Working part-time as a mom, part one

17 October 2022

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended a post on Em for Marvelous with “well, I’m not sure if this will be helpful for anyone, but here you go…?” …and then it has turned out to be one of my most popular posts. In fact, in a survey a few years ago, a reader specifically called out that exact line, saying, “If you say ‘I’m not sure if this will be helpful,’ I know it’s going to be one of my favorite posts!”

Reader, I am tempted to write that disclaimer on this post, because it feels deeply personal and highly specific to my unique circumstances. However, having written here for some time now, I know there’s a kind of inverse relationship going on, and it tracks with what I learned as a poet: that the more specific detail you can bring to a piece of writing, the more universally it will resonate. The details that seem so idiosyncratic are actually what make writing come alive for others, because in those details they can see the nuance of their own life.

I hope that holds true here. I want to write about working as a mom because it matters deeply to me, and I want to share this conversation with you smart, wonderful ladies, and I also want to capture it in the moment for my children to read one day.

And there’s one more reason: it’s important to me to be truthful about what I share here. That doesn’t mean sharing everything, but it does mean (so far as it’s possible) not misleading you – even unintentionally, even by omission. Many of you know me as a working parent. I would hate for one of you to look at me, having classified me as such, and wonder why you can’t fit all that I do into a week. I hope shedding a little more light into what working looks like for me right now can help with that.

As always – however similar, or not, our situations might be – I hope watching me wade through my decisions empowers you to make your own thoughtfully and confidently.

This is a long post (with more parts to follow!); I thought it might be helpful to break it up with headings. Settle in, friends!

Though not accurate to my day-to-day, it’s still the ultimate photo of me as a working mom :)

Some background on my work history:

I have worked for the same company my entire adult life – 13 years and counting. When I began, I worked a standard 9-5, Monday through Friday. When June was born, in 2016, I reduced my hours to 9-4. I was so grateful to be able to do this – it gave me the space to pick her up from daycare, come home and spend time together, and still get dinner on the table without our days feeling rushed. This schedule worked well for several years.

Annie’s birth and June’s entry into kindergarten lined up neatly, and when I returned from maternity leave in fall 2021, I reduced my hours again (to 9-3) to match June’s school hours. This was a specific goal I had been working toward for basically my entire career: once a child was in elementary school, I wanted my work to fit into their school hours, and to be there for pick-up and drop-off. (John and I share pick-up and drop-off duties, but it was still the goal!) This schedule, too, worked very well.

As you know, as of August 1, I kept my 9-3 hours and shortened my work week for the first time. I now work Monday through Thursday. As of January 1, I’m scheduled to drop one more work day, for a total of three each week. I anticipate that shift being more challenging than the five-to-four shift, but perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The reason for shortening my work week:

There are two main reasons and a number of smaller reasons.

First, we now have three children. That’s three people who have scheduled and unscheduled days off from school, who need to go to the doctor and the dentist, and who occasionally get sick and need to come home in the middle of the day. We wanted a parent who was more readily available for all of those things, so that each teacher workday or call from the school didn’t throw us into a resentful panic. Opening up a “free” day in the week goes a long way toward this.

Second, we now have three children :) After Annie was born and as our kids got older (and went to bed later), it became increasingly clear that much of the work I was doing for the household was being squeezed into hours that we (John and I) considered unideal: for example, grocery shopping at 9:30 at night. The addition of a third child and all the logistics that came with her (school paperwork, a wardrobe to maintain, food to prepare… you don’t need me to list it all) seemed to be a tipping point for our life. Things that we used to easily fit into our days, like evening walks and stretching, were getting squeezed out entirely. So together, John and I made the choice to essentially give me daytime “work hours” to do the increasing work of our household I’d already been doing, so we could both have more equal time to relax in the evenings and on weekends.

Some secondary reasons:

  • Travel logistics are complicated with three young kids, and we travel a good bit (even if just across the state for the weekend). We wanted someone who could manage our exits and entries more smoothly.
  • I hoped to feel less defensive over what felt like the little time I had to spend as I pleased in the evenings. Hoarding my time, as I think of it, is one of my least favorite tendencies of myself, and something I actively work to improve. But if there were structural things that could change so that John and I were more equally free to enjoy our unscheduled time, that felt like something we should pursue.
  • Finally – and this, for me, was one of the harder ones to admit – I wanted to be more free to enjoy this unique season of my life. I wanted to meet up with a friend with our strollers and take a morning walk. I wanted to help a friend with a pop-up shop just for fun. I wanted to have more time to share my thoughts and the story of our life through my writing. I wanted to volunteer in our kids’ schools. I wanted to enjoy the fun (for me) work of household management that often felt rushed or got skipped.

Some things that were not reasons for shortening my work week:

As I approached this decision, it was important to me to be equally clear about some things that were NOT reasons for shortening my work week.

First, and most importantly, I was not shortening my working hours to spend more time with my children because I thought they were suffering in my absence. This is admittedly a sore spot for me, because over the years, I have listened to many women resign and give as the reason for doing so that their children needed them. Or that them being home would be better for their children. And while those are valid reasons for resigning, and they surely were not thinking at all about how saying so would affect their teammates, it was hard to hear that and not resent the implied judgment on the working parents who remained on the team. Again: objectively, I know this is not rational (repeat after me: we all have different situations!!), but it’s important here (even if just for myself!) to state this clearly. Our children, praise the Lord, are thriving, and with this switch their school schedules will remain the same.

Second, in this reduction I did not want to add more tasks to my plate. Though I did have a backlog of things to tackle (that I’m still working through!), this change was largely about shifting the timing of tasks (from evenings/weekends to the workweek) versus adding new tasks or responsibilities.

Third, I did not want my children to stop seeing me doing the work of life. This was not about hiding all of the work away during the day so that we could play non-stop once they got home. This was not about making everything look or feel perfect or effortless. Working alongside each other is a great gift of families, and such an important way of passing on skills and values. I’d never want to take that away completely. Accordingly, I’ve prioritized shifting the tasks that are primarily digital or particularly complicated with the ages of our kids in this transition.

Let’s pause there for part one! In part two, I’ll tackle why we chose me over John to shorten a work week, why we chose shortening a work week over other solutions to the pain points we were experiencing, and the financial impact. And then in part three, I’ll give you many examples (I’ve been taking notes!) of what my Fridays have actually looked like.

If you have other questions, I’d love to include them in future segments – feel free to leave them here! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts! :)

Part Two: Why we chose me over my husband, why we chose going part-time over other solutions, and the financial impact
Part Three: My role, negotiation, and how I structure my time at work
Part Four: What my days off have actually looked like (so far)

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October 17, 2022 7:07 am

I don’t know if there’s ever been a blog series I’ve been more excited for (aside from maybe the How We Do It Series). To your point, the details and particulars are what makes it feel nuanced and thought out. Thank you, and I can’t wait to read the rest!

October 17, 2022 7:24 am

Beautiful writing and thoughts! And I love your clarification that this shift was NOT because your children needed more time with you. I’ve felt this exact same sentiment (on both sides – the mom still working and the mom who stepped back) and you articulated this so well. What an amazing opportunity to be able to rebalance your life and I hope it helps your family continue to thrive!

Kristen M
October 17, 2022 11:39 am
Reply to  RachelC

I second really appreciating that particular clarification about your children needing time with you! I’m eager to read this whole series because it is such a rare perspective to hear in mom online world.

Kelly Strawberry
October 17, 2022 8:14 am

I loved hearing your thoughts on this! For different (but some similar) reasons, I *think* Brian and I are 1-2 years out from one of us leaving our regular jobs to manage our real estate business/household. We don’t know which one of us will leave the workforce (pros and cons for either of us), so curious to read your next post! It’s great you have a job that lets you reduce gradually to get to three days!

October 17, 2022 8:46 am

I’m so excited for this series! I had my daughter in February and I was distraught over having to go back to my full-time job… typical maternity leave thoughts, I believe. Once I went back, I settled into a routine and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be… if my schedule was a consistent 8-5. I worked with youth and therefore worked a lot of weekends and evenings when kids weren’t in school to be able to participate in our programs. I had to go out of town for a week when my daughter was barely 5 months old, and although I knew she was going to be fine in her dad’s very capable hands (and she was!), it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I have been at a part-time job that I’m really enjoying for 2.5 weeks now and it has been life-changing. Like you said, I don’t think she was suffering without me at all… but I was suffering without her. I had no time for anything we could enjoy together, on top of the day-to-day life tasks. The transition to part-time has already been difficult and full of sacrifices, but I wouldn’t have it any other way at this point.
I’m looking forward to reading your further thoughts on this subject!

Jackie Rice
October 17, 2022 8:56 am

Your perspective is helpful to hear. Thank you for sharing!

October 17, 2022 10:30 am

I’ve been waiting for this post ever since you first mentioned your work schedule changing! It’s a dream of mine to have a flexible, part-time work schedule someday.
I’m curious to know what role, if any, CWM’s acquisition played in this decision. Was this something you were already planning before the acquisition?

October 17, 2022 11:44 am

As always, thank you for letting us into y’alls life. The thoughtfulness and intention with which you approach big decisions really inspires me and helps me with my own introspection and evaluation as a full-time working mom of a 2 year old with #2 on the way. I’m really looking forward to the remaining parts of this series.

October 17, 2022 2:10 pm

Great first post on this topic. This line you wrote: “Many of you know me as a working parent. I would hate for one of you to look at me, having classified me as such, and wonder why you can’t fit all that I do into a week.” That line basically sums up why things like social media can be toxic, particularly for parents. We see photos of other people [seemingly] doing all of the things without knowing intimately about the things they are prioritizing or giving up. In your case, it’s giving up hours/days at work so that you can focus that time on other pursuits, and I think being transparent about this is a good thing, not something to hesitant about :)
I read Ruth Reichl’s (Gourmet editor and critic) memoir, where she talked about working while being the mom of a young child. Her response to an interview question about how she “balanced it all” is very similar to what she wrote in her book: ” With a huge amount of guilt. By sleeping very, very little. By trying to do it all and probably failing at everything. But I’m a natural workaholic, and I was lucky to have a lot of very good helpers.” I think the mom/dad/parent world (and overall world) is tired of pretending that we have 29 hours in a day. We all have the same number of hours. It’s OK to be honest about how we use them differently.

October 17, 2022 5:09 pm
Reply to  Jewel

Jewel, I also loved Ruth Reichl’s honesty in that book. It was very affirming to read as a mother with young children.

Amy Grace Duncan
October 17, 2022 2:13 pm

Thanks for sharing, Em! I, too, have three kids. The shift did seem to push us over the edge from “we got this!” To, “This is a LOT to handle.” I’m glad that you felt the freedom to make changes to help you have some breathing room!

October 17, 2022 2:59 pm

Thanks for this post! I echo many thoughts already written in these comments, especially about the transparency aspect of still having children in childcare and the need to have time at night to do your own thing/having that balance with your husband. I would also be curious to one of the comments below about the conversations you had with your employer – not so much the acquisition per say but generally how you approached it with them. As a long time reader, I know you have mentioned in the past that having longevity there has allowed you to gain more flexibility. I am sure that was a huge factor. I work for a women’s leadership institute, and we often work with women who want to have flexibility, but don’t know how to approach those conversations with their employers. So I think it could be helpful to have a little peak into the process that both you and your employer went through (obviously knowing that all employers and situations are different, but i.e: did you get exactly what you asked for, was there some negotiation or conversations back and forth, how did you ultimately land on your current set up, etc) without giving too many details from the employer side as I’m sure there are things there you’d want to keep confidential. Hope that makes sense! Looking forward to the remaining posts.

October 17, 2022 3:12 pm

I’ve been eagerly waiting for this series too. Mom of 3 who has been part time for 9 years since oldest was born. I thought I’d go back someday full time but I think the 3rd has broken that. ????How much and what kind of childcare does Annie go to?

October 20, 2022 6:48 am
Reply to  Em

Yes!! That will be a huge quality of life adjustment. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing.

October 17, 2022 5:08 pm

Love this post and looking forward to the rest! I’m curious about how you structure those six hours and also about the nature of your work, i.e., how much “deep” work do you have to accomplish vs. administrative tasks? And has your job role had to change significantly to transition to part-time, or are you essentially doing the same work with fewer required outputs? I work part-time on a contract basis…I love the flexibility of stepping in and out, but when I am on a contract it is sooooo tough to squeeze the deep work into 6 hours. Thanks so much for sharing!

Meghan H.
October 18, 2022 8:59 am
Reply to  Sue

Super interested in this, too! Soon after my first child was born in 2018 I reduced my schedule from 5 to 4 days a week, but actually ended up switching back to 5 full days after about 6 months of the reduced schedule, since I found I was essentially doing the same amount of work squeezed into fewer hours and a full-time schedule worked okay for our family after all. A second kid and a different full-time job later I think a lot about what it could look like to reduce my hours again in the coming years, and think about how I might structure the change differently this time around if I were to pursue the option.

October 18, 2022 12:22 pm

Wow! I cannot tell you how much this resonates, especially the section about things that are NOT reasons for your workweek. We have different situations but the same ultimate goal- making the most of your time and streamlining family life! Congratulations on making it happen! That is huge and I love seeing how other people do life.
Our situation: I crave, in a serious way, time during the week to take on those household tasks and to streamline our family life. But but but… I also love my job and get enormous satisfaction and energy from it. Going part-time really isn’t a thing for my role or company (sadly!). I also have extremely generous PTO, so I take a day off every two months simply to catch up on the backlog! On the flip side, my husband works in the school system and has a school schedule. So what we’ve learned and adjusted as our family has grown is that he simply takes on more household/family tasks, and we’ve outsourced as our budget allows. Fully letting go of the reigns in certain areas is/was hard for someone who wishes she COULD do it all, but it was necessary to get to any sort of time to myself. I’m choosing what I want and that feels good!
Also- when I’ve heard those comments about staying home being “better”, or that the kids need you…. oh boy I’ve been upset. I really try to remember that this person is not trying to offend, but probably feels quite defensive about their choice and those are the default reasons to give. Many of us grew up during the “girl power” phase, invested in our educations, and so leaving a career behind cannot be without emotion.

October 18, 2022 4:52 pm

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking conversation. Thank you for sharing! I am very lucky to have had extremely generous maternity leave (12+ months) and chose not to return after that because I enjoyed being home far, far more than my very stressful and unpredictable job. I was so glad we’d planned financially and emotionally for me to have that choice because as another commenter said above, I would have suffered without my child. I do think if I’d had a job I loved I would have wanted to keep working – possibly even full time as part-time sounds challenging in its own ways as other commenters have mentioned. Now, approaching the arrival of our third child, my husband and I have made a concerted effort to do our household administrative work during the work week when we have scheduled time without the children, so that we can enjoy the evenings and weekends more. There are only so many hours in the week/weekend and we need to be realistic about what we can achieve/how we want to spend them. (I think you or Lisa wrote once that you had more childcare hours than work hours for this sort of extra admin, and that still resonates with me). I love hearing how you and others manage this part of life – your comments section is delightful!

Ps. I am always interested in these types of posts. They are a little “how we do it” update five years on – three kiddos! Summer camps! Logistics! How life changes so much in each phase. Thank you for sharing.

October 19, 2022 7:15 am

I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me! After having my first child last month, I’m excited to be heading back to a job I enjoy full-time in January, however the new schedule and time logistics are my biggest concern (just how does everything get done after 6pm?!). I appreciated your commentary on how reducing hours is intentionally giving you time back to tackle this vs. spend with your kids. I truly think the lack of schedule flexibility is a big piece of women leaving the workforce and I hope more companies are able to offer more options to keep working women (and men!) thriving. As always, thank you for sharing so openly with us!

October 19, 2022 7:37 pm

I resonate SO much with this post. Thank you for explaining it all! You put some things into words I don’t know that I have been able to articulate. And you aren’t wrong about the three kids circus! It has made a big change in our world this year and I see so much benefit to having a “default parent” for those appointments and teacher work days and even the trip prep. Can’t wait for part 2!

October 24, 2022 8:47 pm

I so appreciate your openness in sharing all of this! Do you consider yourself a high capacity person? And is your blog work hours or personal (you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want). Just curious! I have a hard enough time juggling a part time job and a 15 month old – can’t imagine a full time job and/or more kids! But I think I need a lot more margin in my day than some other people might (aka different capacity), and I have an extremely high value for rest (that is probably unrealistic). Just thinking… :)

October 28, 2022 9:03 am

Emily! I love this post so much. It actually inspired me to think about dropping to part time in the new year. My job in Big Law is intense and unpredictable, and often includes late nights and weekends, so I’m both worried my request could be denied and that it might result in even more stress (ie a reduced salary with just as many hours). My biggest desire for having a part time (4 days a week) schedule is that, if respected, it would give me one protected day not only to hang out with my daughter but also to go to her doctors appointments, etc. I’ve only been back at work for 5 weeks and already had to take off mornings for appointments twice and will have to again next week…
Now that I’ve realized this could be an option I feel so much peace, and with that so much fear that my request could be turned down.
Can’t wait for part 2 and will be taking any tips on how to approach this conversation :)