Business & Leadership, Philosophy, Random Thoughts

Leadership, Management, and Parenthood: Navigating work-life harmony as an expecting EMBA

One of the most challenging moments as a leader can be confronting the moment when you know that you are no longer able to continue down a particular path you had been following. For me, a moment like this came on Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023, when I sat down in an empty room in the Palais de Congres conference center in Montreal and submitted my leave of absence request for my fifth term at CBS. I was thirteen weeks pregnant, two days into an intensive offsite that had me working 16 hour days, and both my physical and mental health were at an all-time low. 

Coming out of my summer term’s “Launch your Startup” class, I had felt confident that my next major career milestone would be to – well, launch a startup. Under the guidance of Professor Steven Winshel, I had spent twelve weeks refining my idea to start a company that focused on a new kind of AI-enabled web browser, creating a financial plan, investor deck, and building an MVP. A few weeks before the term ended, I learned that I was pregnant with my first child, and quickly realized that I would be “launching” a very different kind of project during my time at CBS. 

Becoming a parent introduces new challenges, even before a baby arrives. My pregnancy forced me to put my education on hold, despite school being one of the activities I did that kept me most feeling “myself”. My due date fell right in the middle of what would have been my final term, and I was only able to take a single block week as a result. Planning classes around unpredictable milestones made it impossible to graduate “on time”, and I became extraordinarily grateful that Columbia’s policy allows for five years to complete the executive MBA program.

The last course that I took before having my son in March was ‘Personal Leadership and Success’, taught by Hitendra Wadhwa. In this class, I was given ample space and guidance to consider what the next stage of my life would look like and how I would balance the demands of parenting with school and work. The reality of the industry that I’m in is that motherhood is not always seen as a positive quality. From the time that I began my career as a computer science major at Virginia Tech, I had been told to expect gender bias and discrimination in my profession. Less than half of women who study computing end up in a professional role in the field, and a 2022 study showed that the percentage of women in STEM leadership roles had fallen by 14% over the prior year. Combined with the statistics about the ‘motherhood penalty’, the reality of my impending journey into parenthood hit me almost as hard as the so-called ‘morning’ sickness (note: it is not limited to mornings). 

Personal Leadership and Success emphasizes the importance of self-leadership and using our core purpose to guide our actions. For most of my life, my identity and purpose had been centered around academics, and later, my professional contributions to the technology industry. I have always found a deep sense of purpose in the work that I do, and was able to singularly focus on my career starting at just 19 years old. Now, at 33, I am faced with a new sense of purpose and have inhabited a new identity – “mother”. 

The first twelve weeks after having a baby is colloquially known by some as the “fourth trimester”, a phrase that speaks to the continued challenges of being freshly postpartum and (for the infant, newly born). None of the things that I had done – from multiple childbirth classes and the countless books that I read – had truly prepared me for having a newborn to mother. I had naively thought that I would be able to return to a block week just six weeks after my due date, but instead found myself at my parents house, solo-parenting my five week old while my husband sought treatment for his postpartum depression. 

While the state of mental health in general leaves much to be desired in the United States, postpartum mood disorders affecting both birthing parents and the non-birthing parents can be especially challenging to navigate. At every doctor’s appointment for myself or our new baby, I was given a screening questionnaire while my husband watched on, battling the turmoil of the most difficult time of our relationship and our lives without support. Exacerbated by broken sleep and my own diagnosis of postpartum anxiety, we both realized that we were in for a fundamental shift in our identities and role that we played to one another. 

Leadership is often defined as the ability to bring others along through a changing environment. Parents are naturally leaders of their families, teaching their children how to do things like walk, talk, and sleep (it turns out babies don’t know how to sleep on their own, and it needs to be taught – what?), but all too-often, women are punished, rather than rewarded, for developing these skills in this way. Our society is not set up to support modern families: I am beyond lucky to have six months of fully paid maternity leave, but more than two thirds of full-time workers in the United States have no paid leave at all. If the interrupted sleep and minimal time bonding with and caring for a baby wasn’t enough, the newborn industrial complex showers new parents with conflicting and confusing information all centered around one thing: you are doing it wrong, but buy our product to help.

Imagine starting a new job and being given the guidance: “don’t let this project fail”, and that was it. You don’t know who in the company is on your team. You have a rough idea of what your milestones are, but every other project team will tell you that their projects are ahead, and you’re behind because you didn’t do some required steps. The required steps are all different for every project and you’re not sure which ones apply to yours. You are on-call 24/7. You have a budget, and inbound sales pitches land in your inbox multiple times a day promising to solve the biggest pain points you have. Leading in that environment would be challenging – yet millions of parents do exactly that, every day. 

In their first term at CBS, EMBAs take a class called Leadership and Organizational Change as a bridge to the two-year program. During our first residence weekend, in this course, we did an exercise to find our core values, and establish the values of our collective cohort. Our cohort’s top value was “family” – something that, at the time, didn’t resonate with me, as it hadn’t made my top nine. Now, I can’t imagine anything else being more important to me as a motivating factor for how I live the rest of my life. 

Giving birth made everything change in an instant, despite the fact that I had been preparing for ten months. No amount of antenatal therapy prepared me for the fact that I would find myself torn about returning to classes, and pushing me to confront the idea that my career goals might be taking a backseat. At the same time, I found myself googling “How to figure out what you really want”. Over and over again, I find myself oscillating between wanting to burn everything that I’ve built to the ground to stay home with my son, but am held back by something. Is it fear? Rationality? Responsibility? 

“We start calling ourselves ‘practical’ or ‘realistic’ for making choices that seem ‘responsible’, when really we’re just so scared of criticism. And if we’re being really honest with ourselves, people who call themselves realists are often just dreamers who got their hearts broken somewhere along the way.”  

Ashley Stahl – How to Figure Out What You Really Want, TedX Leiden University

I have two months before I officially return to work. While on leave, I’ve found myself keeping on top of my work email and Slack messages to feed the ambivalence of being a new mother while also trying to find my way back to the professional and student that existed before Cassian. There is no more work-life balance. There is just me and what I do – in an infinitely more complex and rewarding entanglement of self than ever.