You don't have to be pregnant (or anywhere close to it) to wonder how having kids would affect you at work. Some women worry so much, they "leave before they leave," as Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In, turning down promotions or big projects — and the bigger paychecks that come with them — for fear they won't be able to manage later. If you're kid-curious, here's the real deal about the joy, pain, guilt, and glory of working momhood.
Lindsay Timlin, 34, corporate attorney, New York City
"It's the norm for me to work 60-plus-hour weeks, so I anticipated scaling back after having my son. But I cherish my career now so much more than I thought I would. I'm still the same person who needs intellectual stimulation and personal triumphs. I can't pull all-nighters at the office anymore, and that's a good thing. My new reality is leaving earlier, hanging out with my son, and working after he goes to bed. I want to show him how amazing life can be when you work hard, get your dream job, and do it well."
Cecilia Pagkalinanwan, 42, founder and CEO of appLOUD, NYC
"When I got pregnant with my son as a single mom 13 years ago, I was freelance consulting. I quickly got a full-time job with benefits, because I knew I had to support my son. There was no other option. I spent so much time away from him in the first years, he was calling both me and his nanny Mommy. As I established myself, I became a tougher negotiator with prospective employers, because I knew he needed me around more. Before I accepted one job, I made sure up front that I wouldn't need to come in before 9 a.m. or travel more than four times a year."
Blair Fillingham, 34, marketing consultant, Seattle
"I was a senior marketing manager at Microsoft when I had my first daughter nearly four years ago, and I was eager to prove I could be Super Mom. That included taking her, starting at 6 months old, on international work trips in order to keep breastfeeding. I was utterly exhausted. After getting laid off when I went on maternity leave with my second daughter, I decided not to rush back to work. I realized I was a workaholic. I'd saved enough to take a year off. When I first started working, I set a financial goal to have enough money in the bank by the time I was in my childbearing years to give me flexibility. I considered it an insurance policy if maternal instinct trumped ambition. Now I'm building a strong connection with my daughters, teaching yoga, and doing freelance consulting. I am thinking about returning to a corporate job in the next year. The self-awareness I've gained is going to make me a much more valuable employee when I do."
Anonymous, 37, entertainment journalism, New York City
"I thought I would feel guilty leaving my son at day care, but I never have. I think it's good for him to be with other kids. The hardest thing is something I'd never considered: feeling stuck in a job that is no longer challenging. If I change jobs now, with an 18-month-old and another baby on the way, I might not get paid maternity-leave benefits or have family-leave job protection, which only kicks in a year after you've been at a job and only applies at companies with more than 50 employees. The frustrating thing is, I don't see any of my male colleagues facing this issue. They switch jobs whenever they want."
Leslie Golden, 33, former publishing associate and stay-at-home mom, Alexandria, Virginia
"Publishing is all about networking —agent lunches, after-work drinks with editors. As soon as I had my daughter, a lot of the social stuff went away. My husband is a lawyer who works long hours and couldn't really cover things at night. I could do nighttime events if I booked a sitter in advance, but there was no spontaneity. I tried to get around it by putting my daughter to bed, then having everyone over at my home. I liked to think I was engendering even more goodwill that way."
Solanlly Saglimbene, 34, day-care teacher, New York City
"I wish I was a stay-at-home mom, but I had to come back to work because … bills. Me and my husband, who is a social worker, couldn't normally afford to use the day care where I work, but I get an employee discount. So for three years, I've brought Kaylee with me. (She goes to a different class than the one I teach.) The first day back, I burst out crying, saying, 'I should be taking care of my child, not someone else's.' Little by little, I got used to it. I'm pregnant again, and it's more challenging this time. During my first pregnancy, I was taking care of 3-year-olds. Now I'm with eight 1-year-olds, and I have to bend down, lift them up, change their diapers. It's worth it because I'm seeing my daughter and watching her grow. She's speaking in full sentences. She even knows how to spell her name. School has helped her."
Anonymous, 29, medical resident, Austin, Texas
"I thought having a baby might change my DNA and make me want to give up work. Turns out, it didn't. Still, there is no such thing as balance in my life. When I'm at work, I am engaged and excited, but I feel guilty and miss my daughter. When I'm home, especially if I'm on call, I am still thinking about work. I used to fight feeling frazzled and inadequate at both home and work, but I've accepted it as the new normal."
Betsy Metcalf, 34, tutor and founder of TailorMade Educational Consulting, Atlanta
"After college, I was a teacher who wanted to be head of a school. When my husband and I wanted kids, I scaled back. It took us four years and a lot of doctors to have our first child, so I plateaued. I was tutoring, but there was nowhere to move up. I missed being part of a bigger picture. I recently founded my own company, counseling parents on schools. As hard as it is with a 2- and 4-year-old, I know it will be good for me and also good for my daughters to know my life does not center around just them."
Jaime Leifheit, 35, owner of a dog-rescue business, Monroe, Washington
"Pre-baby, I wasn't that motivated about work, so I stayed home for a year with my son. I thought I would enjoy it, but it made me miserable. I missed adult conversation. I resented my husband, who was traveling a ton. Flying on a plane or sitting at a bar with a drink solo … are you kidding me? That sounded glorious. Now that I've found work I'm passionate about, I'm more motivated than ever. I can't imagine having nothing on my plate besides taking care of a toddler."
Lauren Smith Brody, 38, consultant and author of forthcoming book The Fifth Trimester, a three-month plan for new moms returning to work, New York City
"There's something about keeping a human baby alive that makes you realize, Yeah, I can do almost anything. Learn KeyNote in a day? No problem, because I learned to breastfeed and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I became more efficient — when your day has a 'hard stop,' you become more conscientious. Parenthood also gives you perspective. Everything I do has to matter to me, in some big or small way. When I've worked on less exciting projects, I've thought, Can I mentor someone here? I hope I helped younger women see that it is possible to transition to working motherhood with a lot of joy. Moms in the workplace have the power to change work culture for us all."
This article was originally published as "What Really Happens to Your Career After You Have a Baby?" in the August 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan.