Is there an “optimal” time to have a baby from a career perspective? Maybe, but we’re doubtful.
If you’re a consultant, an attorney or in medical school, you may think it makes infinite sense to wait to have a baby. Surely once you make partner or start your private practice, it’ll be a better time. Until then, you're managing a demanding travel schedule, pulling long hours that include nights and weekends, and working punishing residency shifts.
While we can’t disagree with the logic of trying to plan around certain career milestones, there's also a lot of unpredictability in life.
First: market forces and economic cycles can interfere with the best-laid life plans.
If you worked in finance in 2008 during the Great Recession, for example, your career trajectory probably looked a bit wobbly for a few years. If you were waiting to become VP before having a baby, you may have had to make a decision then and there, rather than wait for your industry to shake out.
Moreover, if you’re like some women, you might actually dislike your current work, employer or industry, which means that putting your future baby on hold for your career will feel like torture. That said, some people, like Anna Nelson, still argue that for certain professions, having a baby will come with a high probability of derailing your career if you don’t time it right — and that women need access to that intel. As an attorney, Nelson believes that women “need to hear frank advice, so we can work around obstacles” — like the fact that having a baby during your early associate years may unfortunately have an undesirable impact on your career progression.
Second, while there’s a lot to be said about achieving as much seniority as possible before having children, there’s also something to be said about having children before the most demanding years of your career. Sometimes seniority comes with greater flexibility and control of your schedule, but occasionally, seniority may require even more of you than you ever expected.
For every person who's arguing that it's better to have kids later in your career, it seems there is someone else who demonstrates that it's better to do it earlier.
For example, Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the infamous opinion piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All," gave up her high-profile State Department position in order to be more present for a 14-year-old son who was acting up.
For her family, the most challenging years for her work-life balance was not when she had babies and toddlers running around, but when she had teenagers. Yet, she still gives entrepreneurs advice to “go all out” on their companies for a focused ten-year period before having children.
Finally, some of us prefer to have children earlier for a variety of other reasons that have nothing to do with our careers. Fertility, our personal health, energy levels, savings levels, our partners’ wishes and parents’ needs are also important factors to consider when thinking about when to start a family. And of course, some babies are unplanned and make our decisions for us!
Even if your career is the most important factor in terms of when you think you'll have a baby, there are still so many things out of your control.
You may raise easy-going, relatively obedient children or have a special-needs child that requires one parent to be involved in a deep and time-intensive way.
Your spouses and partners may earn enormous steady incomes and be willing to decelerate their careers, or you may be raising children on your own after a divorce. Your career trajectories may go according to plan or you may find yourself completely turned upside down by bad luck or unforeseeable and amazing job opportunities.
By all means, plan to have a baby when you think it’s best for your career. But planning for a baby can have negative career implications as much as the positive kind. As Sheryl Sandberg advises: “Don’t leave before you leave.” What Sandberg means is that she doesn’t think you shouldn’t decelerate your career before you actually have a baby. She describes the phenomenon:
"Here is what happens. An ambitious and successful woman starts considering having children, typically once she finds a domestic partner. She thinks hard about how busy she is and realizes that finding time for a child means something will have to give. As soon as that thinking process starts, she is already looking for ways to scale back."
Bottom line: there’s a wealth of well-meaning advice out there tugging us in different directions. Which is why we believe that ultimately there is probably no “best” time to have a baby for your career. Listen to what your gut tells you and know that there is no perfect answer. Everyone is slightly different, and many things will unfold in ways you cannot anticipate.