Q: I am starting to think about having children. How do I start a dialogue with the people I work with, and with my supervisor?

Q: I have an interesting question about a library/employment-related topic, and even after doing some research, I have been unable to find reliable sources of information on the topic. (Gasp! I know, right? What kind of librarian am I?)

I am starting to think about having children. Although I know many women in my organization who have had children and have made different choices about reducing or not reducing their hours, I am trying to get practical perspectives outside of my organization because I’m really new to the topic and I’d like to gather as much information as possible.

I know there is a lot out there written for academic librarians, and I have found a lot of that information useful, particularly things published by ACRL and other local and state library organizations. However, I am a public librarian, and I’m wondering if you know where I might be able to go to find information about women who work in public libraries and how they manage the transition from librarian to new mother.

What’s it like to discuss these transitions with a supervisor or manager? What is a good way to bring up the subject without sounding entitled? Is it even appropriate to bring up the subject with other female colleagues in a professional setting? (My hunch is “no”, but then how can we open a dialogue about it when it affects so many of us?)

I realize that this is an extremely unorthodox question, but any ideas you might be able to share would be most appreciated.

 

SM: We love unorthodox! And this is a dialogue that is dear to our hearts since we are all working mothers and we’ve all made sacrifices in our careers and our personal lives after having children. And we’ve all struggled with the difficulties and challenges of juggling parenthood with our professional lives.

The dialogue should happen on many levels, in different contexts, and with various people — and ideally before you get pregnant. I think this is the real problem, not having the dialogue early enough. And, it’s not just women who should be talking about it, men should be having the parenthood/flexibility discussion as well.

Flexibility is something that we all need or crave at some point in our careers, and for many of us, it is because of childbirth or raising our children.

You’ll want to start the dialogue early on because you definitely don’t want to run into work-related surprises after you have a baby (you’ll have enough as a new parent). The first person you should contact is someone in your institution’s human resources department, and read over your personnel policy manual or handbook. You should fully understand your benefits and family leave time, etc., and trust me, it is never simple or straightforward. Each organization is different, each work culture has its own rules and quirks, and each person will have different needs.

If you feel comfortable enough with colleagues who have recently had children, then have a private, hypothetical conversation with them. Invite them for coffee or lunch and ask them what they did after they had their child and how they handled it. Ask them about their leave and about any flexibility, or difficulties, they encountered. Ask them about daycare, and family sick time. This is the best way to get information. And from my experience, they will be more than happy to give their “maternal” advice.

Before I became pregnant with my first child, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it at work because no one had young children (really). I did talk with a colleague who was in the same situation as me, but we were both rather lost. I got pregnant first, and when she did a year later, I could give her lots of advice. I knew, from the culture of the place and the attitude of some of the higher-ups who worked there, that flexibility was not an option at that point, so I did not pursue it.

It was when I had my second child years later, at a different job, when I talked to my supervisor about a temporary reduced work schedule after my maternity leave (which ended up lasting for five years, until after I had my third child). I knew that it was possible because one of my colleagues was already working a reduced schedule, and honestly, this was one of the reasons I took the job, because of the flexibility it would offer me as a parent.

In our book, Career Q&A, we have a chapter on flexibility, because we think it is an extremely important (and unfortunately still too rare) commodity and — you are right! — we need to have more dialogue about it. Here are some tips (from that chapter):

Pursuing a Flexible Schedule in Your Current Workplace

There are several steps you should take once you decide you want or need a more flexible schedule:

1. Gather information. Talk to your supervisor or director, human resources, your union (if you have one), and others in your library or your institution who have flexible schedules. Ask questions. Get feedback from others who have more longevity than you do. But even if no one in your organization has tried a flexible schedule, you can still be successful.

2. Think about the culture of your library or organization. Is it open to flexibility and change? Is it supportive of its employees? Are the managers easy to talk to? Does it encourage communication and professional development?

3. Track your work. Keep a log of everything you do, and where and how you do it.

4. Figure out what your ideal schedule would be. Do you want or need to reduce your hours? Do you need to work different hours? Is this temporary or permanent? When do you want or need this new schedule to begin?

5. Figure out how your role and your duties will be covered. How will your new schedule impact your co-workers, the library, and its services? This is especially important if you need to reduce your hours. How will things get done? Is there someone else in your library who can help complete your work? Are you able to do your work from home or another location? How will you track your work and your hours?

6. Write up a proposal. Include the information, evidence, ideas, and solutions you have compiled.

7. Figure out what you will do if your proposal is not accepted. Will you resign? Will you ask for a leave of absence? Will you continue to work your regular schedule? You should imagine different scenarios and be prepared to follow through on your decisions.

8. Meet with your supervisor. Present your proposal, and prepare to negotiate.

There isn’t much written about this matter (flexibility and parenthood), especially geared toward public librarians. Your best bet may be to peruse librarian blogs, to read first-hand accounts of what it’s like to work, or not work (or work a reduced schedule), after having a baby.

And — you are entitled to talk about your future, and to devise a working environment that suits your needs. The desire to have children shouldn’t be something that we need to keep secret, even though many of us do for fear of potentially hurting our careers. We need to bring it out into the open. Be brave, start the dialogue.

 

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