How motherhood inspired this scientist to lean in to her career

This interview is part of my series Leaning In.  My aim is to shine a spotlight on successful women who are ‘leaning in’ to their careers.  By sharing the stories of other women, I hope to help change the focus from what we can’t do to what we can do and to show other women that it is possible to have it all.

If you would like to share your story, please contact me.

Reese McMillan is a mum of two living in a small close-knit town outside Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  For Reese, motherhood changed her career goals in a way she didn’t expect: it showed her just how much she was capable of and made her more ambitious.  In addition to her full-time position managing environmental projects, Reese also cares for her two young children and her mother, volunteers for her church and still makes time for bubble baths!  Reese has well and truly mastered organisation and time management! Read on to share in her wisdom.

Tell us a little about yourself, your family and how you spend your spare time, if you have any!Reese McMillan and family
I am a mom of two little ones – a girl who is almost two and a boy who is almost four. I have been married for seven years. In my spare time I do crossfit, sew and crochet, read and stress bake. I also am heavily involved in our church where I volunteer as the Sunday School Coordinator and Public Relations Coordinator. I am in a unique season of life as my mom battles stage four colon cancer so I have taken on responsibility for coordinating her care.

What does your work schedule look like?

I have a Bachelor and Masters in Ecology so I am a trained scientist. I am currently a project manager for an environmental engineering firm so I manage various environmental projects.

I work full time and there is a fair bit of flexibility in my hours. I can work from home but it is not encouraged. As an example, I took Tuesday off to take my mom to an oncologist appointment and have lunch with her, but I will end up working enough hours the rest of the week that I won’t actually use any vacation time. I left early yesterday to run errands on the way home and then worked more in the evening. I will also do some work Saturday evening after the kids go to bed to stay on top of some deadlines. I have a commute of over an hour each way so I often try and leave work a bit early to spend more time with my kids and then come back online after my youngest goes to bed. There is flexibility with when I do my work but often projects hit deadlines that require me to answer calls in the evening or get something done over the weekend for a client. More than once I have had to cancel evening plans due to something coming up that was time sensitive.

Have your career goals changed since you had children?

Yes but in the opposite way that I expected. Before kids I would have said that I was happy with my career and would have been fine managing smaller projects and had no desire to strive for more. I now see how much I am capable of and I want to take on more. I want my work hours to be more fulfilling and challenging. I also have more guts to lean in and speak up for myself. The one thing that I am looking at scaling back is my commute. Spending two and a half hours in the car each day only became an issue once I have kids and I recognise how much time I am missing.*

[* About a week after this interview Reese was offered a job with a new company based closer to her home, meaning that she will save TEN hours a week on travel! Wow!  When I asked Reese what she planned to do with the extra time, she said it would be great to have more time with her family and to manage her home, but that she also planned to invest some of that time in her career. How’s that for leaning in!]

What were the biggest challenges you faced when returning to work after having children?

It was a process to learn what needed to fit in a week and how. Honestly I have no idea how I did everything before kids without being organised.  When you finish work and come home it is not time to relax, it is just the start of the second shift. I found I was getting burnt out and I had to quickly get my act together to stay hyper-organised so I stayed on top of everything. It was a challenge to figure out a new schedule to make everything work. I started going to Crossfit at 6 am because that was the only time that worked. Bible study has to happen at 5 am or it doesn’t happen. I have to spend 15 minutes each night tidying the house or else by the weekend it is disgusting. I also started leaving work a bit earlier to see the kids more and then working after they went to bed or on weekends.

Have you faced discrimination in the workplace as a result of being a parent?

I think so, though I don’t know how much of it is self-perceived. I feel that I would have a greater salary and more responsibility right now if I hadn’t taken two one-year maternity leaves. I also work with colleagues who do not have children so there is definitely a lack of empathy. I could sit and lament about how there shouldn’t be that motherhood penalty but wallowing doesn’t do anything and it is not going to change. I just deliver on my work and don’t use my kids as an excuse for anything.

Do you agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s idea that women need to ‘sit at the table’ and ‘lean in’? If so, how do you implement her ideas yourself?

Yes! I read her book and really resonated with it. I have an equal partner and that has made all the difference in the world. To fully confess, I haven’t done a load of laundry in nine years. We split all childcare and home management tasks which allows both of us to thrive at our careers and at home. I know there will be someone thinking “oh well, of course you can do everything because you have such a great husband”, as if I am cheating in a way. I try to avoid getting dragged into that discussion with people and I have no shame or guilt about how our home is run.

I definitely say that I lean in. I sit at the table and I speak up. I no longer let my boss speak solely to the client while I sit there all shy. Part of that has come with trusting that I am capable and smart. It is too easy as women to think we are not worthy of speaking up or asking for the big projects or the promotion. My last salary review went very differently than previous ones because I decided to negotiate and speak up for what I was worth rather than shyly accept whatever was offered to not rock the boat. I also came back to work after kids and made it clear that I was 100% back. I didn’t want to be delegated to smaller projects just because of kids and I didn’t want to scale back just because I had kids. I decided to take the approach of coming back at full steam with plans to push the bar higher and it has made all the difference. I know leaning in is not for every woman but I do think if you want to keep pushing your career she has a lot of excellent advice.

Do you believe we can ‘have it all’?

I think we can but it is up to each of us to decide what that means. I think having it all is a thriving career, volunteering, being a great mother and wife but also taking care of myself and my home. I think on a weekly basis I succeed in all these categories. I do think I have it all. Is it hard? Absolutely. But it is doable if you want it.

How do you achieve balance between parenting and your career?

Lots of organisation! I have some strict schedules and lots of habits to keep all the balls in the air. I think each person needs to figure out for themselves how to achieve that balance and what that balance looks like. Self care is also important for me in order to not get burnt out. I am a better wife, mother, employee etc. when I make sure I am staying on top of self care. And again, this would look different for everyone. I wake up at 5 am to do bible study and then workout. If I choose to just sleep then I find I simply cannot handle the stresses of the day or the week. I have a weekly date night with my husband on Friday nights. I have a weekly bubble bath to relax. I also saw a huge improvement in my success at work and parenting when I implemented a weekly sabbath. From when I leave work on Friday night to when my youngest goes to bed on Saturday night (so around 24 hours) I do not do any work or chores. I spend time with the kids, relax, do hobbies. It is a reset for me and then I am able to handle everything else happening that week.

What do you enjoy the most about being a working parent?

I like knowing that I am setting a great example for my kids about what a successful working mother looks like. My son sees what an equal partner looks like and what a strong woman is. My daughter sees that women can do it all.

What aspect of being a working parent do you find the most difficult?

When things don’t go according to plan. No matter how flexible my schedule is, Murphy’s law says the daycare will call saying my kid is sick when I have an important client meeting and my husband (a TV producer) is about to go live with a show. I hate the stress of phone calls and texts trying to figure out what we will do, who will stay home the next day etc.

What is one piece of advice you would give to mothers wanting to lean in?

You are capable of more than you think. If you want to do all these things you can, you just have to be intentional with your time and figure out how to make it happen that works best for you. Don’t question your capabilities or strengths, just lean in and do it.

What book or blog would you recommend to working parents?
I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam. That was a gamechanger for me. I tracked my time and found ways to be more intentional with my time. I realised, for example, I wasn’t reading as much as I wanted to because I was surfing Facebook in the evenings. She also gives some excellent tips for work/life balance. After reading that book I started coming home early to see the kids and then working after they went to bed. (I love this book too – check out my thoughts here)

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin. This book is all about developing habits. Since I read this book my success rate with habits has sky rocketed. I find that along with having a consistent schedule it is key to limit decision fatigue by creating strong habits. I have a habits tracker in my bullet journal. I even have a four week work outfit rotation so I don’t have to waste time each night deciding what clothes to lay out. Every Sunday night I make a week’s worth of lunches that I bring to the office on Monday so I don’t have to think about it the rest of the week. With habits I am able to automate a lot of decisions we make each day.

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