The Real Impact of Babies on Career Success

Kimberly Palmer

Jamie Ladge knows that people hate hearing that they can't 'have it all.' As a professor at Northeastern University who studies career success, she's discovered that one problem with that phrase is that it usually refers to working in a full-time, inflexible environment while trying to juggle the demands of parenthood. But a newer way of defining career success focuses more on subjective measures such as self-fulfillment, rather than pay and promotions.

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Ladge's research suggests that parents can feel just as fulfilled in their work even if they go through a period of working part-time. Similarly, while having more children appeared to have a negative impact on income, it did not negatively affect how satisfied people felt with their careers. US News spoke with Ladge about what parents can learn from her research. Excerpts:

What does the latest research suggest about the impact of having children on income?

One finding that goes back years is that if you take career breaks [for children], it has negative implications not just for pay but for promotions. What I think is most interesting is the timing of when you have your first child. The earlier you have your children, the more detrimental they are to your career, because you're interrupting your career or cutting back your hours during that critical period of time, when you're building up your network base and human capital. That early stage is really important for building up salaries and promotions.

But not everyone chooses jobs based on pay. How you feel about your career and how satisfied you are is not just about income but about personal rewards. Age at first birth had no effective on those subjective measures of career success, which suggests that it doesn't matter when you start a family--unless you care about pay.

You talk about the need to think about career success in a new, less traditional way, which academics term the "protean" career model. Why is that important?

We're taught from an early age that there's one path, a linear career path to success, that you go from one step to the next. But the protean career model suggests there are multiple ways to be successful and we should be self-defining, and not just go from manager to vice president to president. There are many ways to be successful, and we're always so hung up on the traditional mode, but not every fits that mode, especially women. Now companies have programs to help women keep their foot in the door? you can decide for yourself what is the best career track for you and it's based on your own circumstances.

If it's not money, then what is the measure of success for a less traditional career path?

It's about self-fulfillment. Am I satisfied with the success I have achieved? Objective levels of success [such as money] satisfy basic needs but higher level needs are more about self-actualization.

This way of thinking is also more in line with what has happened with careers over time. It used to be that people were loyal to careers and defined by their careers, and then there were lay-offs and less loyalty. People said, 'I'm loyal to myself.' The whole mentality shifted towards the idea that you work for yourself and not others, even if you don't work for yourself.

Gen x and gen y are more in that mindset, too. Just listening to my students, they might not have a lot of leverage in a bad economy, but as a cohort of people coming in, they do have a lot of leverage because they all want flexibility. If everyone is demanding the same thing, there will be more a movement to make that happen within organizations. On a one-on-one basis, it's harder.

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How can parents trying to figure out their own career paths use this research to help them make those decisions?

Everyone would take a career break if they could, because most people don't like their jobs, or their jobs are too stressful to balance the demands of work and family, so it's a lot easier to step out. The advice would be, don't step out all the way. Try to keep your foot in the door, even if just a little bit. That will help you maintain your skill set and keep something in that trajectory.

Ask yourself what your goals are. When people have too much flexibility or too much part-time status, then their goals often go away and they stop thinking about anything long-term. That doesn't bode well for even feeling good about your career, and certainly not on the financial side. It's about thinking about what your own priorities are, and your significant other's priorities. When you're thinking of starting a family, you should talk about it ahead of time so you understand the impact.

We beat ourselves up over climbing the corporate ladder, and people hate hearing 'I can't have it all.' Maybe we can't have it all if we're talking about the traditional model of career success where the norm is working 80 hours a week, but that's only one way to define success, and it doesn't mean it's the right way.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer