At around 26-weeks pregnant (with twins), I clearly remember my supervisor’s reaction when I explained my post-maternity leave plans. I would take the maximum allowance of 12 weeks unpaid-leave (yes, I know…don’t get me started), return to work part-time at three months, then full-time at six months.
My supervisor at the time – a supportive mom of three – proceeded to laugh at me. “What? You don’t think it’s realistic?” I responded. She smiled knowingly and gently suggested that I wait and see how things go.
But the truth is, I hadn’t really thought it through at all. With so many practical things to focus on, the theoretical aspects of impending parenthood had escaped me. I had no idea how life would change once the babies arrived, so it seemed safe to stick to what I knew and assume that I’d keep working.
Little did I know that those weeks would be the last time I would work full-time for a very long while…Ten days later I went for a routine doctor’s appointment on my lunch break and never came back to my desk. Considered to be at risk of pre-term labor, I spent the next eight weeks on bed rest. I was able to continue working from home – spending half the day on my “work couch” (complete with rolling hospital table for a desk) and the other on my “relaxing couch.”
When the twins were born, I checked out of work completely and felt reluctant to return when the three-month point hit. “Why hadn’t I given myself at least six months?” I wondered. “What was I thinking?” I ended up coming back to work part-time when the babies were four months old, but I wasn’t particularly happy. My job had changed and things were different. I was different.
Six months later, a former boss and I decided to apply for a United Nations consultancy as a two-person team. We figured it was a long shot but considered it good experience to go through the process and put ourselves out there. To our amazement, we landed the gig.
Now, two and half years later, we have just wrapped up our fifth consecutive consultancy project for the same agency. For us, the big leap paid off. The flexibility of part-time and primarily home-based work has been a blessing – allowing me to schedule projects around my life and not the other way around.
Working with another mama of young kids has been an added benefit of our collaboration and I have greatly valued her support and understanding as a colleague and friend. We often laughed about how our high-level work conversations frequently veer off course – covering potty training tips, birthday cake ideas and first day of school stories. All in a day’s work, really.
Now that I’m emerging from the other side of this intense personal and professional period, my world looks a bit different.
The babies that once required round-the-clock feedings and constant tag-team care are now confident preschoolers. While I now have more free time, I am also very aware of how fast the years are going and want to soak up as much as I can before the magical window of early childhood closes.
Moving to East Timor has also shifted my perspective. When I was living in the US, my consulting work was a way to bring me closer to the “field” perspective. Now I live in a developing country. Although I’m grateful to have been able to continue my previous projects from this remote outpost, my work often seems a million miles away and has left me feeling disconnected from the realities of where I live. Creating this sense of connection is important to me.
Though I’ve been working in the field of international development for over a decade now, I haven’t followed a particularly straightforward career path. Adding kids and faraway job postings to the mix has also shifted my focus – and in many ways, my priorities. While my professional journey might look more like a winding road than a ladder, I’m happy with the choices I’ve made – for myself and for my family. It’s just the way forward that is not so clear.
What I do know is that I’m not quite ready to jump back into full-time work (and feel fortunate to have this option). But what I don’t know is the answer to a much bigger question…what should I be when I grow up?
Should I continue on the same path? Keep up the remote consulting work or seek meaningful job opportunities here? Become more of a technical specialist or consolidate existing skills and experience? Travel occasionally or remain home-based? Explore something different altogether?
I don’t know.
Something tells me that career-wise, my calling is yet to be determined. But I’ll get there eventually. For now, I’m going to enjoy the view from here.
How do you balance life, work and family? Has parenthood influenced your professional priorities? Would you change anything?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Shaula Bellour in East Timor. Shaula can also be found on her blog, Notes From a Small World.