|That's the swamp of career failure on the left,
the pit of bad motherhood on the right
This post gives some of the details, at least from my perspective.
First of all, I don't think of the cashing in I've done in the early years of motherhood as "emptying the pot" so much as "not building more capital." To abuse the metaphor a bit, I think I've been spending the interest on the capital I had built in my early career, not the principal. I suppose that if I kept going as I am now, I'd eventually be spending the principal, but I've only been in this "cash in" mode for about six years. As a rough guesstimate, I think it would take ten years in the "cash in" mode for me to burn down to the principal.
Being in a "cash in" phase doesn't mean that I haven't been meeting the expectations of my employers- in fact, if I believe my performance reviews, I've been exceeding those expectations most of the time. It also doesn't mean that I haven't been learning and expanding my skills- looking back over the past six years, I can identify multiple skills that I can list on my resume now that I couldn't have claimed before my daughters were born. And no, I don't mean things like my ability to change the diaper of a squirming, screaming toddler or negotiate snack time with a headstrong preschooler- I mean bona fide work-related skills, like building SharePoint sites or managing a chemistry cartridge in Oracle.
I have not, however, been doing things specifically to build my skill set and expand my career capital. Broadly speaking, I have not been reaching out beyond the core of my job. What this looks like will be different for different people, because different jobs have different things at their core. For me, it means that I have been to only one conference and a couple of user group meetings in the last six years, and all of those have been local. I have not been out looking for useful scientific and technical articles to read, although there are a few relevant blogs that I keep in my reader. I have not expanded my technical skill set much. Specifically, my programming skills are now so out of date as to be rather laughable. I have, however, kept up my core technical skills, and through my jobs, I have updated those.
The reason for this is fairly obvious to me, but it isn't the usual "there just aren't enough hours in the day" sort of reason. It is that I've been too exhausted to put in the effort required to build career capital. Don't get me wrong, there were some extra logistical issues due to having kids, particularly around the attending of conferences, and particularly when I still had a nursing baby. And yes, the day care drop off/pick up routine adds to my commute time, especially now that we have the dreaded double drop off with Pumpkin in Kindergarten and Petunia in day care at a different site. But I have quite flexible work hours, a fairly excellent support system, and the money to buy my way out of a lot of logistical problems. These things could have been overcome.
The thing that I couldn't overcome was that I was just too damn tired to stay awake after the kids were in bed, and if I could stay awake, I didn't have the energy for anything but the most urgent tasks. In fact, there were several time periods during which I was too tired during the day to do the intense work required to learn new skills. Cal Newport has some interesting things to say about the sort of effort it takes to actually get better at something, and I agree with him- learning new skills or pushing to expand your existing skills is some of the most tiring work there is in "knowledge work" careers like mine. I could muster the energy to do that work when it was explicitly required by the job I was doing right then, but I could not muster the energy to do extra.
I know that parents of school-aged kids often argue that the parenting demands actually ramp up, not down as the kids get older. I can see their point- the issues I deal with for my Kindergartener are more complex and emotionally draining than the issues I deal with for my 3 year old, or that I dealt with when the kids were babies. But I still find that the exhaustion factor has gotten much, much, much better as my kids have gotten older. I had two kids who did not sleep through the night until they were two. In fact, Petunia (who is now three) still isn't reliably sleeping through the night all the time, although she does it often enough and is usually non-disruptive enough when she doesn't sleep through that I consider the intense sleep-deprivation phase of parenting to be in my past. Bedtimes are slowly converting from endurance tests to enjoyable routines. Pumpkin is past the phase where she insists on having me take care of her. Petunia is slowing getting past that phase, but is still Mommy-preferring enough that even with a willing and supportive partner, I struggle to put together long chunks of time to work or do work or project related activities when both Petunia and I are at home.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that this experience is not universal. Some kids sleep well from quite early on. My husband and I have a parenting philosophy that requires a large amount of energy in these early years. But that is the point- to combine work with parenting and be happy with how I was doing both, I needed a fair amount of flexibility in my jobs, and the career capital I had stored up from my early career allowed me to get that.
So here I am, feeling like I once again have the energy to rebuild some career capital. How am I going to do that? In some ways, it is quite simple: I'm just going to change my focus at work slightly. Instead of focusing purely on what this particular job needs from me, I will expand my focus to include what I need from this job, i.e., what skills I want to build to get me to the next level in my career.
That simplicity is deceptive, though, because the correct answer to the critical question of which skills to build is far from obvious. I am currently thinking very hard about where to focus my growth efforts. There are three aspects of my job: science, technology, and management. I could decide to focus on any of the three, or any combination of them, and there are many different avenues for growth within each area. To make this decision, I'll have to think about the prospects for my particular field and for my overall industry, and also about the potential for making lateral moves- or heading in completely new directions. It will take me some time to sort through all of that, so I have decided to start making some changes now, even though the best strategy is far from clear. Here is my list:
1. I've started saying "yes" to more local seminars and networking events, particularly if they are during the work day. I'll still have to get my work done, so this leads to longer days, but is less intrusive and easier to organize logistically than the typical after work networking happy hour. (This actually leads me to an interesting side observation: if you want to network with more senior people, you should probably look for seminars and lunch time or even breakfast events, and not happy hours. I've noticed that few of my peers and even fewer of the people senior to me go to the happy hour events. This is not to say that happy hour events are useless- networking with peers and early career folks is a good thing. But if you want the senior people, you probably need to look elsewhere.)
2. I've printed out a few journal articles that I want to read. My plan is to pick one day a week to designate as "paper reading day" and to read one paper with morning tea on that day. I made this plan just as budgeting and goal setting madness overtook my schedule. Next week, I may actually get to implement the plan, assuming I can unearth the papers from underneath the pile of budget spreadsheets on my desk.
I want to read the paper with my morning tea because I'm sharpest first thing in the morning, and reading and really understanding a journal article is hard work. Once again, my "regular" work will still need to get done, so this may lead to more work after the kids are in bed, but now that I can regularly stay awake for an hour (or more!) after they go to sleep, that is a possibility.
3. I'm taking note of unfamiliar technical concepts that I come across, and I plan to spend one lunchtime per week research the concepts I note down. I usually spend roughly 30 minutes eating lunch, and I usually work through at least half of that time. The other half I spend reading random stuff on the internet- this is where my weekend links posts come from, and is a very good brain cleansing break, so I think it would be foolish to jettison that practice altogether. But once a week, I can have slightly more direction to my internet searching. And of course, I can still take a walk after I finish eating, which is the other half of my lunch time rejuvenation scheme.
And that is it, at least for now. I may eventually decide to do something more drastic- I'm toying with the idea of assigning myself a non-work project that will force me to learn some more modern programming skills. But I don't think I'm ready for that quite yet. Bedtime still takes too long, and weekends are still too fragmented for me to feel up for that sort of project. Besides, it might cut into my writing time, and I find writing to be a very useful way to work through issues and ideas that might be distracting me, and also just to relax and refresh so that I'm ready to focus on work again the next day. And it is fun, so I'm not willing to give it up.
What about you? Have you ever come up with a plan to build career capital? Have you ever been in a period where you spent that capital- and how long did it last? Did you think you were spending interest or principal by the end of that time? I think this is a topic for which individual experiences will vary quite a bit, so I'd love to hear what you all think about it in the comments.