The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What’s the scariest work challenge you were faced with and how did you overcome it? is written by Deb Aldredge, chief administrative officer at Farmers Insurance.
If there’s any advice I would give working women today, it’s to be open and honest with your employer about the work-life challenges you’re facing and the support you need to overcome them. You might be surprised as to how willing your team is to help you navigate the tough times. Work and family shouldn’t be an either-or choice; it should be a yes-and.
Take, for example, what happened during my first pregnancy. When I first learned I was pregnant, my instinct was to hide it for as long as possible. I didn’t want anyone to think that I wasn’t committed to my career or lacking in ambition. When I did announce it, I acted like it was no big deal—like it wouldn’t impact my work at all. But that dishonesty—pretending your work life and your home life are separate—can be exhausting. It’s stressful to be someone you aren’t.
I was working for a financial firm in the Northeast when a position opened up in our southeast regional office. I raised my hand for the job because I knew it would be a good next step for my career. However, it meant we’d have to make the move and get settled before I gave birth, and I was already seven months pregnant. But when I was offered the job, we decided to make the big move south.
We had to drive to our new home since my pregnancy was too far along for the airlines or my doctor to clear me for flying. Soon after beginning the drive, the financial markets started to fall, resulting in the market crash that we now refer to as Black Monday of 1987. Indexes were dropping by hundreds of points; clients were panicking.
The local leadership team was taking the necessary steps to support clients during this time of panic and uncertainty. It was all hands on deck, and I returned to work five weeks after our child was born. Unfortunately, my husband and I were new to the area, lacking any friends or family nearby. Both of us had just started new jobs. I didn’t know what to do about childcare. I needed help—so I asked for it.
My boss and other members of the leadership team in the office were incredibly helpful and accommodating. They provided referrals of nearby daycare providers and offered to share their own daycare providers on an interim basis. My boss even provided me with the opportunity to bring our son into the office for a few hours, if needed. He understood that I was just as passionate about my job as I was about my family, and his understanding and support allowed me to manage both.
I certainly made my share of mistakes that first year as I tried to juggle work and family in a challenging economic environment, but found my boss to be incredibly understanding and supportive. In fact, he ended up sponsoring me for an even bigger role back in the corporate office the following year. I took that job and moved back to the Northeast, recognizing the benefits of having family and friends nearby as a support network. Simply put, having a small village to support you matters.
It was a challenging time in my life, but looking back on it, it was also an incredibly formative one. If you’re ever unsure about your next steps, I find that it helps to take a step back and evaluate your surroundings while being honest with yourself about what really matters to you. Are you doing what’s important? Are you able to be yourself or do you need to pretend to be someone else? When you think about where you want to be in the future, are you taking the necessary steps to get there? If your job isn’t enabling you to achieve your goals personally and professionally, it’s probably time for a change.
There’s no reason you can’t be passionate about work and other things—family, community service, a hobby—at the same time. But we have to be flexible and change our mindset about what work life and family life look like. There is no “one way” of doing things. We have to be honest, we have to know what we need, and then we have to have the courage to ask for it.