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How to work flexibly as a parent

Too many women think they have to give up the career they love to have a happy family. They worry about childcare, flexible working and having enough time to spend with their children. It can often seem impossible to find the perfect balance. This article will offer practical tips for how to work flexibly, proving that you can be committed to both your family and your job. The key to success at this crucial moment in your life is not to think “Should I quit?” but “How do I keep working?”

How do you get control of your job and still keep your coworkers, clients, patients, suppliers—and your boss—happy? Here’s what successful working parents told us:


Be flexible about flexibility

“There are no women at my level or above who are mothers. I was nervous about asking to do something different,” said Susan, a software engineer. So she proposed an experiment while she was pregnant, in the name of efficiency, not kids. Susan told her boss she’d work full time, but three days from home. Cutting three two-hour daily commutes would give the company six more productive hours. “Some senior people didn’t think it would work. ‘You’re a manager. Can you really do your job from home?’ I pointed out that I’d successfully managed people in Germany, London, and India remotely. Managing my colleagues at our main office, in the same time zone, had to be easier.”

Susan’s boss said, “Let’s try it,” and Susan has successfully worked most days from home for eight years—while continuing to advance at the company. “I really invested a lot to prove to them that it was going to work, trying to make it feel like I was in the office—tons of phone calls, checking in with my manager, coming in to the office more days when the work just demanded it. I think when you get flexibility, you have to be flexible in return.”


Part-time hours, full-time commitment

If you’ve been a full-time worker and now want to ratchet down to part time, remember that the work has to go somewhere.

“‘Oh, it’s such a pain in the ass, we can’t do that here.’ That’s the response from a lot of people here about part time,” says Trish, who became the first part-time professional at a hard-charging firm. “We have kind of a heavy meeting-based culture, because you’re often sitting down looking at a whiteboard, you’re looking at designs and sketches, and you’re working with designers. Sometimes you just have to come in on your ‘off’ days. And if you call in from home, you have to be as low-burden as possible. You can’t slow people down.”

Trish has worked her four-day week successfully for five years, and her example has made part time possible for many of her colleagues. But, Trish cautions, you have to take the time to build buy-in—every time you get a new set of colleagues. “I always walk into it really carefully. You can’t do what I do unless you have a great team and everyone supports how you are working. So I sit down with the key people and say ‘Here’s what I do, and here’s how I do it, talk to people who’ve worked with me before. I want to make sure you’re on board before we all jump into this.’” Trish, like other successful working mums, accepts that there are just times when you have to work more hours. “But the jumps in my workload have always seemed reasonable in the scheme of things. I could see where it would end. For instance, when we bought a new company or we have to get a product out.

Trish has now managed a number of part-time people on her own team and she strives to set expectations the right way. “‘This is a high-performing company,’ I tell people starting part time. ‘There are going to be times when it’s extreme, where you’re working as much as you would on a five-day week.’ However, I make sure that this isn’t over extended periods of time, because ultimately it has to be fair.”


Become an expert—then a free agent

But in some fields, at some firms, part-time work is so stigmatized that women choose to strike out on their own so they can keep doing the kind of work they love.

“When I resigned,” says Grace, who has spent her career in advertising, “they said ‘you can work part time here, we’ll put you in charge of special projects.’ Like most ad firms, mine had a play-to-win culture. Special projects weren’t strategically important work. It was not a real job.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be a different way for me to do this.’ I got on the train, bought a beer, and wrote down what I wanted on a cocktail napkin: ‘strategic work for smart people that I like.’ I laid out the value equation—is this engagement worth my time? Will it give me back something I’m proud of? I decided that’s how I would judge the work I take. If it fits this bill, I’ll take it,” says Grace, who continues to do important work for important clients—but now as the head of her own consulting firm. She also makes more money than she did as a partner at her old agency.

Julie, the public defender in the court that moved start times to 9 a.m., set up shop as a private investigator, photographing crime scenes, talking to witnesses and friends of the accused to ensure a fair trial. She points out that doing her old job part time would have been hard; the crisis element of criminal defense makes the hours unpredictable. Now, helping disadvantaged people find justice in a different way, Julie continues to serve a purpose she believes in—on her terms, with hours that usually work for her family. “I think a lot of people would be happier if they could think outside the box. Reaching out for new ways to pursue your goals you can create jobs that are very rewarding.”


Find a “hidden passage”—uncharted paths still lead you forward

If you don’t want to hang out your own shingle (or it’s not an option in your field), there are other paths. Carol Muller is the founder of MentorNet, a nonprofit mentoring network for the science and technology professions.

“There are lots of ways to stay in the game,” says Muller. “The question isn’t ‘How am I going to work eighty hours a week.’ It should be, ‘How am I going to keep a hand in?’ People who get to the top take some very interesting turns in their careers. It’s not one step after another in some linear order. In fact, unusual career diversions can create opportunities, open up new networks, provide great experience, and offer freedom—making one a better and more skilled leader and a standout in one’s field.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d like it,” said Elena, the surgeon, about her decision to leave academic medicine for a county hospital. “It was very different from what I’d been doing. Taking care of a much more diverse patient pool rather than just becoming more and more expert in one part of surgery. But the money was good and the hours were a lot better. My husband said, ‘You can always quit if you really don’t like it.’ I thought, ‘I can do this for the next seven years and keep up my skills. If I can just keep going, I won’t be out of surgery for life.’ It’s turned out really well.” In addition to operating, Elena now participates in a major project to help hospitals share best practices across the United States—something she could not have done in her old job.

Ann, the political science professor, worked as a management consultant after she got her PhD. At the time, she lived in New York and was pregnant with her first child. “I worked for a client in California, so I spent my pregnancy on a plane. After my son was born, I was working like a dog. I would get home ‘early’ at eight and find that he was already in bed, day after day. I cried every night. It wasn’t sustainable. But I never thought about not working. Luckily for me, I’d continued to publish while I was a consultant and landed a job back in academics.” It wasn’t luck—it was attitude. Keeping your mind (and options) open is what it takes to keep working.


Live the Apple ad: Think different

You can keep your head in the sand, popping up for air to see if your parental status has been forgotten, hoping that your boss thinks about your results more often than your motherhood. You can fight back and charge the newly erected barricades by staying late, coming in early, and forgetting what your family looks like. You can try both tactics until you get bored, exhausted, demoralized, or quit.

Or, you can do something that is more effective than going underground or going ballistic or going away. You can keep working—on your own terms.