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How One CPA Balances Career & Motherhood

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, thinking of ways to grow your career as a female accounting and finance professionals was a struggle to balance both a job and parenthood, with some ultimately choosing the latter and leaving the former. It is possible to strike a balance, says Jina Etienne, but it requires the confluence of certain factors. She tells her story in the second Women in Advisory series article, expanding the narrative opened by Meghan Watson's piece on leadership.

May 28th 2021
D&I Consultant Etienne Consulting
Columnist
In association with
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“Working mother.” I’ve never liked the term. It suggests women with children have jobs, not careers. Or, it suggests that the priority of a woman with a kid in the workplace is a mother before a professional. Career and motherhood are not mutually exclusive; yet somehow, doing both makes us Superwoman.

Don’t get me wrong. Both are challenging and together can be daunting at times, but they are also rewarding. In different ways and for different reasons, each can give you a sense of pride, achievement, fulfillment and gratitude – not for being able to do it, but for what doing it has added to your life. At least, that has been my experience, and I’ve spoken with many women who feel similarly. Looking back, I realized that I’d created a few key building blocks to balancing career and motherhood. But first, let me tell my story.

I started working as a babysitter at 12 years old. I was good at it and quickly became the go-to sitter for a few families. When I as 13, I was a full-time sitter over the summer for a family up the street. My “client” (I’ve always bit an entrepreneur, so I like thinking of her this way) was a single mother with 2 kids. I’d arrive just before she left for work and stayed with the kids until she came home. I saw my role as a caretake for the kids, but I didn’t realize until much later that I was also an important element in her career management system. By leaving her kids in my care, she was free to focus on work without worrying. I’m guessing there was an element of worry in the background while she was at work (hint: background worry), but isn’t that also true in the reverse? I have spent many evenings or weekends with some nagging concern or lingering work-related anxiety long after I left the office.

Fast forward to today. My kids are grown. As I write this, Dominick turned 24 two months ago, and Sebastien is turning 26 two months from now. This summer also marks the 32nd year of an amazing career. I graduated college in 1989 and started my career at Touche Ross (now Deloitte), then one of the “Big 8” (now “Big 4” – or, as I lovingly call them, the “Final 4”) accounting firms. I married the love of my life two years later, and he would turn out to be a key player in my formula for success (hint: key player).

After nearly 5 years at Touche Ross, I left to start my own practice. While at the firm, I had some incredible mentors and champions and also took advantage of their tuition reimbursement benefit to earn my Master of Science in Taxation. It was a highly specialized degree, but earning it taught me important lessons about balancing work with life (hint: balancing lessons).

When I left the firm, I had been trying to get pregnant for about a year. We decided to put that on hold as I started my practice. Perhaps I should’ve put more effort into not getting pregnant because we found out we were expecting in March of my first solo busy season. I panicked at first. How was I going to start a family and a practice at the same time? I decided to put it out of my mind; it was busy season, after all. Then, in mid-May, we learned that I’d had a miscarriage and were flooded with mixed emotions. I didn’t know if I should be relieved (now wasn’t the right time), afraid (will I ever be able to have kids?) or determined (I’m not going to let this stop me). I decided to go with “determined.” After a doctor-imposed 3-month waiting period, my husband and I started trying again. In early November, we learned I was pregnant again, only this time, my emotions were not mixed. I was ecstatic. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew we’d find a way to make it work (hint: we).

My initial plan was to build a practice based on a part-time work schedule that allowed me to work during school hours. I visualized a life where I dropped my kids at school, then headed to my office. I’d work until the afternoon bell, then pick up the kids. From 9am to 3pm, I’d be in “professional mode,” then flip to “mom mode” for the rest of the day.

Turns out, it doesn’t work like that. But I didn’t know that at the time; otherwise, I might’ve done things differently to try to make things work. I should mention that my family couldn’t afford to send me to college. So, I learned early on how to make stuff work. Whenever I was put in an unfamiliar situation, I almost never questioned how I was going to get through it. I just figured I’d make it work (hint: go with the flow). After all, the alternative (i.e., failure, missed opportunity, resentment, regret) wasn’t an option.

Okay, so enough with the hints. I’ve been dropping them throughout my story because those were the moments that helped me navigate my journey to today. I didn’t realize them at the time, but those were key lessons that helped make my career/motherhood balancing act a success.

Background Worry

There will always be something to worry about. Sometimes, those concerns loom large. But I learned that if you put systems in place, then you can focus on the present. Here’s what I did:

  • I created a schedule for the kids – wake up time, lunch time, play time, bath time, bedtime, etc. It didn’t just help me; it also helped them learn the importance of disciple and the power of routine.
  • I set expectations for clients – work hours, response time for routine questions, turnaround time for tax returns, billing and payment, etc. It didn’t just help me; it helped establish trust with clients. By providing clarity on their role in the engagement, my professional responsibilities, and a timeline for the engagement, it also gave them a sense of calm knowing I had everything covered and the work would get done in a timely manner.
  • I wasn’t afraid to ask for help. I had a network of friends and family to pinch hit, provide advice or cover for me. I didn’t take that network for granted. I tapped it when I needed to and respected the help it offered. If I couldn’t figure something out on my own, I asked for advice and then did my best to follow it. If I needed someone to pinch hit, it was for an important reason.

By doing these things, I learned to trust the process. By making sure my bases were covered, I was able to minimize the background worry so I could stay present with the task at hand, whether it was at work (the kids are fine), at home (my clients are fine), or at dinner with my girlfriends (I’m going to be fine).

Key Player

Don’t go it alone. This is more than having a network. It’s about having a person. Mine was my sister-in-law. We are remarkably close (she was my maid of honor). She was more than a resource; she was a mentor and role model. Parenting and career building do not come with a manual. You make mistakes along the way and hopefully learn from them – what not to repeat and what potholes to anticipate on the road ahead. My sister-in-law shared her experiences, insecurities, frustrations and “if I knew then what I know now” stories and lovingly guided me through the maze.

Balance Lessons

My job at Touche Ross was demanding. I routinely worked 65 to 70 hour weeks in tax season and 50-hour weeks the rest of the year. That first year, I lost an additional 8 to 14 hours a week between my CPA exam review course and study time. In grad school, all the classes were at night – once a week in the spring semester (busy season), then twice a week the rest of the year (summer and fall). I got pregnant the following year. So, if it wasn’t one thing, it was another. I learned to take each thing as it comes and not to conflate one with the other. I also learned to manage my energy but understand how much energy each activity cost me. Remember those video games with an energy bar, where your character started out with a full bar but would lose energy if they overexerted themselves at the wrong time or by using the wrong power or weapon at the wrong time? It was kind of like that. Work required intense frenetic energy; class required concentrated energy, and study time required focused energy. By using the right weapon at the right time, I managed to minimize burnout. Sure, it happened. But those times were (thankfully) few and far between.

We

Remember the part about 50+ hours a week at work or more? That wasn’t possible if I didn’t have a partner in crime: my husband. We shared the load. We shared the responsibility. He supported my career. I supported his. We also didn’t subscribe to established norms and expectations. He wasn’t afraid to be the one to cook dinner every night. After we had the kids, he never complained about feeling like a single parent during tax season. After getting his MBA, he had an opportunity for an apprenticeship with a meager stipend. He wasn’t afraid of me being the primary breadwinner. Years later, he would quit his job completely and become a full-time stay-at-home parent.

Today, men are respected for that decision, but that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. He was flying solo without the cover of societal approval. We made these decisions together – who cooked, when we each completed our respective post-graduate studies, and who took care of the kids. We learned early on that individual decisions impacted both of our lives, so we managed our lives as single unit. We didn’t give up our individuality; we simply made decisions based on what was best for everyone – him, me, the kids, our marriage and our family. I’m certainly not suggesting this is the model for everyone. I am suggesting that it is important to find the model that works for you, because it will serve as the foundation for everything else.

Go With the Flow

I learned this one from a client. She owned a bookstore in Baltimore and gave me a book as a thank you gift one year. I thanked her kindly, then put on the bookshelf with no real intention of reading it. It wasn’t one I would’ve picked for myself. She asked me about it a few months later, and I made up a cover story about not having had any time yet, then resolved to at least skim through the book so I was ready the next time she asked. It was one of those self-help, how-to-live-your-best-life books. I’d read those before, but they were about careers or family. This was about me and managing myself. I started to get bored around chapter 3 but stuck with it out of obligation to my client. I’m so glad I did. At the time, I was wrestling with decisions about how to move forward with my practice. I knew what I wanted to do, but felt guilty for wanting to do it. I worried that I was being selfish or short-sighted, that my kids or marriage might suffer if I did what I thought I wanted for myself. Chapter 4 was titled “Go With the Flow,” and it started out with the example of how much harder it is to walk upstream against a current rather than simply turning around and going with the flow. The message was two-fold: Taking a different direction didn’t mean going in the wrong direction, and I wasn’t proving anything by walking against the current. So, that is exactly what I did. I stopped walking against the current (i.e., negative stories about selfish decisions) and decided to go with the flow (i.e., making decisions based on what I genuinely believed would help me grow my business). I quickly realized that going in a different direction and walking with the current led to better decision-making for the right reasons.

So, there you have it – my personal formula for success. I had a network of support and a thoughtful and trusted mentor. I learned to manage my energy. I wasn’t flying solo but had my husband as co-pilot, and I learned to follow the path in front of me.

There is one more lesson I only learned recently. I got a Peloton two years ago and have become a bit of a groupie. Over coffee one morning, I jokingly said to my husband that he must be starting to resent how much time I spend on that bike. His response surprised me. He was grateful for the bike because of the benefits to my health, and that every day that I rode meant we’d have more time together. And in that moment, I learned the most important lesson of all. By taking care of myself first, I was doing more to take care of my family. Balancing motherhood and a career means taking care of ourselves along the way.

Women have long been key contributors in the tax and accounting profession, bringing new ideas, perspectives and insights to an industry that’s traditionally comfortable sticking to the familiar. Yet, despite huge strides, recent survey results suggest female accountants are less confident and less equipped to take on new business challenges than their male counterparts at a time when creativity and challenging the status quo is needed more than ever. See the stats and get the knowledge you need to empower women in your practice.

 

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