Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ask Cloud: Assessing the Risks of a Longer Leave

It is time for another Ask Cloud post! Actually, it is past time- I wanted to post this last week, but couldn't get the time to write it up. Sorry for the delay, anonymous reader!

The question comes from an anonymous reader who is doing an industry postdoc, and is pregnant and figuring out how to arrange her maternity leave:

"[My] question is related to my "hireability". Specifically, how does my potential to get hired depend on how much leave I take? As I mentioned, I am a postdoc at a company. I really like my job and there is a non-zero probability that I would get hired as a full-time employee, but that  probability is also not 100%, especially because there's quite a bit of uncertainty as to the company's budget and future so the decision about whether or not to hire me will not just be up to my boss and my team.   Right now, the plan is to not look for a job if I don't have my contract extended; the plan is to look for one 4-6 or so months after baby is born, which will leave me 4-6 months (or more) in the uncomfortable "jobless and don't know when I'll have a job" state. How much do you think that 4-6 months of unemployment will hurt my future ability to get hired? Or, put another way, how do I estimate my unemployability vs time off curve? How much time off will drop my employability to 10 % of its current value? (I'm not asking you to answer this, just maybe give me some ideas for how to think about it :). That is just how I posed the question to my husband, who said the question was unanswerable.)

The other information in all of this that may be relevant is that my husband has a stable, highly-paying job that he really enjoys, and we have quite a bit of savings, so child care and my job aren't really limited by money.  In order to maintain our current lifestyle, he would need to keep working; I don't. It also means that  I'm not really attracted by the idea of doing an academic postdoc, where between taxes and child care costs we would end up with less income than if I were to not work and take care of baby, though its something I might consider if the fear of being unable to financially support myself and my  if something happened to my husband turned out to be too debilitating for me.   We have a pretty equal division of housework at home, btw, and my husband supportive of my career and would even be ok with my taking an academic postdoc if that's what I wanted to do."

This is a tough question to answer, because a lot depends on luck. It is sad to say that, but it is true. There is luck in what the job market is like when you try to get back in, and luck in whether the managers who consider hiring you are biased against mothers (sadly, research shows that there is still a lot of anti-mother bias out there.) I'm going to answer assuming moderately good luck, but I also recommend that you have a plan in mind for what you'll do if your luck turns out to be rotten. That is, make your plans assuming that your job search will take an average amount of time and the managers you meet have their anti-mother bias under control, but also think about how you would react to a worst case scenario, and based on how much that scenario bothers you, take some steps to mitigate the risks.

In terms of how varying amounts of time off are likely to be viewed by hiring managers, my guess is that no one will raise their eyebrows at 4 months off, and that 6 months off might get noticed, but is unlikely to cause problems. Beyond 6 months, things get dicier, and my gut instinct is that you will be more likely to encounter anti-mother discrimination on your return. However, that doesn't mean you will have trouble returning, just that the the odds go up that someone is going to say/think some boneheaded thing when he or she sees the gap on your resume. That penalty will probably go away after a few years back in the workforce, though- i.e., it might hurt you when you're getting your first job back after the leave, but probably won't hurt in later job searches. (This is all my impression based on how I've seen other managers around me behave- if anyone has actual statistics or other data, please drop that in the comments.)

However, I don't think this straight-forward calculation is how you should think about the decision. I would instead think about in terms of what outcome you think you'll regret most. If you have always wanted to stay home with your baby for the first 6 months, do it, and just accept the fact that you may have to overcome a career penalty if you end up taking a year to get back into the workforce. It won't be impossible to get back in the longer you are out, it will just be harder. On the other hand, if you think you would always wonder whether your career would have taken off if you hadn't taken such a long leave, then start looking for a job earlier in your leave. Babies do fine in day care as long as it is high quality, and chances are, your kid will figure it out if you secretly blame your lackluster career on him or her. I've read comments from grown ups whose mother resented giving up opportunities for them as kids, and they sound FAR more bitter/unhappy than most comments from grown ups who were in day care. 

Of course, those are the two extremes, and your reality is probably somewhere in between. I think it is helpful to consider the two extremes, though, so that you can gauge your gut instinct on which sounds worse to you- and then err on the side of the other extreme.

If you do end up taking a longer leave, you may want to take steps to stay somewhat connected with your career while you're out, or to start reconnecting a little before you are hoping to return. This old post has some ideas for how to do that.

I have a few more practical observations:

1. If your current company does not extend your contract and you decided that you only want to be out of work for ~6 months after the baby is born, you should probably start looking for your next position no later than 3 months postpartum. I suggest that number not because I think 3 months is plenty of time to find a job (it may or may not be- it is hard to predict), but because I think that if you do get lucky and land a job within a month of starting the search, you might be able to ask them to wait 1-2 months for you. Basically, you need to figure out what your minimum and maximum acceptable time out of work is, and use that to figure out when to start a search. At your career level, I'd allow at least 3 months for the search, but not be surprised if it takes a bit longer.

2. When you're thinking about when to start your child in day care, think a bit about developmental milestones. Most (but not all!) babies have their first separation anxiety phase at 9-12 months. I personally think that starting day care before or after this phase will be a lot easier on all involved. Also, I had a big dip in milk supply at 9 months postpartum with both kids, which would have made that a tough time to start pumping.

3. Regardless of when you're going to start the baby in day care, if you are breastfeeding, you may want to try to get the baby used to taking a bottle from very early on. Here is an old post about that. There is absolutely no way to guarantee your breastfed baby will take a bottle, but the preponderance of the anecdotal evidence I've seen/heard on and offline indicates that your best odds are if you don't wait much past the 3rd week postpartum to introduce it (assuming a full term baby). 

4. It is really hard to run an intense job search without child care. If you can afford it, get some child care once you are ready to really look for a job. This could be part time, but it will really help to have some reliable daylight hours to devote to job searching. Ideally, have those hours include lunch, so you can have networking lunches with people.

OK readers, your turn. What advice do you have for our anonymous postdoc?


  1. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Re: the bottle, don't introduce before 3 weeks either... There's a rare but unpleasant condition called nipple confusion they can get if they get a regular bottle too early. Ideally hit that 3-5 week window so you can use both bottle and breast at will.

    1. That's exactly what I was thinking! Or perhaps that was the prevalent point of view when I was a mom to infants 29-23 years ago. Standard bottle nipples were supposedly (?) easier to suck from, leading to lazy babies that would rather take a bottle than the breast, so I deliberately looked for nipples that were designed to make babies work a bit harder.

      As it turned out, my now 3 year old grandson got to that point, possibly following a nursing strike, where he refused the breast in favor of the bottle. I'm so proud of my daughter-in-law for pumping as long as she did (a year, I think), to ensure that he got as much breast milk as possible.

  2. Anonymous8:32 PM

    The lactation consultant in seattle recommended introducing anytime after 6 weeks to allow enough time for the mother to establish a good supply by direct nursing. This advice worked for me.

    1. There were several people in my nursing support group both times around who waited until 6 weeks and really struggled. I say introduce as soon as nursing is well established and you are past the risk of nipple confusion. Unfortunately, though, I don't think there is solid research to tell you when that is! The lactation consultants at my hospital recommended 3 weeks, so that's what we did. I'd love to see a proper study on this, even a retrospective one.

    2. Anonymous8:55 PM

      Having had a baby that rejected a bottle (introduced at week 4, as per all of our books), I disagree with the idea that anyone should make hard and fast rules against introducing a bottle from the start. Bottle rejection was horrible because there was no way for me to get a break from my baby (or to have relief from sleep deprivation). It also hurt my husband and my ability to share baby bonding and baby tasks. I also turned out to hate breastfeeding and would have loved to stop sooner except that I couldn't (at least not without seeing how many meals the baby would reject before finally taking a bottle, which I was just not willing to do). When breastfeeding advocates extol the benefits of breastfeeding as a bonding moment, they forget to mention that this is only true for those for whom it's true. Breastfeeding was not hard for me; I just hated doing it.

      So IMHO, it boils down to neither nipple confusion nor bottle rejection are likely but either one can happen (and neither one can be predicted). Given that, I think each caretaker needs to make their own choices about which potential negative outcome is more important to avoid. Personally, I think everyone benefits from having the baby get the bottle for a night feeding and the mom get more rest, but that's also a mileage varying thing. Some mom's handle the interrupted rest better or get lucky with a really good sleeper.

      I also recommend getting contact info for a sleep coach in your area. My husband and I found out about sleep coaches courtesy of a parent's list for his place of employment, and our sleep coach got our baby sleeping through the night and napping regularly by month 5. It took one hard weekend and about two weeks of moderate work, most of which we did ourselves. But having the sleep coach there with us in the initial time and available for follow up advice was invaluable. We picked one whose method did not require leaving the baby alone to cry (which just would not have worked for me).


    3. Anonymous5:56 AM

      My colleague and women who experienced nipple confusion on the mama board I was on with dc1 would strongly disagree with you. Nipple confusion was not fun for them. My colleague, with the use of nipple shields and a lot of other paraphernalia and a lot of work was eventually able to get her daughter back on the breast but many women weren't.

      Yes there are studies on the ideal window for bottle introduction. And there will be outliers, even so.

    4. Anonymous6:59 AM

      We introduced a bottle of breastmilk on the second day with our baby 2. (to split the overnight feedings with husband) i can imagine that nipple confusion would be terrible, but it wasn't an issue for us. and i was happy to get a little rest

    5. Another data point - we had read material similar to Cloud's, and we decided to introduce a bottle at 3-4 weeks as soon as nursing was well established. Voila. We never had any problem with nipple confusion or bottle refusal. Many of the women I know who waited had bottle-refusers, which caused enormous stress. I didn't even want to bottle feed at 3 weeks - I just wanted him used to it. My husband gave him a bottle every day in order to keep up the routine, and when i was ready to be separated from him for 3-4 hours, he was ready too. (I pumped the missed feeding.)

    6. Anonymous5:50 PM

      I think nipple confusion is probably more prominent in parts of the country where there's much less breast-feeding and much more formula feeding. (Like where I live now.) I don't have numbers on that, that's just what it seems like when I think of the people I know who have had either problem. But the 3-5 week window should help to avoid both problems. Although there's still outliers.

      And no, most people will have neither nipple confusion nor bottle refusal no matter what they do. But both conditions are unfortunate. And breastfeeding doesn't come automatically but it does get easier for most people. Here's some more stuff on nursing: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/reverse-cycling-and-being-a-nursing-working-mom/

  3. I'm surprised to see that every single answer here so far has been about baby feeding, but the OP never mentioned that specific concern even once in her question.

    To your actual question, I'm with your husband, who "said the question was unanswerable." (Maybe that explains the overemphasis on feeding in the comments?) It's going to come down to some "luck" as @Cloud said. It also depends on how you generally present in interviews. How 4-6 months of unemployment will hurt your future ability to get hired depends on how you come across to an interviewer when and if it ever comes up. "Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed" by H. Anthony Medley is my favorite book on how to interview well, and should help you spin your own narrative properly. Highly readable. Best wishes!

    1. Anonymous1:59 PM

      I didn't have anything else to add (I didn't get any maternity leave with DC1, though we've been much better to our new hire who came in pregnant), just hoping to avoid nipple confusion if she wants to bf, as my colleague did not have a fun time with that.

    2. Anonymous4:15 PM

      I think we were more talking with each other than addressing the OP's question. :)

      Although having other people be able to feed the baby is an important issue for anyone who wishes to go back to work, and at least for me, it was one that books and classes did not discuss honestly. Although all of my healthcare-provided materials and the baby care classes I went to discussed breastfeeding benefits and avoiding nipple confusion, none of them mentioned the possibility of bottle rejection. My husband and I were completely unprepared, and neither my OB/GYN nor lactation consultant provided any help when we tried to get assistance once we were dealing with it. We were lucky in the sense that I worked part time from home so was capable of continuing exclusive breastfeeding, but it was a horrible, difficult experience that introduced a lot of unnecessary stress into an already difficult transition.

      -- Miriam

  4. Zenmoo10:21 PM

    I'm inclined to focus on the advice about ways to maintain your employability while on leave - I don't think it's possible to predict how you'll feel about actually working or getting a new job in the 12 months post-baby. But you can plan short courses, networking strategies etc now (and it'll be easier to have a plan now than try to make it in the sleep deprived early months!).

    1. I just tried to respond and my comment got eaten.
      Basically: there is no reason not to start networking now if you know you may possibly want a different job in another year. There is no downside to having lots of people think you're awesome. There's no way of knowing the timing on much of this, so you want good "career insurance" -- that is, knowing you're in demand, with lots of options. Arrows in the quiver. Irons in the fire. Pick your metaphor.

  5. Ack, people aren't kidding about the comment eating. Grr. Long comment short.

    Can you still publish, do blog posts or develop a new skill while out on leave? It's a good way to stay in the game. If you can, hire a babysitter to come in at set times to give yourself the time/space to work on your professional development, even if you're not being paid for it.

    One friend regretted not having a job lined up because she was stressed during her leave about getting a new job. Another got a job just before she had twins and just started the new job after her maternity leave, so you could potentially look for jobs now. I do think it's easier to stay in the game than leave and come back, mainly because you don't have to go through the potentially self-doubt inducing part of job searching and interviewing while also trying to establish yourself as a parent and professional. You are unique and awesome and people will want to hire you even if they have to wait for you!

  6. My advice is to figure out the lay of the land wrt child care *early*. In our area, the high quality, licensed day care centers have very limited spots for infants < 1 year, and you literally have to "get on the list" while you're pregnant and sort of estimate when you plan to go back. For example, in the center we chose, there were only 6 spots in the (one) Infant Room, and then each classroom after that had 2 or 3, and much larger ratios, so getting in after a year old was easier than as an infant.

    If you're hiring a nanny that might be easier, and you can wait until you need one, and if you're lucky you may be able to hire one to start part-time while you're actually looking for a job and transition to full time when you're ready to work.

    I also think you won't know *when* you're ready to go back until you're actually on leave, and out of the first month or two parenting haze. Some people are ready to go back at 3 months, others 5 or 6, or longer.

    Good luck!


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