Last night, I went to a networking event in my industry. When I wrote earlier about the effects of job insecurity on my life, I mentioned that keeping up with networking events was one of the (few!) career-related things that has suffered due to motherhood. It is just too hard to go out in the evening right now, particularly since most networking events fall right around dinner time.
I realized two things last night: how true this is and how soon it will get easier. The event started at 6 p.m. in a part of town that is a 15-20 minute drive away from our house. The first hour of the event was set aside for informal networking. At 7 p.m., a speaker would give a presentation. I really wanted to see that presentation, but I needed to network, too. So I asked Hubby to try to get home early. If we had dinner at 5:45, I could probably leave our house by about 6:00 or 6:10 and get 30 minutes of networking in before the talk.
This worked perfectly.... but I could tell that Petunia was upset that I was leaving so soon. She is always so happy to see me at the end of the day. She holds out her arms for me to take her, and then she puts her little head down on my shoulder and gives me the sweetest hug. Eventually, she lifts her head up, gives me a big smile, and starts signing "more", which in this context means "give me my dinner now, please!" She was still eating her dinner when I got up from the table and kissed her and Pumpkin good-bye. Pumpkin waved bye-bye happily, content with my promise to be home before lights out (and I was). But Petunia looked confused. When I got home later, Hubby said that she wouldn't really take her bottle before bed, and that it had been hard to get her down for the night. She woke up earlier than usual in the middle of the night- this was probably due in part to the lingering effects of her cold. But she gave me another one of her big, sweet hugs when I went in and picked her up, instead of just starting to paw at my shirt to indicate that she wanted to nurse, which is what she usually does. I suspect she had missed me.
This particular event was worth the hassle, especially since I need to talk to as many people as I can right now as I look for my next job. But most events, I skip. It just messes with our bedtime routine too much, and that usually leads to consequences in the middle of the night. However, as I snuggled with Pumpkin before she went to sleep, I realized that it won't be long before Petunia will be able to handle my occasional absence as well as Pumpkin does. This period of time during which these "career maintenance" sorts of tasks are hard to accommodate is quite short- probably about five years, all told. I have been in the work force for more than ten years already, and I expect to be working for at least twenty-five more years. That is a long time. Five years of less than optimal career maintenance doesn't seem like a terrible thing when I look at it from the long view, even though right now, I am feeling a little bit stressed by the fact that my network could be better cared for. My stress is alleviated somewhat by the fact that despite the relative neglect to my network, I already have one very strong job lead from it, and I haven't even started working seriously on networking during this search.
All of this leads me to a new piece of advice I'd give a young woman (or man, really) starting out in her career, and wondering how best to balance a career and motherhood: invest the effort in building a good network early, before you have kids. Then you can maintain it with a minimal amount of effort during those five years or so when you have a baby at home who won't really understand why Mommy needs to go out before bedtime tonight, and still reap the benefits of being well networked. Yes, I know that older kids still need a lot of attention, and I'm aware of the people who argue that parenting gets harder as the kids get older. I am not discounting those views- I won't really know until I get there, right? But I do think that older kids can handle the substitution of one parent for another a little easier. At this age, when she still nurses before bed and is forming her strong attachment to her primary caregiver, it is hard for Petunia to accept Daddy instead of Mommy for some parts of her routine. Pumpkin, on the other hand, usually accepts it fairly well, particularly if I promise some special Mommy time later.
Kate, at One Tired Ema, has written about how her style of parenting really young children (under the age of three, I think? I can't remember her cut off age) is very intense. That is the perfect word to describe this age. Babies and toddlers need a lot of attention, and in my view, they deserve to get all of the attention you can stand to give them. I hope that the time and patience invested now, in stacking blocks on the floor, reading mind-numbingly dull books 10 times in a row (Petunia's current favorite is a bunch of pictures of babies, with one word describing their emotion underneath) and handling sleep issues gently will pay off in an older child who knows that her parents will always be there for her when she really needs them. I think I'm starting to see that in Pumpkin now. Maybe it would have turned out this way even if we'd parented differently- but any other method of parenting wouldn't have felt right to me.
So I will continue to give Petunia the intense parenting I think she deserves. My career will be OK over the long term, and over the long term is just how I think I need to look at things now that I'm a parent.