Pause the Alarm

AS AN EDUCATED, long-partnered 32-year-old, I’m often asked about my childbearing plans. Childbearing? I’m an overworked millennial inundated with statistics about the rising costs of daycare, as well as anecdotal evidence of sleepless nights and the relentless expense of diapers. I’m already tired and broke, with plenty of personal and professional goals keeping me busy. Plus, I like my job and my routine well enough, so why complicate things? Typically, I wrap up these conversations — which occur internally at least as often as externally — by concluding, “I’m just not a kids person.”

That was before I read Lisen Stromberg’s Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. While that title suggests yet another fem-powering self-help book, Work Pause Thrive is actually an in-depth and eye-opening treatise on workplace, family, and gender policy in the United States. It is, in fact, the most comprehensive modern survey of work-life integration, assessing how many women pause their careers to accommodate caregiving responsibilities, whether these pauses “kill” women’s careers, and the true extent of workplace “motherhood bias.” It also identifies successful strategies for doing what so many ambitious, educated women do once they become mothers — forging nonlinear career paths.

While I’m still not considering baby names, or even straining to hear the ticks from whatever clock women are supposed to have lurking within our bodies, the book made me reconsider the reasons I resist motherhood. I am now more fully aware of the extent to which workplace culture, existing leave and vacation policies, child care structure, and countless other factors hinder women, men, and their children. This happens across the socioeconomic spectrum, but under-resourced communities are particularly impacted. 

Stromberg, a Silicon Valley journalist and former advertising executive, collaborated with sociologists to conduct first-person interviews with nearly 200 American women — and several men — about their experiences balancing work and family. Close to 1,500 others were surveyed. The results were fairly clear: Americans continue to have a deep-seated belief that labor performed outside the home is intrinsically more valuable than caregiving, making motherhood seem impossible for millions of women who have invested immeasurable capital into the development of our careers. 

Stromberg then focuses on how much of the workforce brainpower is “going home” once women who’ve reached midcareer and senior leadership levels opt to leave in order to raise children — and the impact that has on the US economy. 

Work Pause Thrive is a sobering read, but it isn’t meant to be disheartening. “Thrive” is, after all, part of the title. A personable, intelligent guide, Stromberg outlines practical strategies for pausing, shifting, and/or relaunching one’s career, and peppers her data-heavy prose with illustrative and often funny narrative flourishes. The book cites plenty of evidence that mothers today are, as Stromberg writes, “rocking it” in the career sphere, despite the fact they don’t, and can’t, work all the time. 

Stromberg herself has had a long and varied career, and also raised three children with her husband, Bill. Her call to action is subtle, yet clearly delineated: we need to do a better job of keeping our country working while also devoting ourselves to our children. That means shifting paradigms and initiating programs to support paid parental leave for both sexes, paid sick leave, universal child care, job security for those with caregiving responsibilities, and benefits for unpaid caregivers. This little bit of paradise can be a reality, as Stromberg learned visiting family in Norway.

During our candid conversation from her home office in San Francisco, Stromberg lays the blame for our current shortcomings at the feet of outdated, patriarchal workplace and government policies that fail to recognize the economic prowess of women.

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KATIE O’REILLY: Tell me about your motivation to write this book.

LISEN STROMBERG: I struggled for 10 years trying to solve this issue for myself, wondering the whole time why it was so darn hard. I have a great education and all the resources in the world, I always thought, so I shouldn’t find this so frustrating. What about women without resources and without the foundations I had? Something was wrong.

This led me to start researching our workplace public policy and culture to understand what was going on for women in the workplace. After Lean In came out [in 2013], Sheryl Sandberg sparked a real movement to solve the leadership void. I loved her advice, but I felt there was so much more that needed to be addressed.

Young women were saying to me, “I want to lean in, but I also want to have children.” Young men were asking, “What role do I play?” The truth is, you have to take the long view of your career, and, at any given moment, take stock of how you can downshift and relaunch it. I realized that so many women were doing that but not talking about it. If we were doing it and not owning it, I knew there was something going on — we weren’t doing it because we weren’t ambitious, we just had no other choice. I wanted to address those factors.

Who’s your target audience?

Millennial men and women. Sixty-four million of them are going to become parents in the next decade. Experts say we’re on the cusp of a major baby boom. Yet, since I entered the workplace in the early 1980s, nothing’s really changed. They’re going to face the same challenges. If we really want women in leadership, we’ve got to figure out how to solve this; how not to experience a huge talent pool brain drain. Female millennials are now the most educated group in our country — for the past five to 10 years, they’ve far outpaced men. As things stand, the most educated people are not going to be contributing their talents once they become parents. Public policies will not change fast enough for millennial women. I wanted to unpack the situation, so that they could understand how to deal as individuals — because, as a society we need that talent!

The book is pretty unique: an in-depth and multipronged policy analysis, coupled with advice and actionable steps for young women and men on the cusp of having careers and families. Were you using any other books as structural models?

No. But the beauty of a book proposal is that you really have to think through your organizational structure. The rigor of that process was a real gift. What did I want to say and how did I want to say it? For me, it was like the structure of the title, a three part thing. The pause for me came in writing part two; the part where I had to step back and think about how I had navigated my own personal journey.

Are there other writers you admire who similarly blend sociological research with narrative nonfiction?

I loved how Brigid Schulte wove personal narrative into her treatise about time in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, in order to better address why time is uniquely challenging for women. I also really loved Josh Levs’s book All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — And How We Can Fix It Together, about paid leave, and why it’s so challenging. As I already mentioned, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family also weaves in stories that show that this is not a women’s problem — it’s an economic problem, a business problem. When we only have 48 percent of women working, that’s a lot of talent not being applied to the economy — and there’s a reason our economy stagnated while other countries like Spain, Greece, and Japan sped way past us in many ways. The lack of females working is a societal problem.

There were so many components to your research: case studies, conversations with sociologists and policy experts, historical and political context. What part did you most enjoy?

I come from Silicon Valley, and I’m a data nerd and a journalist. So it was a gift to combine that journalistic curiosity with the desire for data and fact. Even now, I’m still so curious about this; I’m still so inspired by the new research and new data.

I was honored that so many wanted to share their experiences. Watching my brother struggle with his efforts to negotiate paternity leave; watching so many men I know try to be engaged in fatherhood, but end up feeling hamstrung by our current cultural requirements; having conversations with millennial men who were saying, “This is not what I signed up for” — that all really inspired me to persevere.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?

It wasn’t surprising so much as heartbreaking to realize we live in a society that so devalues unpaid caregiving — that the way in which we end up living and planning, and our laws and policies, absolutely fights against how we care for our families. This means that each and every one of us suffers. We build fiefdoms to protect ourselves, but we’re not actually out there protecting each other. Society punishes those of us with caregiving responsibilities — which is ultimately all of us.

It was interesting to learn about how this problem is uniquely American, and I love the comparative insights you incorporate from Norwegian relatives and friends. Did your heritage factor into your original plans for the book?

Not at all! I was beginning to do research for this book when I went to a family reunion in Norway. Just sitting there with my cousin and hearing about her journey — we were so similar in terms of career and family ambition, yet our experiences had been so different. That was the defining moment: I realized there was something wrong with our culture, because here was evidence that an alternative was economically possible. It comes down to the choices you make — everyone, and every society, makes choices around their budgets that reflect their values.

Your resume boasts an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. How did these sensibilities factor into the book?

I love Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, about the “right brain, left brain future,” and about how people who can meld the two modes will be the changemakers of the future. The data-driven rigor of the MBA, coupled with the understanding that our true stories matter — that they’re often what drives change — is what fueled this book. However, stories in and of themselves aren’t enough. We need both data and story to effect policy change.

The book is in some ways politically loaded. Have you experienced any backlash?

I was recently interviewed by a woman, a mother of five, who has a podcast with a huge Christian following. After reading the book, she noted that while we come from different philosophical spectrums, she felt like the gap had been bridged — that we’re ready to talk about how this is every woman’s and every man’s problem.

I don’t want to be partisan — I will celebrate whatever administration moves us toward paid leave and universal child care — and I deeply believe these solutions are available to us, irrespective of our political parties, because we know that when we have women working everyone wins.

I don’t, however, want this to come across as a privileged women’s issue. I wrote the book with college-educated women and men in mind, and was initially trying to understand why even women with resources can’t find solutions. Yet we’re seeing a huge rise in stay-at-home moms, and it primarily stems from middle and lower classes. The very notion that work-life integration is a privilege shows that we lack policies for parents and need to band together across the socioeconomic spectrum to lobby our leaders and workplaces. Because if you’re under resourced you need sick leave and childcare — that’s crucial to keeping you working!

And I don’t want to come across as judgmental if you want to be a stay-at-home parent. My point is, keep your career in mind, because our careers are long — and if you’re always managing it, you can navigate those shifts.

So what does your ideal workplace culture look like?

There’s absolutely no doubt that two things matter a lot: creating paid parental leave for both men and women, and creating on-ramping support back into the workplace, so that there’s a way to transition after the birth of that first kid. The third thing is childcare — that’s not my research, that’s other research. The fourth thing is flexibility. The women I interviewed who stayed working because they were actually doing the right thing professionally — doing jobs they loved — had the flexibility. For others, work punished them if they went to a soccer game or took a kid to the doctor. Yet we have every tech tool we need to allow for flexibility right now. Between slack and remote working and Skype, today’s tools give us what we need to get the work done anywhere. So let’s create that opportunity whenever possible.

Millennials are the best thing to happen to the workplace. As a culture, we’ve got a lot of preconceived ideas about millennials — that they’re entitled, that they’re job hoppers, that they’re not ambitious. Well, guess what the generation before mine said about us? The exact same things! We were navigating a workplace that didn’t support us. Millennials see that in a way we didn’t, and companies are going to have to change — and fast.

The past few years have seen a real call to action. Many forward-thinking companies are baking flexibility into their cultures — and not just for moms, but for dads, too — and recognizing that this matters so deeply to millennial men and women.

The other thing we’re seeing is a lot of attention paid to the midcareer professional woman who paused her career. Companies such as PayPal, Morgan Stanley, and GoDaddy are increasingly creating return-to-work internships to capture midcareer talent. Article after article shows that women totally rock itafter this process. And if we want to solve the pipeline issue, these midcareer pros have so much to offer. That’s where the opportunity is.

The other thing is that tech- and network-savvy millennials really understand what they can do. When pausing, it’s important never take your eyes completely off the career. It may not be on the front burner, but if you’re managing your brand and keeping your network alive, your career doesn’t go away. You’re always still nurturing it.