This is taken off one of the questions that came to us by email. We replicate our response for other mums (and mums-to-be) facing down this question.
I know you normally answer questions related to business and if you prefer not to answer this question, that is fine. However, I do think that your strategic thinking process will help me and so I am taking a somewhat leap of faith here. I am expecting my second child. I have been in the corporate world for the last 8 years and I am holding a rather senior position. My salary is upwards of $9,000 a month. My first girl is two and a half and we are expecting our second in a month’s time. I have been grappling with the question of whether to return to work after maternity leave. You can imagine I am walking away from a lot, and yet, I cannot bear to be away from my children. It happened for the first one and I don’t really like what I am seeing. I think she needs her mum. Now with the second one on the way, I am really finding this a difficult decision to make. Can you help?
Dear Mrs Lost,
You are right to say that I concentrate on business decisions because, frankly, they are not fraught with as much emotion as personal ones. But every now and then, we get a compelling question like yours that challenges us to rise above our comfort level and hopefully provide a different perspective to get you over the decision stasis. Ultimately, what you choose to do must be your decision and what we say in this response should be taken only as perspectives for you to consider. As it is, I am not a woman and cannot pretend to understand what a mother would be thinking and I will not pretend to offer any advice based on this, or any other perspective. That said, I will use the strategic thinking process to offer a point of view that might help you make the decision better. Use whatever works for you; and discard the rest that don’t. You should seek professional counsel if you are in any doubt regarding your decision.
Full disclosure: My wife and I have five children. And we answered this question before we had kids; we decided that my wife would leave her job and stay at home to raise the children when we had them. However, even with this decision firmly in the bag, it wasn’t until our third child came along that she finally gave up her job (by that time #1 was 5 and #2 was 2); and she stayed at home for the next 14 years to bring up the children. But I won’t let that cloud my discussion.
I suppose this question is difficult for you because, by giving me your salary level, it shows that your opportunity cost is high. But because I don’t know how much your husband is earning and if the loss of your income would impact the household standard of living, I can only assume that there would have to be some adjustments to living standards; and some sacrifices would have to be made.
Whenever I am faced with this question (you will be amazed at the number of mothers who come to our workshop with this very decision question!), I always ask, “Where is your husband in all of this?” Surely you cannot make a decision as important as this alone. I know; the normal response I get from participants is, “He says it is up to me.” Frankly, I think that is a cop-out. He is afraid of sharing with you his point of view, leaving you to make the decision all by yourself. If this is what your husband is telling you as well, my suggestion is to seat him down and get him to articulate what his intents are as you do the same yourself.
Of course we all want the best for the children; so using that as your intent will not be helpful. Your intent has to go one or two levels deeper. For example, someone might say, “My intent is to ensure that we have $3M in the bank by the time the first child hits 20 so that we can send them to any university in the world.” Another mother (or husband) might say, “My intent is to provide the most nurturing environment for our children to grow up in.” Still another would say, “My intent is to continue to be fulfilled both as a parent and as a professional.” Notice how each of these intents clarifies the decision and the actions. What most parents fail to do is to make their intentions known as clearly as this, and that is why there is so much uncertainty. So this is the first thing you need to do.
The next important aspect of strategic thinking is to identify your constraints. Even if you have decided to be a stay-at-home mum doesn’t mean you should give up on your personal and professional development. If this is important to you, then you need to make those your decision constraints. As we have mentioned many times already, a constraint is not a limiting factor to a situation; instead, it is a necessary condition for a successful decision. Hence, you need to identify all the conditions you need to have in order for any decision to be successful. Needless to say, the nurturing aspect of child development and growth has to be one such constraint. Another might be the ability to meet all household costs with ease.
Others have also articulated personal free time, pursuance of hobby, girls (or guys) nights out, or attainment of higher education as constraints. These are all valid because the last thing you want to find out is, when the child comes, your personal, and family, growth stops. So articulate all your constraints as you see fit, without worrying if they can be attained or not.
I will not share any options with you here because there are myriad ways of approaching this, depending on your intent. As a result, if you don’t have a clear intent, you will not be able to come up with good options. Enough said.
I am always amazed how people see their situation is dichotomous – i.e. it is black or white; one or another. This is what many refer to as the Tyranny of the Or. Why can’t it be the Power of the And? Couldn’t you have one thing AND another? Could you nurture your child AND work? Could your husband do half AND you do another half?
Whenever I ask this, we get many wide-eyed “Aha!” moments. Some couples seem to be locked into some medieval construct that the woman’s place is in the home (and kitchen) and the man’s place is in the office! This again is the Tyranny of the Or. The minute we are able to tear down certain social construct myths, developing our own standards of what is right for our family, we free ourselves from this tyranny.
So perhaps as you seek the way forward, both you and your husband should list down all the assumptions and expectations of each other, and of the family unit, when it comes to bringing up children, and see if there may be some outdated, outmoded or simply wrong assumptions that need, once and for all, to be buried. This will definitely give you a new perspective with which to see your situation, and to come to the right decision.
Balancing options with constraints
When it comes to decisions like these, there are no right or wrong answers. No one, not even your parents, can tell you what to do. You family is your own, and you will have to formulate the rules and make the decisions as a unit. So while we can line up all the options, and compare them with the constraints, you will not get a clean and clear-cut solution. What you might find is a combination of options to find a malleable working solution that needs to have the flexibility to bend at one end and then, at another.
Because, ultimately, you are dealing with lives and values here and no one can tell you one thing or another. But I hope that as we articulated some of the thoughts pulled from our strategic thinking process and from our experience dealing with the very decision question you came to ask, we have helped in making your thinking clearer, and in helping you make the right decision.
I wish you all the best! Ian
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