CFA® Program and the Challenge of Motherhood

When I left a well-known consulting firm in Paris and moved to Toronto, I knew immigrants in Canada usually struggle to get their first job because of the lack of Canadian experience or Canadian education. I had neither of these, so naturally I felt lucky that I was able to land my first job quite easily. Even though I had what was considered a good experience in treasury risks, hedge accounting, and financial risk management in general, I felt that I needed an additional asset education-wise to fully compete in the Canadian job market on Bay Street.

A few months into my new job, I started looking for classes or designations that could give me the competitive confidence I was looking for. I was considering the CPA license or an MBA program. Meanwhile, one of my colleagues had just failed her Level II CFA exam and was discussing the challenge of balancing doing her job, enjoying her life, and studying for the exam. She was wondering if this was the right path for her considering the commitment required to complete the program.

I had heard about the CFA program before, but never really put any thought into it. The exam was administered in English, which is my second language, and that did not motivate me. But now I was working in an English-speaking environment and the challenge definitely resonated in me. I did a Google search on CFA Institute and found an online forum where candidates supported each other and shared their experiences. I spent days exploring this forum and came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a CFA charterholder myself.

It was already fall when I made my decision, and I decided to just enjoy the holidays season and kick off the study battle in January (although I used the Ethics material for some light reading in December).

I passed Level I and Level II on my first attempt. I found Level I pretty easy in terms of the actual material, considering my background. Level II was more challenging because of the diversity of the material and the deep knowledge of many finance fields that it requires.

I registered for the Level III exam with the same plan of starting to study in January. However, a few days into January, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. I was overjoyed, obviously, but after a moment of intense emotion, I thought about my CFA preparation. I decided to focus on it until June, since my baby was due in September. This was a naïve plan that underestimated the power of morning sickness.

Three months of horrible morning sickness forced me to forfeit my exam preparation. I knew not passing it that year or even having the opportunity to study and familiarize myself with the material would make it harder for me to come back after the baby was born. And did I mention I was getting married the summer of that following year?

I had my baby and still found myself unable to devote enough time to the CFA as I was swamped with the demanding preparations of an overseas wedding, followed by another difficult pregnancy right after the wedding.

Although I now had two kids under age two, I was still determined to pass the Level III exam. The challenge was tough. It is very hard to be a working mom in a demanding industry. It is even more difficult to be a working mom of two kids—still breastfeeding one—and find the energy to study late at night and on weekends while still running a household. There were countless sleepless nights and many heartbreaking decisions in my motherhood journey anytime I had to lock myself in a library. New mothers are advised to sleep when their kid sleeps, but I was determined to study when my kids were sleeping, and I had to study hard to optimize that time.

When I was single and childless while I prepared for the previous exams, I was able to independently managing my studying and work requirements. I could set up and follow a fixed schedule that only few last-minute obligations could change. As the mother of two young children, it was totally different. My study pattern was fully dependent on my kids. I learned to study whenever possible and to adjust and adapt to unforeseen events such as days of sickness, nights of fussiness, or weekends of non-stop tantrums.

I really wanted to pass my Level III during this attempt. Moreover, I was very determined to not have to put my kids through more extended periods of intense study. Only one outcome was acceptable: Success.

Level III is more about the morning session. Candidates who have only taken the first two exams are not used to the essay component. I spent lot of time studying the structure of this exam to understand the principles of the essay and how to answer the questions. On the morning of the exam, I felt ready. At 5:00 p.m. that day, I knew I did well in the afternoon session and that I understood what was required in many questions of the morning session, but I still couldn’t find the confidence to believe I passed.

The morning candidates would receive our results, my anxiety level was very high. In the online forum, candidates who had received their emails already were sharing their results and, often, their joy. I was at work, unable to focus at all. Finally, I got an email notification on my phone and I knew this was it. I left the office, went outside, took a deep breath and found the courage to open my inbox. I saw the “C” from the first line of my email preview. “C” for Congratulations. My entire body started shaking and I screamed in joy right there, with people staring at me. That was it. I made it; I earned my CFA charter. I was proud of myself, and I was happy for my kids who would not have to go through this experience again.

As the mother of two little girls, I was also very happy and proud to set myself up as a role model for my own daughters. I want my girls to understand from my experience that anything is possible once you set up your mind to it. Completing the CFA Program during motherhood is definitely one of the biggest accomplishments of my career that I am proud of every day.

About the Author

Aline Ndeme, CFA, started her career in Paris as a risk consultant with Deloitte specializing in capital markets risks. She now works in the market risk group of BMO Bank Of Montreal in Toronto.

Aline Ndeme