Jenny Novak Publications

Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: motherhood

Navigating the Pandemic as a New Parent

Last summer I gave birth to a baby girl who will turn 8 months old during the pandemic. Living through this crisis as a parent is completely different than it would have been if I was still looking forward to motherhood. There are so many layers of responsibilities and emotions for parents as we cope with this new reality of the world. My child is definitely too young to understand what is going on and certainly won’t remember this, but it’s an even more complex situation for parents with older kids who don’t understand why they aren’t in school and why they can’t go to their friends birthday parties anymore. I’ve been reflecting on how the crisis impacts my new identity as a parent.

The Protector

The primary way that I am approaching this situation differently is that I am now a protector. I work in the field of emergency management and my job for the last 3 years has been focused on response, so in this situation I theoretically should be going out into the world to help manage this crisis in any way I can. But in my new role as a mom I am the protector of an infant who is just learning to wobble on her own two feet. It has spurred me to seek opportunities to support my agency’s mission remotely so that I can keep my daughter home from daycare and self isolate the both of us as much as possible.

There is nothing more important to me than her safety so I will have to make difficult choices while navigating the career path that I loved so much before. While I retain the ambition and drive for my career and remain passionate about crisis management and disaster relief, I am finding myself needing to rethink my approach. How can I best apply myself professionally while prioritizing my role as a protector for Scarlett, especially in the era of the pandemic? I am challenging myself to find new, creative ways to remain productive and to thrive professionally while working from home and entertaining my daughter. I think many parents may be grappling with similar choices and exploring new productivity strategies, especially those who have careers that could put them in harm’s way during the outbreak.

Playing with her flash cards during the pandemic.

The Curator of their Universe

Especially now that so many of us are home with kids who would normally be in school, we are more responsible for crafting our children’s worlds than we ever were before. Shaping each day is now solely within our control, we can’t rely on teachers and strict school schedules to guide their days. It is up to parents to design the pace of day and find a good balance of playtime and learning, breaks for snacks and exercise, and the ratio of time spent indoors vs outdoors. Scarlett and I have settled into a good schedule–I have set up a couple different play areas that I rotate her between while I fire off emails and enter resource requests in the system. For conference calls, there are a few safe places I can use to keep her entertained and contained while mama moves to the office for the call. Her morning and afternoon naps provide an opportunity for me to catch up on the bigger projects that require utilization of my double screen set up in the office. 

While the work that I’m engaged in deals directly with the impacts of the pandemic and how we move resources to assist local government with their response, I know that I need to also be mindful of the atmosphere in the household. The tone of my voice when I’m speaking, my body language as I react to new urgent tasks, will all have an effect on my daughter. While Scarlett is too young to remember this time, it’s especially important for parents of older children to be purposeful in the atmosphere that they create. The situation is grim in many regards but within your own household you are the curator of their universe. You can shape this memory into a deeply meaningful, positive era when the family got to spend more time together and take a break from the hurried American lifestyle. They can learn to cook dinners or experiment with baking, perhaps learn to garden, change the oil in the car, learn to scrapbook or engage in other crafts that they wouldn’t normally have time to do in school. This is a great time to learn extracurricular skills and if we create a world where the quarantine is actually a fun vacation rather than a prison sentence our children may look back on this time fondly.

Scarlett G around 3 months old.

The Student

While many of us are taking on the role of teacher whether or not we like it, I think we should also try to take on the role of the student. Our kids for the most part are blissfully unaware of the greater world and the threat of the pandemic. They aren’t worrying about transmission and mortality rates or the status of the economy. They are waking up each day ready to experience life, explore new things, grow, and learn. Their outlooks are inherently positive because they have so much life to live and so much to look forward to. My daughter has been babbling excitedly at us and is so thrilled to be able to stand now. She loves to practice curling her toes under and elevating herself. The house is a brand new place to explore for her as she can now see and touch things that she never could before when she was limited to army crawling. She starts each day with a smile. Teenagers may not have the blissful naivety of Scarlett, but are probably at least thankful for some extra time to sleep in and access to household snacks all day.

When I feel myself getting overwhelmed with the devastation and isolation of COVID-19, I try to focus on Scarlett’s face, her attitude and the smile she gives me when I make a silly face and just absorb the small moments of mother-daughter bonding. We may be newly minted teachers but our kids actually have a lot they can teach us about focusing on simple moments of bliss throughout the day and the uncomplicated joy of smiling and laughing in the sun. Give yourself this opportunity to recapture the innocence of childhood and allow them to share with you their hope for the future.

Advancing Your Career While on Maternity Leave

As 2019 ends, my six month maternity leave from my full-time job is drawing to a close. Before deciding to take such a long leave of absence, I was aware of some of the drawbacks that parents (women in particular) face when taking time off from a career to care for children. A 2018 study by the National Women’s Law Center revealed that mothers earn only 71 cents for every dollar that men earn—meaning that having Scarlett G theoretically decreased my earning potential from the 81 cents on that dollar that females without children earn. This so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ results in mothers earning an average of $16,000 less annually than men. The same study shows that employers view mothers as less devoted to their jobs. Another study shows that women’s income drops 30% and never catches up!

As I begin to think about the impending sad day where I will leave my girl at day care all day of course I feel tempted to just prolong my leave and stay home with her, especially given the price tag of the day care. But I also remember that taking additional unpaid time off or quitting my job to become a stay at home mom comes with an even steeper motherhood penalty. According to the Center for American Progress, a young woman who takes 5 years off to care for children can expect her lifetime earnings to be reduced by a whopping 20%. While this may seemingly make immediate financial sense due to the rising costs of childcare (particularly for infants), there are hidden factors that must be accounted for such as the opportunity cost (the impact of the break on her potential raises and promotions) and the reduction in wages saved for her retirement. These hidden lifetime costs could actually amount to 3 times the wages lost alone. Additional studies have shown the longer the maternity leave, the heavier the burden upon return.

Knowing all of this (and being the ambitious, career-oriented type that I am) I wanted to make sure that my maternity leave was productive. I wanted to stay in the game and view it as a sort of sabbatical rather than a break in my career. As glorious as it has been to stay home with Scarlett and play with her, I do my best to stay engaged in my field of work and use the time wisely to hopefully continue advancing my career trajectory and offset those pesky motherhood penalties and opportunity costs. For mothers-to-be who are considering these factors as well, here are some ideas to help keep your career growth pointed upward even when you aren’t working your full-time job.

Writing in a coffee shop just before Scarlett arrived.

Writing

If you’re reading this it’s probably no secret to you that I’ve been pretty busy with writing while I’ve been off work. I have been writing articles for my website regularly—every other week has been a feasible frequency for me. I have also been writing for a book project that I’m working on. While I’m not yet paid to be a writer, I have been writing best practices and reflections on my emergency management career that I hope will continue to elevate my profile as an SME in this profession. The great thing about writing and putting your work out there is that people will continue to read it long after you first shared it, and it’s something productive that you can do in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep after a nighttime feed. All fields cherish written communication skills and with the rise of LinkedIn and other social platforms you can easily share your written professional thoughts with potential future employers, headhunters or clients. If straight up writing articles isn’t your thing then work on a portfolio website–it’s so easy to build your on site these days with Wix and other similar sites and a great way to ensure your work pops up first when someone Googles you.

Reading on the Kindle with a sleeping baby.

Reading

My wonderful husband gifted me a Kindle for our one year anniversary in September. At first I was very surprised and not sure I’d like it—I’ve always been a physical book person and one year is supposed to be the paper anniversary and this was the true opposite of a paper gift! But I came to find that reading digitally on my super lightweight, palm sized Kindle was extremely easy to do while breastfeeding Scarlett—so much better than using an app on my massive ipad or straining to flipping the page constantly on my phone. I have been able to read several professional books on Kindle in the past few months, which help me keep up to date with ideas in both EM and general leadership / management. For me, reading stimulates continued thought growth on the professional world even when I am physically outside of it and feeling like my sole purpose is as a milk factory.

Scarlett during one of our lunch dates.

Coffee / Lunch Dates

Relationships are at the core of my realm as an emergency manager, but I’m a firm believer that they are pretty dang important in every field. The best way to grow your career potential is through your network—where you’re likely to learn about optimal opportunities. This is not something you can do immediately—certainly not within the first 4 weeks, wait until baby gets a little bit bigger and slightly more predictable. I reached out to a couple of previous managers and just asked to grab lunch, as well as met up for coffee (and happy hour) with a couple past colleagues. Staying in touch with colleagues and leaders in your field is always great and since you’ve got some time on your hands and an adorable little baby to introduce this can be an ideal time to deepen the connections in your network.

Professional Associations

I’m already pretty heavily involved in my professional associations, so I didn’t really amp up my participation much during this time, but I did continue it. Join a committee, listen in on a webinar, or just use it as a chance to really read the organization’s newsletters and better understand what they’ve been up to and how you can become a more engaged (or at least informed) member! If your organization offers a credential or certificate for certain professional contributions (like the CEM in our field) now is a great time to strategize how you can achieve this and start chipping away at the requirements or documentation involved.

Education

I’m not currently in a place in my life where I’m looking to continue formal education since I already have a Master’s degree and am a Ph.D. dropout with no plans to return. But if I didn’t have my master’s or if there was a certificate program I had my eyes on I would most certainly have looked into taking a class online or worked on an application. While being a mom to a newborn is extremely taxing, the reading and writing required of online class participants is something you can fit in during the downtime and in your PJs!

At an all staff meeting in our EOC 8 weeks postpartum.

In Conclusion

Obviously your priority during this time should be snuggling and spending quality time with your new mini human, and many people wouldn’t trade any of their brain power for career stuff during this sleep deprived time. But the motherhood penalty is sadly very real, and you will have the benefit of weeks with no meetings scheduled to pursue some of these activities if you want to take a break from baby brain. I would love to hear what other types of professionalization career-oriented parents have pursued during their time off work!