“Titanic,” the legendary blockbuster and one of my favorite movies ever, has a profound quote that struck me when I first saw the movie 23 years ago: “We are women; our choices are never easy.” I didn’t quite understand the full implications of this line back then, but it clearly stayed with me.
Now, as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a career professional and a woman trying to survive in a COVID-19 world—where women are losing their jobs in greater numbers than men or are leaving the workforce altogether to look after family—I understand what that dialogue in “Titanic” truly means.
The choice between focusing on home and family or having a busy career especially comes to the forefront when the woman has a baby and is going on maternity leave. I know the need to make this choice, as I have needed to make it thrice.
As I have watched women my age and younger advance into managerial and executive positions or earn their graduate degrees because they didn’t have to put their career on hiatus to look after young children, I have struggled regret and fear that I’ll be left behind and all my professional work won’t matter.
I asked myself: What if I couldn’t find a good opportunity like this again? What if I have to start all over again at an entry level job in my profession, for a lower pay, giving up all the gains and experience I have made?
These are very real fears that we women have and for good reason too, considering the well-known statistics of women getting paid less than men for doing the same job and women not being represented in executive level positions in many industries.
However, from experience, I can tell you that with each of my maternity leaves, I have returned to a better job that gave me higher pay, more responsibilities and a better work environment, all of which have led me to steadily progress in my career. This has also allowed me to afford childcare for my children so I could return to my profession.
How does that work, you may ask? Well, here’s some real-world advice I can provide after being a “veteran” of three maternity leaves.
1. Work on new projects or develop new skills.
Once your child is out of the newborn phase, things do settle down, giving you more time to develop new skills. In my previous MAT leave, I wrote and published a kids’ picture book, and began blogging at “StoryMummy” and opened an associated Instagram account @storymummy86. All these together helped me get my job at University of Toronto. My published book was one of the first things my interviewers brought up during my interview!
2. Take risks.
For me, this means that I’m willing to keep an eye out for new opportunities, even if I really love the current position that I’m. It also means I’m willing to try new things, like writing, publishing and marketing a book.
3. Stay in touch with colleagues.
Colleagues both past and present can be references or give you insight into new opportunities.
4. Re-evaluate and reflect on your career pathway.
Consider what career skills you want to gain and what career you’d like to have in the future. Is there a dream job or dream industry you have? What’s the best way to prepare for that specific career path? What do you need to do to get there?
5. Create an ongoing career narrative.
Even during your MAT leave, do not go completely dark. It’s much easier to be in the mindset of hopping back into a career again once your MAT leave is over.
Now, due to your unique life situation, it may not be possible to do all or any of this. You may have to take a complete time off during your MAT leave. You may choose to stay in your same job, or you may take on a new job but for lower pay for a variety of personal and professional reasons. You may choose to leave the workforce altogether to focus on family.
We are women and our choices are never easy. There’s structural inequity, social and cultural expectations of the “‘nurturer,” and the biological inheritance of motherhood. We are expected to balance these inequities and expectations with the demands of modern life, all while working for financial independence and personal life satisfaction.
Sometimes, we have the choice to start something new. It might just advance our careers.
And what do I plan to do after my third maternity leave? Why, finally go ahead and get that Masters degree, of course.
ILHAM is a debut Canadian Children’s Author of the rhyming picture book, “Wonder Walk,” which has been released by the small Toronto-based press, Iguana Books.
ILHAM most recently worked at the University of Toronto, doing career advising for undergraduate students and she has been in the career advising field for a decade. When not writing and career advising, ILHAM loves to travel with her family and considers reading and raking leaves to be actual sports. You can follow ILHAM on her book writing & travel blog: Story Mummy, or on Instagram at storymummy86.