The Mommy Track - Will It Lead You to Career Paradise or Purgatory?

How to Chart Your Mommy Track in a Positive Direction

Following the mommy track
The mommy track can be a blessing or a curse. Photo credit: Stockbyte/Getty Images

You've probably heard the phrase "Mommy Track" before. Maybe it sounds like a welcome respite, after grueling years of long hours and travel for your job. Or perhaps you foresee boring projects, no respect in the office, and the end of professional advancement.

So what is the mommy track?

The answer depends on your career field and office culture. Those two factors will determine whether you can achieve a healthy work-life balance, or become sidelined professionally after your child is born.

It can be a tougher road than simply quitting your job.

Here are some questions that will help you sort out how to safeguard your career, while also stepping back from the 24-7 demands of many workplaces. In other words, to make sure your mommy track is a positive one.

What's Your Organization's Mommy Track?

Start by looking at your company in the context of the industry. Is it more hard-core than others? Is the field particularly demanding? Is there a related employer that does similar work but in a less intense way?

We've all been raised in a competitive society where students want to go to the best school possible, and graduates want to work for the most prestigious company. But when it comes to work-life balance, there can be an advantages to not working for the number one company.

This is not to say that you should try to take a step backwards or stifle your ambitions. But at least question why you would want to work for the industry leader, and what the work-life implications would be.

And look hard at the culture of the various companies that might employ you.

How Are Other Involved Parents Treated?

The most reliable indicator of your future is how your employer treats working moms already in the organization. Do they get interesting work? When they leave early for a soccer game, does it count against them?

In some workplaces, new motherhood can even be an opportunity for a promotion, if managerial jobs have more regular hours and less travel. Ask other working moms in your company what worked and didn't work for their career to learn from their successes and mistakes.

Don't be afraid to be a trailblazer. If your organization has a tendency to bypass working mothers for travel or challenging projects, make sure you seek out these opportunities. You may further your professional goals simply by correcting an assumption that you don't want demanding work.

Document your efforts, in case you ever need to prove to human resources (or a judge) that you were passed over simply because you are a mother. It's called parental status discrimination, and it's as illegal as pregnancy discrimination.

What Are Your Boss's Attitudes About Working Moms?

Sometimes, the worst supervisor for a working mother is a man with a stay-at-home wife. He can't understand why everyone can't devote all their waking hours to the job. If your boss is especially hard on working parents, seek a transfer. Explain that you want to experience a different division in the organization, so as not to burn bridges.

Or perhaps your manager is a decent sort, flexible with time off when the workload permits.

Then you may want to wait a few years before putting in for a promotion that would land you in a different work group.

More often, your superior is in the middle. Again, the guidance of other working moms is invaluable. Does your boss want to hear that you're leaving early for a pediatrician’s appointment? Or is it better to just say you need personal time, without giving an explanation?

How Much Will You Give Up?

Realistically, you probably have to make some career tradeoffs in order to spend the kind of time with your family that you feel is needed. But if you research your company and industry carefully, you'll develop a clear picture of exactly what you're giving up.

Look at the people in the higher-up positions you hope to fill in 5 to 15 years. Do they have the kind of work-life balance you want?

Are they travelling more or working longer hours than you would accept? You may need to revise your desired career path. It's okay to curb your professional ambitions when you see they’d take you away from your family.

Try to isolate the most valuable experience and skills in your field, or for the career path you want. That's what you should focus on achieving, even if you have to pass up some other opportunities.

How Can You Get the Flexibility You Want?

There are a number of different strategies to balance work and life. But you want to be smart about your choices, and pick a method that won't negatively impact your career.

At some organizations, everyone works from home periodically. So telecommuting one day a week would let you see your family more, and catch up on laundry, without any stigma.

Part-time work can be especially loaded. Some companies think nothing of it. In others, part-time or contract employees are in a category that you don't take seriously, and will never advance.

If your boss is especially understanding, and your work fairly independent, you may be able to get the flexibility you need informally. One friend of mine works almost completely without supervision, so if he needs to leave early to pick up a sick child, he doesn't tell anyone. He simply checks his phone for urgent emails, and catches up on work after the kid is in bed.

In the end, whether the mommy track is a positive or negative path depends on you. Plan wisely, and it can be the route to a balanced life and a rewarding career.

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory