How Motherhood Enabled Me to Excel in My Career

Allison Whalen
Mar 4, 2019 · 8 min read

I joined Managed by Q, the platform for workplace management, three years ago during a period of intense, all-encompassing, and chaotic company growth. As the General Manager of Managed by Q’s Chicago operations, I was tasked with turning around what was at that point a challenging market.

Many of my early months were spent working 16-hour days, pouring over Salesforce, and spending evenings working side-by-side with our cleaning operators in order to more fully understand the business. It was consuming, frustrating, and exhilarating all at the same time. Six months into my time at Managed by Q, I felt like I was on an upward trajectory. On my one year anniversary I was promoted and asked to build the company’s first national enterprise sales team.

But I had a secret: For the past year, I had been trying to get pregnant. A few weeks after my promotion was announced, I had my 12-week ultrasound.

After I told my team, and as my due date approached, my anxiety started to spike. At eight months pregnant I still maintained a crazy pace of work: traveling regularly for meetings, routinely working 70-hour weeks, and leading major strategic partnerships and sales conversations. I couldn’t figure out how this lifestyle could possibly be sustained post-baby.

I also worried about what many of my friends had experienced — that my manager’s and company’s perception of me would change. Would they question my dedication to my career? Had they already started to write me off as being less capable or hardworking as a soon-to-be mother? Were they (even subconsciously) not considering me for high priority work since I was about to go on maternity leave? And how would my absence impact my team’s goals — could this three-month leave derail the progress we had made to date? Would my team feel appropriately supported without me?

I had no playbook or role models for what was happening. I was inundated with stories of women having children, scaling back, and embracing easier roles — or opting out altogether. Of the three women at Managed by Q who had gone on maternity leave before me, only one had returned. I knew of very few stories of women in leadership — particularly at startups — successfully navigating the transition back to work after maternity leave. I loved my job. I didn’t want to scale back, I wanted to adjust the role I had to make it work with a child.

In June 2017 my husband and I welcomed a big, healthy baby boy into our family and I took 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Maternity leave was both difficult and wonderful. I was fully present in the moment, and was incredibly happy to be a mother.

Returning from maternity leave was initially a challenge. The company felt unrecognizable and I had a steep learning curve to catch up. Our internal processes and software had changed significantly while I was out. And on my first day back my boss informed me that we would be doubling the size of my team — and more than doubling our goals.

For the first few months back, I maintained a terrible work schedule. I worked just as many hours as before my leave, and attempted to simply layer on all of the additional responsibilities associated with being a breastfeeding mother. Every day I returned home at 5:30, put my son to bed at 7:00 and then got back online until late at night. I would wake every few hours to pump and store breast milk for my son. I was utterly exhausted.

I struggled with work trips. Pumping while traveling was a challenge because I was constantly worried about finding a place to pump: I pumped in airport bathrooms, a closet at a venture capital fund’s holiday party, a mother’s room with a door that didn’t fully close in a coworking space. Despite having great health insurance and exceptional childcare — something many parents do not have — I worried constantly about my son and felt pangs of guilt about being away from him.

I was working way too many hours, and I wasn’t achieving enough. I was attempting to work in the same way I worked before my maternity leave, and I was failing.

So I embraced two important realities: my work was no longer my number one priority, and I could no longer work long hours.

These two critical realizations helped me completely restructure my work style and attitude, and as a result I am now doing better than ever at Q. My team ended 2018 at 123% to goal. We launched our services in Boston and I have onboarded and trained nine phenomenal salespeople who continue to inspire me every day. To put it bluntly: I am better at my job now that I am a mother.

As Lisa Lambert, Vice President of Intel Capital, wrote in Fortune, “One of the biggest biases that working mothers face is the belief that rising to the executive ranks means doing more when, in actuality, it means doing things differently.” It took me a few months to learn this, but this was absolutely true for me. Here’s how I’ve restructured my approach to work so that I can not only be present for my family, but excel in my job.

I now work significantly fewer hours because I want to spend as much time as possible with my son. I no longer work weekend days. During the week I don’t work between 5:30pm to 7:00pm because that’s my dedicated family time. While I usually answer some emails at night, I rarely do more than that. I don’t take work trips that last more than three nights.

By drawing hard limits on my work hours, my work style has completely shifted in positive ways:

  • I invest more time upfront to validate the path with the highest likelihood of success instead of testing too many approaches. I make real choices and I commit to plans with deadlines, an approach also described as “do less, then obsess.”

I learned that “de-prioritizing” my job in favor of my family actually means this: everything I do at work must be so good and important that it justifies my absence from my family. My bar for quality work is higher now. When I travel for work, I miss my son every single day. If I’m going to be away from him, I want to be doing the best, most interesting and successful work. In practice, this means:

  • I recover from failures faster. I allow myself one day to be disappointed (I don’t care what anyone says, failing fast is still failing and it’s not fun), and then dedicate time to assess why I failed, make necessary adjustments and move forward, smarter and better.

It wasn’t an easy path to get to this point, and there are many days that having a baby does hinder my productivity and impact. But on the whole, I am better at my job because I am a mother. Becoming a mother forced me to commit to a working style that in fact allows me to perform at a much higher level.

Unfortunately, a story like mine is not always possible. There are thousands of examples of how society and whole industries and companies do not support working parents, much less working mothers. I am privileged to work for a company that provides me with the ability to adapt my schedule and my work style fairly easily. I also have a supportive husband who shares — and oftentimes takes more of the burden of — household chores.

But I know that I am not alone in my experience. In fact there have been studies that show working mothers are significantly more productive than non-parent peers, and this correlation between having a child and an increase in productivity is strongest in working women with multiple children.

This makes me wonder — where are the stories of women excelling both in their careers and personal lives as a result of becoming a mother? We really don’t hear these stories. How did they do it? How did their employers support them in changing their work style to align with parenthood? What were their biggest wins?

I want to hear more success stories. I want employers to hear more success stories. Because by not talking about how women can be very successful, dare I say more successful, post-baby, we are making it harder for women who will be parents in the future to do the same.


Musings of Managed by Q Operators.