“I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and the counter points by Anne-Marie Slaughter. So, there was this conversation happening,” said Donielle Buie, Human Resource Leader and Work/Life expert, “And I agree, we need to change policy. But I kept thinking to myself, there’s a woman right now who’s got two kids and is ready to quit her job! She can’t figure out how to make this all work. And I didn’t feel like people were talking about that enough. Or how to make these decisions related to career and family. So, that was my foray into the work/life space.”
Almost half of Mothers take time out of the workforce due to childcare. But Donielle has done what few have. She downshifted, opted out and then came back, professionally stronger. Millions of Moms are deciding to lean into, out of or back from, their careers through Covid. And historically, women don’t fare well when they opt out. But Donielle’s journey is a masterclass on how to navigate the care and career fit.
What About Parental Leave?
Donielle experienced the reality of navigating leave with her first child. “It was like, you had a baby? Here is a $5,000 stipend on top of disability. I worked at a small company so, they gave us dollars on top of short-term disability. But didn’t have a more formal extended leave policy. Even with that, I took unpaid leave because I wanted to be home for 6 months,” she said. “I thought, we should have parental leave because people had kids. Why don’t we have a better policy? Then as we started thinking about having a second, it was sort of like, okay how in the heck are we going to do this? And how do other people do this?”
It’s not easy for most families. The US is one of the few countries without mandated paid leave. And this issue has become pivotal to our economic recovery in the pandemic. Donielle said, “Now, we’re feeling the repercussions of not having a national childcare system and supports in place for caregivers, who primarily end up being women.” Exactly. And the journey back to work, is still fraught with complexity.
Face that Steep Return to Work
The post-baby return to work is a vulnerable time. And how well we’re supported, at work and home, can either solidify or destroy our careers. Donielle admitted what many of us experience, yet few discuss. “I got the worst performance review of my life coming back from leave after my first kiddo and that was really hard. It was a huge blow to my ego.” Sigh. She said, “And I don’t actually think my performance was bad. It was sort of bad, but only relative to how I had been performing, prior to having kids. It wasn’t up to my normal standard.”
It’s much harder to reconcile disappointment with ourselves than our managers. Or the identity shift aligning our post-baby schedule, with the relentless pace we keep to rise at work. Donielle said, “I’d been home for almost seven months and had come out of a lot of the newborn fog. But it’s hard to come back at 100%. That’s not how it works. And we didn’t have an on-ramping program or anything like that so, I came back full-time. I underestimated how hard that would be.” Exactly. Return-to-work programs, for new parents, are still not the norm.
Let Go of the Working-Mom Identity
Donielle regained her professional footing. She said, “After that review, I was like ‘oh no, I don’t get reviews like this’ and so I eventually got back into my rhythm. And proceeded to get a promotion before having my second kid. So, I got back on track, at least for how I was thinking about my career. But when my second son was born, he had sickle cell disease and that was a huge blow.” Learning that their baby may need special care changed everything. She said, “So, instead of talking to my boss about coming back, I said ‘I’m quitting.’ And he was shocked. They asked me if I would think about going part-time. Looking back on it now, I probably could have by supporting projects instead of leading them. But in the moment, I couldn’t see a way to perform at the same level.”
Real flexibility, not just in hours but expectations, at work is rare. She said, “The doctors couldn’t tell me if our son was going to be very mild or need to be in the hospital every month. I had no idea. And I wasn’t willing to take the risk for somebody else to understand the nuances of his experience of this disease. So, I quit my job after hitting the director level that I had been climbing to and that was really hard. Because I had seen myself as a working Mom, so, I had to battle that for a while. For about six months after I left my job, I still referred to the job that I used to do. Instead of saying, ‘I’m at home taking care of the kids.’ A lot of my identity was wrapped up in work.”
Decide on the Dual-Career Couple Dance
“I was home for four years and by the time my son was two, we had a third kiddo. And then I stayed home for another two years with my daughter. I could have gone back to work sooner but, I decided to relish that time,” said Donielle. Her extended leave coincided with her husband traveling a lot. She said, “He’s a professor so, he had to go to conferences and share research. And we made the decision together, that was the time for him to hit the gas pedal on his career. So, he was able to engage at home but still really engage with his career. And the positive outcome of that story is that he did get tenure.” This process of making career tradeoffs is often hard for couples.
Donielle was intentional about it, “We talked very explicitly, that it would need to be my turn at some point. It was like, ‘okay you’ve got the chance to push the gas on your career and that’s great. But I care about the work that I do. Right now, that work is at home. But at some point, when I go back into the marketplace, I want to be able to push that gas pedal too.’” Amen! She said, “That explicit conversation was important. If one partner keeps making that ‘push the gas pedal’ decision, and gets so much farther ahead and making more money; then it doesn’t make sense for them to step back. And it creates an inequity that can be really challenging for couples.” Yes.
Transition Back to Work You’re Excited About
Donielle’s career had been in market research before moving into Human Resources. She said, “There are a few reasons I think that I’ve been successful. One was my project management background and the leadership skills I cultivated in my prior industry. So, I was able to bring a lot of that to getting the work itself done. And then, I literally live my work.” Yes! An amazing way to learn.
How did she grow in a new field? She said, “Although I stepped into a role that already existed, they were trying to elevate it. And I could very quickly see some of the gaps. I was able to say, ‘we do talk a lot about caregiving but when we say caregiving, we actually mean taking care of kids. We’re really talking to parents and not people who are caring for seniors. And I knew that because we have aging parents and so, I was dealing with that gap in my life. And said, ‘we need to figure out how to address it in the workplace.’” Yes!
Donielle, a trained researcher, began with questions. “I tried to spend a lot of time upfront, listening and connecting with people at work, about the challenges they were experiencing. We talk a lot about caregiving. But what about those people that don’t have kids, what challenges are they facing? And how can we provide resources and support?” An important perspective. The pandemic has heightened feelings of isolation for people who live alone.
She added, “You have to be passionate about supporting people as whole people. That’s how I think about it. How can we help someone to be a whole, healthy person? So that when they come to work, they can be at work and do what they need to do. But we recognize that they have other things going on in their life beyond work.” This is at the heart of changing the rules and culture of work, for caregivers and everyone.
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Many thanks to the talented Donielle Buie!
Donielle Buie is Director, Broadie Experience and Total Rewards at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She also runs WifeMotherLeader where she supports families solving real, everyday programs from her podcast, blog and coaching programs. Donielle is an experienced educator, project manager, sales director, and mother. Her experience as a parent and background in market research led her to identify the need for WifeMotherLeader. Donielle has a BS in biomechanical engineering and a Masters in Education, both from Stanford University.