT when you are trying to take care of a baby at the same time! BTW, I cook large batches on weekends. My husband is in charge of weeknight dinner assembly. If you find another family that also batch cooks and wants to swap meals, all the better.

So bank friendship, fitness, skills and money. They will save you time when you most need it.

Live close to work and shorten your commute.
That one hour each way commute may seem doable before kids, or to a one-earner couple, but do the math. 2 people, each commuting 10 hours per week, costs you 20 hours or half a workweek. And many commutes take longer if you are not able to shift your work schedule to come in before or after peak rush hour, turning the 2 hr commute into a 3 hour one.

Find a good enough home in a good enough area and school district, close to work. Don't get trapped by huge housing or car expenses. The bigger the home or yard, the more maintenance required and the more stuff you accumulate. The bigger the commute, the higher the transportation expenses. You'll use more daycare, too, and that will cost you.

I've seen so many women derail their careers because the amount they earn isn't worth the hassle of the commute and the struggle to keep up with the home front. Keep it simple at home.

The more expensive the home, the larger the payments (rent or mortgage). And then there is the keeping up with the Joneses. Your idea of what is a reasonable amount to spend creeps up to your peer group. Before you know it, you are on a financial treadmill keeping up with payments.

We bought an urban infill townhome close to work in a safe but not fashionable area. It turns out that our neighbors are (with a few exceptions) wonderful. When I was ill and my husband was working out in the field and our daughter was younger, no fewer than three families on my block took care of her so I could rest.

Living in a dense urban area also means my errands are all in close range.

Create your own village.
This is really helpful if you have the worse case scenario of living far from family and friends who can help you. My husband and I are both PhD scientists with a two-body problem. I found myself at 30 with a new job, new city, no family or old friends nearby and a ticking biological clock.

We used a very well-run day care center near our home. Most parents who selected it had similar incomes and values and lived in the same area. (People who use daycare centers close to work, and use their babies to enable them to use the carpool lanes for long commutes won't build this kind of support network.)

Good daycare centers are expensive and many people will opt for a nanny in their home when they have their second child. Thus, we met many other one-child families with two working parents. Several were in the same position in that one parent traveled a great deal for work. The remaining parent would then rush in just before closing time at 6 pm.

I'd invite them to share a meal at one of the many fine inexpensive ethnic restaurants in our neighborhood, or grab takeout and eat it at our home. If the parenting styles were similar, we'd exchange cell phone numbers and put each other on our pickup list. That means, if you are running late, another parent can pick up your child for you.

Because I live so close to the daycare center, I did more picking up than others. But this paid off when my husband traveled on weekends and I was too physically weak to handle a toddler all day.

Save money early, save a lot.
Hopefully, you will beat the odds. But motherhood likely means salary compression and moving in and out of the paid workforce. You likely won't get much of a pension.

Phooey. The old pension system, which rewards earnings just before retirement, is really stacked against people who do not work flat-out continuously and won the lottery ticket of a company that stays financially solvent for decades.

Many a financial planning book will explain the time value of money. The money you save before 35 is the most important. Luckily, that's the time before motherhood. So live frugally BC (before children) and save. If you and your partner are both professionals, try to save half your net or about 1/3 of your gross. Max out your 401k/403b and then your IRA and then save after tax. It will buy you time and freedom later.

After you save, pay attention to your asset allocation and expenses. Get a finance book, read it, and follow the advice. I was fortunate to read Making the most of your money NOW when I was 23 and it was great advice.

6. Enjoy the journey.
One area where we weren't frugal was in buying experiences. We traveled extensively BC, and then also as parents. This is like banking experiences, so you won't feel too deprived later on. I also think that our prior familiarity with travel BC emboldened us to travel more with our daughter. 100 travel posts and I haven't even mentioned all the great places we've been and the great experiences we've enjoyed.

In closing, I want to say that I know that combining career and motherhood is not possible for every woman. But there are rewards to using both our brains and our uteruses (as Congresswoman Pat Schroeder famously said.) If we don't normalize combining career and motherhood, we risk declining birthrates or young women leaning back on their careers before they even get started. In that kind of world, where the standard of career engagement and productivity is measured against childless workers or workers with the backstage support of a full-time homemaker, the workplace may become increasingly hostile to women even before they have children.


  1. wonderful and accurate.. I'll send this to my nieces.

    As best I can tell corporate America has always expected exactly that: every worker is either without dependents, or has a full-time homemaker in the background to take care of life. We failed to solve the problem of two careers, despite best efforts at implementing all of your points. I think this is sub-optimal for both of us. Feminism liberates everybody..

  2. Excellent advice!

    And I agree 100% with your closing statement. I don't need my way to be the only way- I recognize that my life does not appeal to some women (and my husband's life does not appeal to some men). But I think we have to get to a place where people aren't running around saying that my life is impossible and that men like my husband don't exist!


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