Why New Mothers Need a Middle Ground Between Leaning In and Opting Out

June 17, 2013

While half the blogosphere shouts from the rooftops about how we should all “lean in,” plenty of women are going the opposite route, choosing to “opt out” of the workforce. Or, as some stay-at-home moms prefer to call it, “opt into a different kind of career.”

Image: Working mom

It doesn’t have to be this way. Really.

How do I know? Because a lot of my friends are having babies. A lot of their friends are having babies too, so I often find myself in circles of new mothers, or in the case of this past weekend, at a panel discussion of women who’ve chosen to stay at home to raise their kids rather than head to the office. Since I’m fascinated by work-life balance and women in the workplace — partly because I hope to become a mom in the not-so-distant future — I take all of these opportunities to ask a lot of questions about whether new moms are going back to work, what they do for childcare and how they manage family life while growing their career.

While some of these women want to opt out entirely, many of them simply don’t want to work full time, so they can spend more time with their kids. But the American workforce hasn’t evolved to the point where we offer quality part-time or work-share options that are family-friendly. And as the women on the panel informed me this weekend, part-time employee options that do exist often don’t pay enough to cover child care, which makes working outside the home not financially worth it.

That means tons of smart, qualified women who want to work part time are staying home. It’s a loss not only for those moms (even though they’re gaining time with their kids), but for the U.S. economy, too.

What if there was another option?

But we’re leaving something out of this conversation. Something important. Something that would allow these moms to find a middle ground between leaning in and opting out, so they could actually achieve that work-life balance we all dream of.

That something is creating your own job. It’s freelancing or putting yourself out there as a solopreneur or starting your own business. It’s an option that not only allows you to choose how many hours you work, but also gives you the opportunity to create your own schedule.

Plenty of mothers already do this, and do it well. But there’s also a huge contingent of awesome women who don’t even realize it’s an option.

Why? For the same reason most childless professionals never entertain the idea of creating their own career — because our society and education system don’t encourage it. We’re taught to climb the ladder rather than think outside the box. And worse, since most people around us are used to acting inside that cube, too, when you do push yourself outside your comfort zone to do something different, your network will likely balk at the “risks” you’re taking, which makes it that much more difficult to follow through. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with go-getters, so thinking in a way that will actually allow you to live the life you want feels normal.

The best way to accomplish this is by creating your own career before you have kids. But even if you’re already spending some serious time parenting, it’s not too late to create a career on your own terms. It might take more purpose and focus since you won’t have hours or minutes or even seconds to waste. It might take sacrificing other parts of your life. And it might take pushing yourself to recognize that most of your obligations are actually choices — but it IS possible.

Of course, entrepreneurship, whether it comes in the form of a startup or a freelance biz or consulting, is not for everyone. It requires a certain amount of hustle, confidence and skill. But more often than not, mothers who can afford to stay home with their kids do have the skill and experience that would make them successful at creating their own job. Odds are if you’re married to someone who makes enough income to carry the family so you can stay home to raise the kids, you’re educated and experienced yourself.

We’re seeing some interesting trends and changes regarding women in the workplace, but this solution hasn’t yet taken off, hasn’t yet caught on. While training and support programs for mothers who want to tap into their entrepreneurial side could help, the real challenge here is changing our mindset. Opening our own doors. Knowing what’s possible. Realizing what’s out there — because that’s the first step toward achieving it.

If you’re a mom (or dad!), have you thought about creating an alternative career? One that gives you more flexibility?

On a related note, I’m offering a free webinar with Ryan Ferrier of the 60-Day MBA about how to make good money as a freelancer or solopreneur. If this type of work and life sounds appealing, join us!

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    17 Replies to “Why New Mothers Need a Middle Ground Between Leaning In and Opting Out”

    • Hi. Alexis. I like that you’re trying to think of an alternative to the black and white argument that’s central to the workplace discussions right now.

      I think, though, that you are misreading the idea of leaning in. During their 20s, women are on the fast-track and doing very well. Women in their 20s out earn men because they do better in the workplace than men do.

      Sandberg is talking about staying on the fast-track, and working even harder after you have a baby. She is trying to get more women into very top roles in corporate America, which means working 80-hour weeks, at least.

      So Sandberg is equating staying in the workforce part-time and opting out because neither of those choices gets you into top roles at work. For women there are plenty of choices between leaning in and leaning out. But no choice, besides leaning in, gets you to the top of corporate life.

      To be clear, I think the whole thing is total BS and it’s Sheryl Sandberg hoping that more women will want to be like her, when in face, almost no women would want her life. Which is why almost no women lean in.


      • Alexis Grant says:

        Yes, yes — your last point is totally spot on, which is why I think we need alternatives.

        Thanks for weighing in! Getting people to think and talk about the options is the only way we’ll ever move forward.

    • Lindsey says:

      Hi Alexis, it’s as if you are speaking directly to my soul! I’ve followed you for awhile and this is the post that compels me to comment! Like you I am fascinated by work/life balance issues and working women. I’m a driven mother of two young children ages 5 and 2. I completed an MBA while working full time and taking care of the kiddos (with the help of my amazing husband.) I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book and I agree with Penelope (I follow you too, but I’m too scared to post on your blog) and with most other women; I don’t want Sandberg’s life. I earned an MBA with no intention of rising through the corporate ranks. I desperately want an alternative career, where I’m rewarded for working smarter, and on my own terms. While our obligations (choices) seem to currently be keeping me in my j.o.b. I know there’s something better out there. I kick ass at work and feel like if I could translate that to my own thing I could achieve some of what I’m looking for. Alexis, even though you don’t have kids *yet, you nailed it, thank you. P.S. I signed up for the webinar; looking forward to it!

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hi Lindsey — Thank you for coming out of the woodwork to comment; that made my day!

        It sounds like you KNOW you have what it takes to do your own thing — you just need to figure out the practical steps to get there. Hopefully the webinar will help! Look forward to seeing you there.

    • Lisa McKay says:

      Totally agree. I am so grateful I don’t have to work full time to support our family during this early motherhood phase. I know it works for many, but I wouldn’t have wanted to put my baby in day care and head back to work before he was six months old. Also, despite the constant fatigue and never feeling like I have enough time, I’m enjoying working on the side to create my own career during this season when I’ve found myself too strung out to start writing another novel (cuz, let’s face it, at the rate that I write novels, THAT’S never going to be a financially smart alternate career) 🙂

    • It’s interesting to read the comment thread between you, Penelope and Lindsey because I had a very different read on Sandberg’s book: I genuinely took her call to “lean in” as a message for us all to put our full selves into what we do, whatever that “thing” happens to be. (And while she herself chose a high-powered corporate career, I didn’t read her as “anti-full-time-parenting” – in fact, I think she argued persuasively for why men should have the genuine option to be full-time dads.)

      So I was inspired by her message to lean in, even though I am the most non-corporate person you could ever imagine meeting (I haven’t held a 9-to-5 job my whole life; I’ve worked my behind off, but not 9-to-5!). You’re absolutely correct that moms need some middle ground between full-time in-an-office work and being-a-mom-24-7, and that creating your own job is a terrific option. I also 100% agree that the easiest time to build this lifestyle is before having a kiddo. I have a 2.5-year-old and I’m trying to move from inconsistent freelancing to a true-blue writing/coaching/speaking business. Not easy with the toddler around! But I do think it’s good for her to see mommy working so hard at what she’s passionate about. And life is a process, so I’m embracing that doing this business building while mothering is simply part of the journey. Timing is never perfect.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • As a woman entrepreneur and mom who has taken this exact path, you know how I feel on this topic. Yet, I have to agree with Penelope’s points – while working for yourself creates the flexibility a mom might need, it’s not necessarily a sure-fire way to advance one’s career. That’s why I worked this past year on a report on how to advance women in the workplace (check out the link on my blog).

      And while I applaud your support and cheerleading for women to be their own bosses, it would be refreshing (and needed) to support women in the traditional workplace by providing life-friendly working environments. Our culture spends far too much time working, and it’s no good for any of us, with or without young children.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        So true, Mel! If the traditional workplace could offer family-friendly options, that would be ideal. But realistically, when will that happen? Since it’s not happening, we need a work-around that’s more in our control.

        P.S. Smiled when I saw you commented… Was hoping you’d join this conversation!

    • Interesting article, Alexis. Do you think that a lot of women who have more School of Business jobs tend to go back to work full time versus those who have a Liberal Arts background? I have no idea of the stats on that. I bring it up because I’m a budding blogger, well-educated, etc, but not THAT type of business educated. While I feel confident in my writing, to create my own job is super intimidating to me because I have very little expertise in business. Do you think that this holds a lot of women back?

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Way to hit the nail on the head! This is one of the reasons we’re offering the free webinar (see link at the bottom of the post). I am one of those people, just like you! Creatives often want to create, not deal with biz red tape or figure out how to sell themselves. But I do think it’s possible to succeed even if you haven’t had official training in business — you simply learn as you go along. (Or take some sort of course to get you there.)

    • Hi Alexis,

      My kids are in college now, but I was a semi-hard-charging career woman in the 80s as the glass ceilings were beginning to crack. I worked full-time after child #1 but quit after child #2. There were even fewer options in the 90s, so it made my choice to walk away a little easier.

      I’ve never regretted the decision to invest in my kids. I think a lot of young moms don’t realize that’s what they’re doing (I didn’t). Looking back on it, I realize how my career skills complemented my parenting and volunteering. It’s important for young moms to remember that career success is short-lived. Someone will always come along behind you and improve on what you’ve done. But family success creates a foundation that impacts the generations to come.

      Excellent post, Alexis.

    • Steph says:

      I’m really glad you wrote this as it has been on my mind too. I’ve been working hard to create my own career for years now, but I am still afraid of having kids in a couple of years and the effect that will have on my career. I barely have time to do everything now, how can I do it all AND take care of a baby? Who is going to pay for my maternity leave? I hope more people will write about working from home and parenting.

    • Julie says:

      This comes at a good time for me too. I started my own company 2+ years ago and we’re expecting our first baby at the end of the summer. So — there are so many more factors to think about now, I work for myself, so no paid maternity leave, if I don’t take on clients or do the work, it doesn’t get done and we don’t get a paycheck. And don’t even get me started on TIME! I’m so glad I could set this up before baby, but it’s going to quite a challenge figuring out the perfect balance for my career & family. Not ready to give up everything I’ve worked so hard to build, so baby is going to come along for the ride until we can work out the best scenario for us!

    • Oh so many good comments here. Balance is a very hard thing to strike. I think when you\’ve had a career that you\’ve enjoyed and you have children, you tend to get involved in some kind of work \”on the side.\” When I was in the thick of having my own babies, I taught childbirth classes. As my kids entered school, I became a leader in a ministry…The work I did was fulfilling, grew me, had some beginning and ends (which caring for your children and home does not!). This did allow me to \”lean in\” to my family, which was my priority. Then when my kids were older, I took on more work with more pay…and I found all I had done between full-time work and raising children had prepared me for the next step. As my last of four kids graduates from high school (tomorrow!!), I know I will be leaning in more to the work I love–writing, editing, coaching. We have made financial sacrifices, but we\’ve still lived well enough. I do think we\’d be better off though if full-time jobs didn\’t seem to require \”all of us\” and agree that our culture spends too much time working. And now we\’re expected to be available 24/7, with full access even when on vacation. That\’s just crazy! Thought-provoking post…

    • Maggie Patterson says:

      You totally hit the nail on the head with the point about the awesome women who don’t realize it is a viable option.

      In my eight years as a freelancer I’ve often wondered why I had the cojones to quit a great position in a drive for something better for my family. And I always come back to two things: a belief that I had the skills to make it happen and creating a plan that managed risk. I fully understood that I could always go back to a “real” job if I needed to and there was nothing to lose. The bigger risk was not enjoying the life I worked so hard to build.

      As you suggest, a mindset shift is necessary so that people move away from the ” I could never” thinking that traps so many talented people in positions they hate.

      Entrepreneurship needs to be presented as a career option amongst the sea of boring old typical jobs to spark that vision early on. Imagine the amazing and awesome entrepreneurs that could be awakened with planting that small seed.

    • Ganeshkumar says:


      That was a very interesting and well thought off article. I have seen this predicament in my family as well with some of my friends and can totally relate to what you have mentioned. While you make a good point about creating an own career before the child is born, would have loved to see list a options (from your experience). That would have been really useful information as most people (being taught to climb the ladder), fail to think out of the conventional.

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