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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Changes in Priorities
May 17, 2009 - 8:44pm

I defended my dissertation — my last hurdle before graduation — two weeks before my son's due date. After the committee had announced its favorable decision and the champagne had been opened, one of my readers asked about my career plans. I told her about my current position in a mental health clinic in Manhattan, and that, for the short term, at least, I planned to continue on there after maternity leave.

"Fifty-eighth and Lex," my chair repeated. "That's across the street from Bloomingdale's! I'll bet I know what you do on your lunch hour!"

I laughed. "With these expenses? Are you kidding? We are a Kmart family."

He raised his glass to me. "That's about to change," he promised.

His words were prophetic. Shortly after I returned to work, it became clear that my job was no longer tenable. I worked with a number of at-risk clients, and was expected to be on call even on my days off. The administration had agreed to work with me on this issue, understanding that it was not always possible to get a sitter on a few minutes' notice — but "working with me" turned out to mean making sympathetic clucking sounds while dumping the problem squarely in my lap. I quit when he was five months old, and our status shifted quickly from "Kmart family" to "Salvation Army family."

I had a great deal of trouble finding a new job, partly because my son never slept for more than 90 minutes at a time, and I was showing up for interviews with raccoon eyes, slapped-together toilette, and a brain composed of Swiss cheese. Eventually, in despair, I consulted a professional career counselor, who attempted to hone my interviewing skills through role-playing.

"Why did you leave your last job?" she asked.

"I have a baby at home, and I need more regular hours."

"Stop right there! You just lost the job," she informed me. She explained that "nobody wants an employee who is more concerned with her kids than with her job." She advised me to "forget you even have a baby" during the interview: "They're not allowed to ask, so just focus on the professional issues. Tell them your previous job was a 'student job' and that now that you've graduated you are looking for a long-term, career-building position."

The following week, I had a preliminary phone interview for a student counseling position at a university in another state. Everything seemed to be working in my favor: my son had just fallen asleep when the interview started; the interviewer was impressed with some extra training experiences I had sought out which would prove useful in this position; we discovered some mutual acquaintances in the field. I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice.

Then my son started to whimper. Surreptitiously, I picked him up and began nursing him — and as the prolactin began to kick in, my answers became more vague and dreamy. I jerked myself back to attention, and my son unlatched — and delivered a huge, unmistakable belch into the receiver.

The interview ended shortly after that, and I never heard from the university again. A month later, I interviewed for a different position, outside academia. One interviewer asked me about my previous position. "I have a baby at home," I said. "I need to keep regular hours."

"So do I," she responded. "We can respect that. And when the sitter is sick, I bring my daughter in." I started the following week.

This isn't advice, just anecdata. But as Eleanor Roosevelt advised, "Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself." Please share your own mistakes and experiences in the Comments section.

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