My Toddler's Heartbreaking First Three Words Inspired Me to Try Job Crafting

Work-life design helped one career coach find balance after a painful wake-up call. Here's what she did.

Young mother works from home while while her toddler daughter colors beside her.

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The lockdown phase of the pandemic was a time of stress for many people but, for me, it was also a turning point in my career and personal life. I am an attorney at a big law firm and, at that time, I was working from home and dealing with around-the-clock work emergencies. One day, during a conference call, I overheard my 18-month-old daughter in the next room utter three words that would change the way I approached my career: “I miss mommy.”

It was her first three-word sentence. Initially, I was delighted by my daughter’s NASA-level language skills. But as soon as my overly-biased motherly elation subsided, I realized that she was expressing a real need. I was gutted. What did she mean? I was there. I was there every day.

But the truth was, even though I was physically present, I was not truly available to her. Between back-to-back conference calls, negotiating contracts, two-hour-a-night sleeps, quick feedings, and constant nanny hand-offs, I was not giving her the attention she needed or deserved. I realized that I wanted to be the kind of mom who was truly present for her daughter, and that meant making changes in my work-life design.

For the uninitiated, “work-life design” is the blueprint for how you cohesively integrate your career and personal life to build meaning and fulfillment. A study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior found that women who engage in “job crafting”—tailoring their jobs to their personal needs as a part of this process—are more likely to report higher levels of work-family balance and job satisfaction.

As a partner at a law firm now—and a career coach who advises moms on career changes, work-life design, and integration—I encourage corporate moms who find it difficult to juggle their work and family obligations, to evaluate their work-life design. Here’s how. 

Give yourself time to think.

If you are in a cycle of never-ending overwork and high job demands, your ability to think critically and creatively may be impaired. In a study about burnout, the Journal of Intelligence found that people who were mentally exhausted were less likely to generate creative ideas compared to those who weren’t. Since creative thinking is key to personal and organizational success, giving your brain ample time to destress, reflect, and re-evaluate is vital. 

When I set out to re-evaluate my work-life design, I found space to think by re-reading my employee handbook and identifying and utilizing a benefit I’d never tapped into before—sabbatical leave. I took several months off to reimagine my career. 

More companies are offering sabbatical leave, with 11% offering unpaid leave and 5% offering sabbaticals with pay, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.  But if those resources aren’t available to you through your employer, I tell my clients to identify one long weekend per quarter where they take solo time—no partner, kids, or friends. For parents who may lack options when it comes to childcare, there are options. A quiet, extended long weekend will allow you to start connecting with your inner thoughts and voice.

Take inventory of what works—and what doesn't.

Let’s start by focusing on your work and career. (We’ll get to the “life” piece shortly.) Here’s an exercise I use with my clients for creating this inventory. Pull out a version of your resume that includes jobs, hobbies, and volunteer efforts. Go through each entry, past and present, and ask yourself these four questions:

  • What did you love?
  • What did you hate?
  • What lit you up?
  • What caused you the most frustration?

Take note of the common themes.

Map your life out.

Take what you learned from the work inventory exercise and start asking yourself questions about your home life. What kind of parent do you want to be? What does this look like in the context of your career? These are the kinds of detail-focused questions I ask my clients:

  • Do you want to do morning drop off?
  • Be home for dinner? Every night? Once a week?
  • Do you want to do bedtime? How frequently?
  • Do you want to have the flexibility to go to school activities during the day?
  • Do calls or meetings at a certain time of day interrupt your home flow?
  • What parts of my life am I outsourcing, and why?

As you answer these questions, keep in mind the things that have worked for you in your life, hobbies, or career, and identify some aspirations, as well as more general principles or values that guide your decision-making. 

Now take the things that caused stress and frustration and use them as a guide to create non-negotiables. 

Make a list of what needs to change.

This might include changes to your work schedule, your home life, or your personal habits and routines. For example, through this process, I realized I was delegating the part of my family life that I wanted the most involvement in—time with my daughter.  Instead, I spent time on chores I hated.  I needed to make a switch and re-allocate some of my childcare resources to help with meal prep, laundry services, and other household chores. 

On the work end, I was most stressed when clients and partners scheduled calls right in the middle of my daughter’s morning routine or during her bedtime. I noted the need for a change around that, and part of my work-life design today includes blocking my calendar so no one can access it without my permission and not accepting calls before 9:30 am or between 5 pm and 8 pm.  This will look different for everyone, so be sure to list what works for you.

Get started.

You’ve laid out goals for your work-life design. You’ve noted the need for important changes. Now comes the hardest part: Making those changes. To begin, ask yourself: What’s one action I can take in the next 30 days? That could be scheduling a meeting with your manager for an initial, table-setting conversation. 

Creating even the smallest of boundaries and prioritizing your values can bring the balance of control back in your favor.  A study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that when women have more control over their work schedules, they are more likely to report greater job satisfaction and lower levels of work-family conflict. 

Your work-life design will evolve over time, and it’s important to be flexible and willing to adjust as life does. After my leave, I negotiated a secondment at a client with fewer hours overall and zero billing hour requirements while my daughter was home with me. All of this happened without a dip in my salary. Once my daughter started preschool, I decided I could return to firm life with certain boundaries in place. A good rule of thumb is to re-evaluate every quarter.

The important thing to keep in mind is that a work-life design is not fixed, and there isn’t only one path to reach your ultimate goal: Creating a life where you can win at work and thrive in parenthood.

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  1. JOUR; Lazazzara, Alessandra, Tims, Maria, de Gennaro, Davide; 2019/01/01; The process of reinventing a job: A meta–synthesis of qualitative job crafting research; 116; 10.1016/j.jvb.2019.01.001; Journal of Vocational Behavior

  2. Weiss EM, Canazei M, Perchtold-Stefan CM, Rominger C, Papousek I, Fink A. Different Facets of Creativity in Employees Covering Non-Clinical to Clinical Manifestations of Burnout. Journal of Intelligence. 2022; 10(4):105.

  3. JOUR, Carlson, Dawn; Grzywacz, Joseph; Kacmar, K.; 2010/05/04; 330-355; The Relationship of Schedule Flexibility and Outcomes via the Work–Family Interface; 25; 10.1108/02683941011035278; Journal of Managerial Psychology

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