It’s an alluring option, especially in the early years of raising children, when everything feels one Jenga piece away from a catastrophic collapse: “I’ll go part-time,” you tell yourself.
You decide to talk to your manager and negotiate a plan to scale down the scope of your full-time position—and also your pay. The set-up, you believe, will allow you to have more time with your family and stay rooted in your career. A win-win, it seems.
Be careful. As Michelle Obama writes in her memoir Becoming, a part-time job “can be something of a trap.”
Several months after her daughter Malia was born, the former First Lady negotiated to come back “half-time” to her position as an associate dean at the University of Chicago. She thought (as many parents do) that this made sense: “I could now be both career woman and perfect mother, striking the Mary Tyler Moore/ Marian Robinson balance I’d always hoped for,” she writes.
But she soon realised (as many parents do) that the ideal was bullshit. Here’s how it played out, as she describes in her book:
At work, I was still attending all the meetings I always had while also grappling with most of the same responsibilities. The only real difference was that I now made half my original salary and was trying to cram everything into a twenty-hour week. If a meeting ran late, I’d end up tearing home at breakneck speed to fetch Malia so that we could arrive on time (Malia eager and happy, me sweaty and hyperventilating) to the afternoon Wiggleworms class at a music studio on the North Side.
To me, it felt like a sanity-warping double bind. I battled guilt when I had to take work calls at home. I battled a different sort of guilt when I sat at my office distracted by the idea that Malia might be allergic to peanuts. Part-time work was meant to give me more freedom, but mostly it left me feeling as if I were only half doing everything, that all the lines in my life had been blurred.
First, let’s acknowledge that the ability to explore the possibility of going part-time is a privilege that many, many Americans do not have. It is fantastic to have choices, and I admire any company that is pushing to improve the work-life balance of their employees.
And it’s not that going part-time can never help—it can certainly lighten the load if your position consists of cut-and-dry shifts, where work largely stays at work. If, for example, you’re an ER doctor.
But many jobs, as Obama describes, are not designed this way. I once had a position as a part-time social media editor — I thought it would be a great gig as a mum of a young child, but the struggle to only work the 25 hours a week I was getting paid for left me frustrated.
To be decent at my job, I needed to (and also wanted to) always be “on” in some capacity, looking for relevant content and engaging with audiences. “You know what this really feels like?” I said at home one day. “A full-time job!”
Maybe you are better than me at boundaries, but I’d predict that drawing clear lines around your part-time responsibilities will be more difficult than you think.
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam tells Forbes that going part-time can often “do more harm than good.” She recommends going part-time only if you need to “drop all the way down to, say, 50%,” according to Forbes. “Trust me,” she says. “You could work an 80% schedule, but other people are working 80% of the time and slacking the other 20% and not saying anything about it.”
Aside from slacking 20% of the time yourself, a hack I am not recommending, you can try to find more balance by working a four-day workweek (for example: four 10-hour days), adjusting your schedule in other ways, outsourcing more of your home duties, or having an honest talk with your boss about what you can realistically accomplish. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.
Having it all is one big myth.
I’m simply suggesting that you think through the idea of going part-time to improve your work-life balance. Obama found it to be a trap, writing that this lesson would “go into my file of things many of us learn too late.”