A Brave New World: Reflections on the Impact of Motherhood on Professional Development

Sonya M. Forrester

August 19, 2019

In the early 2000s, I embarked on an enlightening, sometimes challenging, but definitely fulfilling career in Student Affairs.  Over the years, my work has facilitated connections with amazing students and professionals. The best part is the opportunity to hear the stories of a wide range of people and vicariously sharing in their experience. It is one of the elements that inspire and motivate my work in higher education.  Like many Student Affairs practitioners, I held a vision of one day retiring from the field as either a Dean of Students or Vice President for Student Affairs. Then motherhood happened! I want to share with you my transformational journey to discovering and embracing the woman on the other side of motherhood while pursuing my higher education career goals.

Becoming a parent is a pivotal time in a woman’s career. Research highlights what is referred to as the "motherhood penalty," which can have a detrimental impact on a woman’s lifetime earnings, career progression, and advancement, levels of participation and support in the labor market. "Dependent children have a regressively detrimental impact on women's career progression, the younger the age of the child, the greater the reductive effect" (McIntosh, McQuaid, Munro & Dabir-Alai, 2012). Even in fields such as nursing, or student affairs, where women traditionally form a majority of the workforce, men often have more significant career progression regardless of their parental status. Women also contend with, more frequently, societal expectations around the reduction of work hours or discontinuation of workforce participation after becoming parents (Abele & Spurk, 2011).

As a new mom, I recognized that I needed to adjust my expectations in terms of my career trajectory.  Discontinuing or reducing hours were not an option for economic reasons. Around the same time, I also became dissatisfied with other aspects of my life. Where I was once content with the ebb and flow of living in a big city, I began yearning for open spaces, less traffic, less people, more nature, slower pace, etc. The seed was planted but took another three years to create an active plan.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I became a mom to a black boy in the summer of 2011, a terrifying period for modern black parents in the United States. We watched the tragic deaths of black children, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and many others, which shaped how we parented our children. It’s a bit discomforting having to contextualize emerging motherhood during this time. I sometimes wonder about the developmental impact on black boys born and raised during this time. But that’s another story, for another time.

In 2014 I was compelled to make a decision about my next steps in the most unexpected way…the New York City subway system; specifically, literally and figuratively the “F” train! The F train was getting in the way of my greatness [read: being stuck underground for up to 2 hours!].  I made the decision that to be the best me, to live my best life, to become the best version of myself, I had to leave the city, which included my support network. It was also necessary to reject the notion that my life and my options were now limited simply because I became a mom. The decision was not an easy one but being a perpetual optimist, I saw it as an opportunity to align my personal and professional values in an intentional and meaningful way.

Having a child sometimes means shuffling, instead of leaping, into the future. It took me a year and a half to plan, organize, and execute the next chapter of our lives.

Questions and Criteria: What do I need to find satisfaction in both my personal and professional life? How will our lives improve as a result of these changes? What are some of the anticipated challenges? I also implemented a “9/10 rule” to allow for head/heart balance because I tend to lead with my head. As I read job descriptions, researched universities, and cities, I would always ask myself "on a scale of 9 out of 10, how does this make me feel?” These were the main criteria that influenced my decision:

  • Increase salary
  • Shorter commute (by car!)
  • Great school system
  • City with a lower cost of living

Identifying areas for improvement: realizing that I would be on my own as a solo parent, I needed to learn how to ask for help. As an introvert, so much of who I am is internally operated and driven. I had to re-frame asking for help as an opportunity to connect with others. Reading Brené Brown’s work also helped me to recognize that asking for help is an opportunity to practice being vulnerable and build trust with others. I sought feedback from my trusted colleagues and friends. Some of who thought I was a bit wacky but were nevertheless supportive.

Consulting with experts: Another way that I worked at becoming better at asking for help was to recognize blind spots.  I consulted with experts on a variety of topics, including my resume, LinkedIn profile, overall image, and as a proactive measure, a psychologist who helped me to explore my motivation and decision making. I read books by other experts who helped to broaden my perspective:  

  • Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg
  • Ask For It – Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever
  • Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
  • Branding Pays – Karen Kang

Outcome & Lessons

The year and a half that it took to engage in this process, to job searching and finding our new home, was extremely transformational! My job search was successful, and we unexpectedly moved from the east coast to the west coast. My new job is flexible and allows me to seamlessly integrate parenting with work. I continue to re-build our “village” and support network. On the other end of that experience, here's what I learned:

  • Authentic self-reflection is essential when making major decisions
  • Ask for what you want, even when it doesn’t seem possible.
  • Aligning personal and professional values helps in finding the “right-for-you” work environment.
  • Have a solid plan but be flexible with the process and the outcome.

Motherhood continues to dictate my decisions and plans for the future. It adds meaning and purpose to my life, and to my work. I would even say that I’ve become a better SA pro as a result! I hope in sharing my story that you’ll find some inspiration to embark on your own transformational journey, whether or not you’re a parent!


McIntosh, B., McQuaid, R., Munro, A., & Dabir-Alai, P. (2012). Motherhood and its impact on career progression. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 27 (5), 346-364. Retrieved from link.

Abele, A., & Spurk, D. (2011). The dual impact of gender and the influence of timing of parenthood on men’s and women’s career development: Longitudinal findings. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 35 (3), 225-232. Retrieved from link

Kahn, J., Garcia-Manglano, J., & Bianchi, S. (2014). The Motherhood Penalty at Midlife: Long-Term Effects of Children on Women’s Careers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 56-72. Retrieved from link

Brief Bio:

Sonya M. Forrester is a humble INJT mama whose colleagues describe her as a curious, empathetic, creative, organized, supportive leader whose superpower is creating spaces where people leave feeling empowered because of her calm, non-judgmental approach. She’s an ever-evolving Student Affairs practitioner who also makes costumes for her staff participating pageants.

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