No, motherhood doesn’t have to mean the end of your career. In fact, it can also mean the beginning of an awesome new chapter. Maybrooks features four women who learned to thrive at work after baby arrived—
1. Jenny Donnelly
Jenny Donnelly didn’t have a computer science degree but she quickly parlayed her math background from college into web development, system networking and coding when she headed to California in the 1990s. She eventually landed a role at Yahoo, where she has been for 10 years and is now an engineering director managing 26 people. After her first baby she found herself stretched pretty thin so she devised a way to re-prioritize and focus on important pieces — and with each of her two kids came a promotion. Here’s how she does it.
WHO SHE IS
Jenny Donnelly, Engineering Director, Yahoo Gemini
WHERE SHE IS
A career I love, wonderful husband, two happy & healthy kids!
Monday through Friday I keep it 9 to 5 in the office, plus phone calls during my commute, plenty of nights after the kids are in bed, weekends as required
Son (6), Daughter (4)
RECENT SMART READ
I’m halfway through Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock
FAVORITE WEEKNIGHT DINNER
I love cooking for my family! Fish tacos, flank steak, and roasted chicken are all very easy for weeknights.
FAVORITE TV SHOW
The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, plus anything on Bravo
Yelp to help me pick my next date night destination.
BEST TIME-MANAGEMENT TIP
I buy almost everything except groceries online: my clothes & shoes, kids’ clothes & shoes, beauty products, gifts, even toilet paper. I’d buy groceries online too, but I love my weekly jaunts through the produce aisle.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE TO DO WITH YOUR CHILDREN WHEN YOU AREN’T WORKING
Go on vacation!
HOW DOES BEING A MOM MAKE YOU GREAT AT WHAT YOU DO?
I have a laser focus on priorities and make every work minute matter.
You’re a woman in tech at the Director level. You’re also a mother of two! Tell us about your working mom journey and how you got here.
I landed in San Francisco after college during the Internet boom of the 90’s. I didn’t have a CS degree, but my first job was as a sort of jack-of-all-trades at a startup, and I soon realized I loved all the technical aspects of my job: building the website, setting up the network, and teaching myself how to build useful things with code. That was my real entry to tech and I’m pretty much a self-taught geek.
Since landing at Yahoo 10 years ago, I’ve been able to really deepen my technical and leadership skills and even start a family. For me, those things actually went hand in hand. When I had my first baby, I was stretched so thin and really burning the candles at both ends. My response was to cut out anything and everything unnecessary both at work and home and to focus on only the most important things.
At work, that meant throwing myself into the most impactful projects around me and cutting out the rest. I’ve honed a relentless focus on results and a healthy distaste for inefficiency. Taken at a higher level, it means having clear team priorities that align with business goals and avoiding premature optimization. I really think that shift is what has unlocked my potential as an effective leader, which in turn led to a series of promotions.
With each baby came a promotion, but also a period of time where you worried you couldn’t handle it all. What changed your thinking and what advice do you have now for others that they can have a big career and a family too, and not to worry so much?
Not handling it all wasn’t just a worry — it was a reality! Things were slipping through the cracks left and right. But in the process of letting the smaller stuff go, I consciously up-leveled my goals to be things I truly wanted to fight and sacrifice for.
I decided I didn’t need to answer every email that landed in my inbox, but I did put in the time on the ones that needed to be handled well.
I didn’t accept every meeting invite that landed in my calendar, but I did make special childcare arrangements to attend some very important ones.
You mentioned that you’ll step out of important meetings to take phone calls from the school. As the manager of 26 people, how do you manage in a way that messages your priorities and allows people to feel comfortable with their own?
I do have family obligations that pop up unexpectedly now and again — I think most of us do. I don’t try to hide it, and I openly respect everyone’s needs to take care of their family or other personal matters. Our company culture is very transparent in that way, and that is true all the way up to our CEO Marissa Mayer. I think it’s because we all trust each other to be hard working, to cover for each other from time to time, and to make up for lost time in other ways.
My job is very demanding, but I am able to give it my all because I never feel like I’m being asked to compromise on the things that are most important to me.
You’ve been at the company 10 years and said you recently looked around the room and saw women in various leadership roles and thought the company must be doing something right? What do you think Yahoo is doing right?
I’m not sure I can point to any particular policy or program, but I do think we are philosophically a deeply meritocratic company that tries to eliminate bias in all aspects, from hiring to promotions.
Being a working mom will require you to work crazy hard and make a lot of sacrifices — that’s a given. I think it’s really valuable to figure out what your most ambitious, fearless self can dream up and what sacrifices you are willing to make to get her there — and then to go for it! On the flip side, know what sacrifices you won’t make and stick to your guns. For instance, I love to cook and it is really important to me that I am home for dinner every night. Check in with yourself now and then to make sure the goals and the sacrifices are in balance.
2. Layla Kajer
Layla had just accepted a new job across the country where she was planning to double down on her career for the next three to five years. So when she found out she was pregnant—unexpectedly and unplanned—it was a bit of a shock. She continued to double down during her pregnancy. And then on maternity leave discovered a new self, which led to changes she may never have imagined, and the search for a company that would support those changes.
Here’s how Layla describes it—
Somewhere along the way, growing up as a girl in modern society, for me it feels you have to choose your path — you are either a career woman or a mom type. Like cattle being branded, it seems binary and permanent.
The decision was easy for me. I’m a career woman. Born and bred.
As a child, I played business-owner and banker over house or dolls. Combine that with watching key women in my life search for purpose outside of kids, and I was firm on my position—I’m all work all the time.
That was, until my life turned upside down and I found out I was pregnant—completely unplanned, unexpected and (dare I say) a tiny bit unwanted. I was 31 years old, financially secure and in a loving relationship so this wasn’t a disaster. But I had recently accepted a position to move across the country, a symbol that I am doubling down on my career and leaving the kid debate for three to five years down the road.
Nope. It happens now.
White knuckling my identity
As reality of my pregnancy set in, I was determined to stay relevant at work and maintain my people-pleasing, over-achieving, hard-working reputation. I initially told my firm that I was going to take a short leave—less than what they offered at full salary. I signed up for a project that required I fly to the Middle East twice a month. While pregnant. That seemed like a good idea at the time (yes, feel free to roll your eyes—I do too now).
On my last day in the office, I looked my boss in the eyes and said, “when I get back, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running. I want that promotion and I plan to travel.” And I meant it.
To my surprise
I loved being home with my baby girl. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and it changed me. I finally felt sweet release from pressure I’d placed on myself, historically grounding my purpose solely on work achievements. While I was out, I saw there was joy in something other than external validation. There was no stress of whether clients liked me and would buy more work from me. There was no self-doubt after a tense meeting. To be fair, I had plenty of other new stress-inducing situations, but this was the first time I saw a different way of existing and it felt good.
My entire life had been built on the notion that I’m only valuable if I’m crushing it at work so what happens to EVERYTHING if my willingness to give so much of my time and energy has changed?
Death of a two-tone existence
The rumble of a changing identity is a tricky thing.
I used to call it an identity shift, but I now see it was an identity expansion.
It’s like an addition you make to a house. It is bigger, utterly more, with fresh new features but the rest of the house — with all the memories in it — is still there. My ambition didn’t go away or even lessen, it’s just that I now have more in my life that matters.
My challenge wasn’t trying to shoehorn mommyhood into my old identity and life. My challenge was to find an environment where my ambition can thrive without detriment to my family life.
This idea that we must have a clear one-or-the-other identity does not serve greater womankind and, instead, holds us in the narrow confines of an antiquated gender-biased existence. We can, should be, and are changing, energetic beings who exist in multiple dimensions and have the freedom to flourish in many priority permutations.
My reconciliation came when I realized my job had to shift in order for me to have the home life I want. So it did. I found a company comprised of other moms and dads and a position that allowed me minimal travel but high-impact work with a mission-driven company at headquarters five minutes from my house.
I’m only two months in to this working mom adventure, but I already see that I can be and am both a loving, involved mom who treasures bedtime cuddles and a badass creator able to lead change, make decisions and own a room.
3. Jackie Hanselmann Sergi
Jackie is a recruiter and executive coach based in Portland, experienced the five stages of grieving her old work self after returning to work from maternity leave. She was depleted and feeling like she was letting everyone down — work, spouse and baby — until her boss and mentor shared some words that gave her the space to grieve and move forward to embrace her new role — one she finds is just as effective and boasts a few more tricks.
It feels a bit poetic that I write this blog entry from the friendly skies high above the world below, on my first overnight trip away from my little girl.
Once the 20-something career road warrior, deftly navigating numerous airports in a week, to now, the 30-something new mom who is discovering the freedom of air travel without baby and a monumental entourage of stuff.
It is one of the first few moments of quiet and non-touching that I have experienced in a long time, and in these quiet moments I once again feel a bit of freedom mixed with a side of guilt that I am actually enjoying this moment being me — not mom — but me.
It took me a while for me to get here – to this place where I allow myself to admit that I have changed, and to allow myself to miss the me before the mom.
Two years ago, I started my new role at my dream organization. I was excited for my new adventure to join the all female executive recruiting firm focused on working with nonprofits doing great in the world. I took two weeks off between roles and detoxed from my previous employer and enjoyed much needed time off. I started my new role, wide-eyed and ready to tackle this new chapter in my life.
Little did I know that I was not starting my new role alone; I was growing a new little life and a new identity for myself as well. Two weeks in, while positive that I had the illness of the current client search I was working on, I was shocked to see the little pink line appear on the pregnancy test.
Some of my thoughts after the initial, “Oh wow, this is happening,” were, “What about my career? My job? My airline status (funny but kind of true!)?”
Ten months later, I welcomed into the world a new reality that came in the form of a rosy-cheeked beautiful baby girl. What I didn’t realize was that with the new arrival marked the departure of another life and identity that I needed to acknowledge and grieve.
As the days of maternity leave ticked away, I grew anxious to return to my job. Internally there was a battle brewing over wanting to continue to be the full time mother versus the woman who missed working with nonprofits to find their leaders and enjoyed having an organized calendar of events that were far more predictable than a three-month old’s daily needs.
When I returned to work, I threw myself into the work trying to prove to my company, and more to myself, that I was not only the same kick-butt worker as before but even better now because I had birthed a baby. After a month of this grind, I was exhausted, depleted, and feeling as if I was failing on all fronts — wife, mother, and employee.
And then I was gifted with a conversation with the founder of my company that shifted everything for me. Katie called me into her office and asked me how things were going and I gave my well-practiced answer that everything was over all good and that I was working really hard and trying to find the balance.
Katie, a seasoned mother of two, saw straight through my answer. She leaned in close and shared the following words that I will remember forever:
“One of the hardest things that I have ever been through is when my mother died, but the second hardest loss that I experienced was the loss of the woman that I was before I had children. It is okay to say it is hard, and it is okay to grieve the woman that you were. You are not selfish, you are not less than, you do not have to prove yourself to us, you just need to be.”
And with those words, the floodgate of emotions erupted, and I felt allowed to grieve. I went through all five stages of grieving:
DENIAL — unable to accept that I was any different or couldn’t attack my work as before my daughter was born,
ANGER — angry that I felt expected to be everything to everyone, angry that there were not enough private pumping rooms, angry that I was touched out and guilty for not always finding the beauty of new motherhood
BARGAINING — stretching myself to the point of exhaustion to keep all the plates spinning at the detriment to self
DEPRESSION – feeling like I was failing everyone
ACCEPTANCE – (finally!) which came with embracing the good, bad, and the ugly of the new stage of my life and to love myself with the sweet admiration and grace that I feel with every snuggle of my daughter.
The freedom to grieve the woman that I was and embrace the woman that I am is a daily exercise in patience and love. As I packed for my first overnight trip away, I cried and thought of all the what if’s to going away but as I quickly passed through security with only one bag and then leisurely sauntered through the airport with hot coffee in hand, I remembered that I’m still the road warrior but now I just have new tricks up my sleeve.
Jackie Hanselmann Sergi is an executive recruiter with KOYA Leadership Partners in Portland, Oregon, loving wife, and a proud mom of one sweet little girl.
4. Stephanie Kumar
Stephanie Kumar of Pinterest felt pressure to be a strong role model for the little girl she held in her arms everyday, so she decided to “lean in” and search for a job that would better propel her career, all while on maternity leave. Here’s her story.
WHO SHE IS
Stephanie Kumar, Insights Lead at Pinterest
WHERE SHE IS
New York City
Going from maternity leave right into a new role and company leading CPG Insights @ Pinterest
Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Chloé, 8 mos.
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
GO-TO WEEKNIGHT DINNER
I love to cook flavorful vegetarian food. Some recent favorites: Cauliflower Fried Rice & Zucchini Pesto Pasta
Women’s Health, MIT Technology Review, Harvard Business Review
FAVORITE TV SHOW:
The Voice and The Mindy Project
We love to travel, and the TripCase app keeps all of our itineraries in one spot. Pinterest is my go-to for pretty much everything else in life from tonight’s dinner to organizing my closet!
BEST TIME-MANAGEMENT TIP
Babywear! When the only thing that soothes your crying tot is holding them, babywearing will let you send emails, take conference calls, or cook a meal.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE TO DO WITH YOUR BABY WHEN YOU AREN’T WORKING?
We love to sing and dance with Chloé. There’s nothing more fun than letting your inner-child out!
HOW DOES BEING A MOM MAKE YOU GREAT AT WHAT YOU DO?
Being a mom has inspired me to be a better person now that I have this little girl to impress.
Tell us about your working mom journey. What are you doing now, and how did you get here?
When I found out I was expecting, I was leading an internal consumer analytics team at a large tech company where I had been since 2011. After the baby arrived, I excitedly made a transition to Pinterest. Now, I lead insights for our CPG partners, where I surface trends that can drive business for marketers across food, drink, beauty, and cleaning brands. Here’s an example of my latest work: Pinterest Blog: Pin Trends: This Thanksgiving, don’t forget the pie.
You’ve only been at Pinterest for a few months, which means you did a job search with a newborn! You told me that your baby was a big driver for the change — can you explain?
Having a baby changed my life in a big and unexpected way. Suddenly, I felt the need to become a role model to this little girl that I held in my arms every day during maternity leave. I made the decision to “lean in” and try something that would propel my career, even if it was a bit of an intimidating decision at times.
We’re really impressed with how intentional you are about the way you schedule your week and really try to avoid “mother’s guilt” — how did you know to do this?
I learned very quickly that it was impossible for me to give 100% of myself every day to every part of my life (daughter, husband, friends, ‘me’). Rather than feel guilty about it, I took control and chose moments where I could give 100% of myself to that person.
For my daughter, evenings are hers until she goes to bed around 7:30 p.m. I schedule date nights at least once a week with my husband, and reserve at least one day a week with my girlfriends (both happen after my daughter is in bed). On the weekends, my husband will take Chloé for long walks where I get time to myself to read a book or get a pedicure. With dedicated time reserved for everyone, including me, I end up being the best version of myself for everyone in my life.
You mentioned that both you and your husband are big planners — how does this manifest itself when you’re managing two big jobs with a baby?
Our friends tease us for being such Type A planners, but it really has been a godsend for managing our new normal.
Here are a few of my favorite planning things:
—A whiteboard in the kitchen to capture a running grocery and “to do” list (has also been used to show our babysitter the last time Chloe has eaten or napped)
—A hanging calendar where we note upcoming holidays, birthdays, professional events, date nights and vacations so nothing gets missed
—Shared Google spreadsheets when planning big vacations (who is doing what, how much it will cost, potential destinations, etc.)
What is your best advice to other professional women?
Having a baby is a beautiful addition to life, but remember to maintain what drives you and makes you happy as a woman.
I, for instance, love to travel the world, and decided very early on that my daughter would be a welcomed part of that. Many in my life still think that I am brave (and/or crazy) to travel with an infant, but after about 10 flights in eight months, I can happily say that she ends up charming all of her fellow fliers every time.