Mother’s Day Reflections from a Motherless Working Mom
Laura is Executive Strategy Director for BAV Group, VMLY&R’s brand analytics practice. Her mission is to fuel creativity with data using the world’s largest and longest running study on brands. She’s proud to have inspired many successful and award-winning creative campaigns across nearly every major industry category. Most recently, she was a key contributor to the Institute for Real Growth, WPP’s latest thought leadership initiative, with the goal of engaging clients on what it takes to deliver sustained business growth.
The first mentor in business I ever had, long before I even knew what a mentor was, was my mom. A working mom herself, she dressed me in little baby business suits with huge puffy shoulder pads for my school pictures (it was the 80s!) and told me there was nothing that I couldn’t do if I worked hard enough. So, you can imagine my surprise when I experienced, not only one, but two setbacks in my career. Their names are Lila and Emily, my daughters, who are six and four years old. While I love them dearly, in terms of advancing into leadership, let’s just say having them around certainly hasn’t made things easy.
Consider these figures: In the United States, 85% of women become mothers in their lifetimes, yet only 39% of women in advertising are moms (according to research done by the 3% Movement).
In an industry where we put the work above all, where we birth it and nurture it and treat it like our own, where we celebrate its successes and learn from its failures, there isn’t much time to also do this with actual children. Sadly, many agency cultures are pretty far behind industries like tech when it comes to things like paid parental leave and workplace flexibility, as the findings of the recent Parenting in Adland report point out. This is draining our industry of not only brilliant female minds but more and more millennial men too.
I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how both conscious and unconscious bias influences so many decisions about women’s careers. Women get passed over for high-profile assignments, raises and promotions solely based on the fact that we either have children or have the potential to have them.
I reached a breaking point about four years ago, when I was sitting in Chicago O’Hare Airport returning from a business trip. My flight was delayed, and I became painfully aware that I might miss my daughter’s preschool orientation. I had extended my trip two days longer than I anticipated, pulled an “all-nighter,” and we still didn’t win the assignment we were pitching. As I sat stuck there, I realized that sometimes you can give work your all and you can allow it to totally consume you, and even then, a successful outcome is not a guarantee. I was maxed out, spending 60+ hours a week away from my kids, and miserable in the suburb we recently moved to with no time to make friends. At that moment, I sprung an idea. Why can’t I still do what I love and spend more time with the people I love the most?
"Being a working mom, especially in advertising, takes equal doses of grace and grit."
So, I did something, which at the time I didn’t realize was quite common. I took a career pause. I didn’t even realize it was called a pause until I read 3% Movement’s Lisen Stromberg’s book Work Pause Thrive. In it, she shared a little secret that I’m going to share with you. Some of the most senior, amazing and awesome women who are now running the advertising world and spearheading major brands have taken a pause at some point, whether it’s been to freelance, downshift their days in the office (what I’m currently doing), or take some time off completely. I want to tell you that it’s OK to take a pause for kids. But do so with a plan, because being a working mom, especially in advertising, takes equal doses of grace and grit.
For starters, if you’re anywhere near thinking about having or adopting a baby, now is the time to double down on your career. Put in the work, make sure you’re a rock star, and most importantly GET PAID. Babies are expensive. Childcare costs are a crime. Now is the time to take risks, and like I said, GET PAID. Do what Cindy Gallop says and ask for the highest amount of money you can say out loud without actually bursting out laughing. Trust me, you’ll need it.
If you’re in the thick of motherhood, with little (or big) kids at home, not getting sleep, ruthlessly prioritize. Focus on the things that will make the biggest impact. Find out what your boss and clients care about the most and focus on that. Still be your rock star self. Just work smarter, not necessarily harder.
Trailblazing my non-linear career has opened up so many exciting opportunities. Professionally, I’ve had time to speak at conferences and give back to the industry by participating in various women’s leadership initiatives—I even received a promotion. Back at home, I’ve made some truly amazing friends and volunteer in my community. Beautiful things have happened because of my two little “setbacks” Lila and Emily.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about my mom, who died when I was only 23, two years after I started my career in advertising. I would give anything to spend just one more day with her, and to hear her words of encouragement. Life is too short to not spend time with the people you love, be it children, family, friends, or even fur babies. Don’t be afraid to dream up, design, and ask for the type of career that will give you the time and energy your life deserves.
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