After Maternity Leave: Is Part-time the Way?
by Sharon Epel
New mothers often feel caught in a tug-of-war between family and career. Is a part-time schedule the answer?
It’s hard not to envy Judy Tick. She loves her job, she’s privy to exciting developments in her field — and she works just three days a week. On the two remaining weekdays, she’s busy at her other job: caring for her infant son, Jacob. Tick, a health educator in Oakland, CA, knew before Jacob was born that she wouldn’t want to part with him five days a week. So she turned a demanding full-time position into a manageable part-time one. “I have the perfect balance,” she says.
What’s the attraction of a reduced schedule? “Working part-time is the only solution that allows you to avoid the either/or choice of giving up a career you love or giving up time with your family,” explains Cindy Tolliver, coauthor of Going Part-Time. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 25% of employed women — or 17 million — work part-time. A report by the Pew Research Center revealed that among working mothers, just 21 percent say full-time work is ideal for them. Six in ten say part-time work would be ideal.
If you think the move might be right for you, there are issues to consider before approaching your boss. First, do some calculations to see whether you can afford the pay cut and possible loss of benefits (workers often lose their eligibility if they put in fewer than 30 hours a week). You may decide that the advantages outweigh the financial difficulties — especially when you factor in reduced childcare costs. Next, consider your goals. Focus on what you want out of your career. Also decide how important going part-time is to you — will you quit if you can’t do it?
A Decent Proposal
Such reflection is vital before you take the next step: presenting an appealing, solidly researched proposal. “Your boss will spend as much time on her answer as you spend on your question,” Tolliver says. If she balks, you might suggest a trial period to alleviate her anxiety about the arrangement. In addition, prepare answers to the following questions:
Why is this good for the company?
Your employer won’t be concerned with why you want to spend more time with your baby, but she will want to know how your plan affects her. Nadine Mockler, cofounder of Flexible Resources, Inc., a national consulting and staffing firm, suggests that you stress your desire to stay with the company and explain how keeping you on board will benefit the organization. “Losing a valued employee means substantial recruiting and training costs — up to 18 months of the employee’s salary,” Mockler says. “Show your boss that it’s advantageous to keep you at 60 to 80 percent of your salary instead.”
What’s a realistic job description?
Don’t promise more than you can deliver. This is one of the biggest pitfalls for part-time professionals. Be sure to discuss more than your schedule with your boss. Talk about what you’ll continue to do and what you’ll give up. “You have to do more than your fair share sometimes — that’s the price of flexibility,” says Tolliver. “But if you’re doing a full-time job for part-time pay, you need to correct the situation.” As you negotiate a reduced workload, offer ideas about how the rest of your job can get done: Are there administrative tasks that can be completed more cheaply by support staff? Is there someone in the office who’s eager to learn new skills?
How will you keep in touch?
Nothing will sabotage your part-time arrangement more quickly than poor communication, so figure out how you’ll keep in contact with colleagues. “I know it’s frustrating to my coworkers that I’m not always there to answer questions or bounce around ideas,” says Tick. “So I’ve made it clear that they can call me at home.” Another obstacle that part-time workers face is resentment from colleagues, which usually arises when coworkers don’t know what’s going on or are left to pick up the slack. “It’s critical for the entire department to know your job description, your schedule, your cell number, and so on,” says Mockler. Also make sure to set up an emergency plan for the days you’re out.
Taking it to the Street
If your boss gives your proposal a thumbs-down, you may want to consider looking for a new job. Making connections is the first step in finding rewarding part-time employment, says Linda Marks, director of training and special projects at the Center for WorkLife Law in San Francisco. After Barri Winiarski’s son, Matthew, was born, for instance, the Manhattan public relations executive joined a company with a track record for letting vice presidents work part-time. The secret to landing that job? Networking.
In addition, don’t rule out listings for full-time jobs. “Some part-time-job seekers apply for a full-time job and negotiate,” Marks says. “But the important thing is to present an employer with a solution, not a problem. Don’t bring up a reduced schedule unless you can propose how the job will get done.” One strategy: Suggest a three-month full-time trial period, during which you’ll develop a plan for completing your tasks in four days or less.
Managing Both Worlds
Though many mothers love their part-time schedules, others fear they’re creating their own glass ceiling. Laura Eitzen, a New York City graphic designer, doesn’t want to return to full-time work, but she finds her hours limiting. “It’s frustrating to compare my work with that of colleagues who are there full-time,” she says. “You just can’t get as much done in three days.”
Cutting your hours doesn’t have to mean career stagnation, however. One study reported that only 17 percent of part-time professionals were promoted while working reduced hours. Though it’s important to understand that part-timers rarely climb the corporate ladder as quickly as their full-time colleagues, make it clear to your boss that you’re still committed to your career and to advancing. And be careful about which assignments you give up. Be sure to keep important clients and highly visible projects. Remember, too, that time spent on educational opportunities or simply having lunch with coworkers will help keep your career on track.
A part-time schedule can offer the best of both worlds — if you manage it well. Then you can spend Monday at the park with your baby and Tuesday at the office with your clients — and spend both days, and the rest of the week, feeling balanced instead of stressed. As Winiarski says, “I think you can have it all, if you have it part-time.”
Ready to make the move? These organizations and books can help:
The Savvy Part-Time Professional: How to Land, Create, or Negotiate the Part-time Job of Your Dreams by Lynn Berger (Capital Books, $16.95). Lots of ideas and inspirational stories.
Catalyst Inc. (120 Wall St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10005) will provide fact sheets on work-life issues.
Going Part-Time, by Cindy Tolliver and Nancy Chambers (Avon, $12), is full of practical advice on figuring out a reasonable job description,?writing a proposal your boss can’t refuse, and managing your time.
Mom Corps, an executive recruiting firm that links professional women who no longer work-full time in companies to jobs that better fit their schedules.
Sharon Epel is a freelance writer.