The short seven-minute drive to the office was a blur and before I knew it, I was sitting in my office parking lot. I took a shaky deep breath, blinked away the last of my tears and checked my make-up in the rearview mirror. A fresh coat of lipstick signaled I had it all together on the outside, even if my inside wasn’t so sure. I gathered my computer bag, purse, jacket and two perfectly framed baby photos and walked towards the door. My heart was pounding, butterflies were in my stomach, it was as if were my first day all over again. My hand hovered over the door handle. I took a deep breath and walked in.
The familiar smell of carpet, stale air and coffee filled the unchanged lobby– unlike my house that now smelled like baby powder, shampoo and diapers. Conversations floated over the cubicle walls, a soft hum of customers being helped, not the sing-song cadence of nursery rhymes and paddy cake. Co-workers enthusiastically welcomed me back and obliged when I practically shoved my daughters photo in their face. My chair squeaked in its familiar way and even though someone had changed the height, I knew it was my trusty chair. Mentally I knew I hadn’t been here in over 90 days, but it felt like no time had passed at all. Everything was the same, except me.
Over the next few months, a rough outline of a daily routine emerged where reuniting with my happy baby at the end of the day was the highlight. I had figured out the basics of being a “working mom”, but deep down I still could feel the nagging sense I should be doing more at work. Growing up my ambition had been such a clear, driving force in my professional life and now that my priorities had changed, I wasn’t quite sure what my next move was. I was at this weird crossroads where I wasn’t quite sure where my career ambition fit with my desire to be a great mother. I sensed I was not the only one, but no one was talking about this side of motherhood.
If only I had been able to read the book The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family and The Path to Building a Life. I learned about this book a few weeks ago while listening to the Atomic Moms podcast where host Ellie Knuas interviewed the book’s co-author Elizabeth Wallace. Along with co-author Hana Schank, the two reconnected with their college classmates to see if they had followed the ambitious paths they had set out for themselves when graduating from college. On the podcast, Wallace shared the central questions the book attempted to answer “Am I doing something wrong? Why is everything not the way I expected it to be? What happened to how ambitious I was when I was 18-22?”
Through their interview, the authors learned their friends fell into one of three categories. The High Achievers were those friends who had climbed the ladder and achieved a high level of success in their fields. The Opt Outers left their careers to raise a family, while the Flex Lifers maintained some level of their career while also raising a family. Though I clearly fall into the Flex Lifer category, each story shared was powerful in understanding the thought processes each of the women went through as they made major decisions in their lives.
There are so many take-a-ways from each chapter, it’s hard to narrow down the list to choose a favorite. One of the quotes I loved was from the Economics chapter, “Feeling that you must also be deeply, madly in love with your job puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on what is ultimately a way to feed yourself and pay bills. Work can be meaningful in a lot of ways, so consider what makes work meaningful for you.” Isn’t that the truth? It’s hard enough trying to juggle parenting, marriage and career, sometimes your job’s only function is to pay the bills and that’s ok.
Another quote I liked was in the chapter on Change, “When you’ve got a routine down of being there to meet the school bus, are used to working from home so you can run out for groceries in between conference calls, or have left work promptly at five every day for years to be there to help with homework, it seems impossible to live life any other way. But these stories remind us that sometimes, when women want something very badly, something that will dramatically boost their career or raise up their life’s work, they deserve to pursue it, even as it disrupts their family life to do so. Ambition, even when shelved for twelve months, or twelve years, demands to be fed.” Often when we get into a routine, it’s hard to imagine things any other way. It’s easy to fall into the belief that we sacrifice our own ambition to raise our children. The stories shared in this book exemplify that it’s never too late, the opportunities will always be there for you, even if the timeline may not be what you expected.
As I read this book, it raised some fundamental questions with society and work in general. Why does a promotion in corporate America come with the assumption you will work long hours? How is that healthy for anyone? Should we really be dedicating 10-12 hours a day to anything, much less work? If there is so much work to be done, shouldn’t they hire more people? Or what about the employers who aren’t willing to allow employees to work a flexible schedule? What are they afraid will happen? Is it truly a requirement that the work get done between the hours of 8 – 5 or is it just what we have been trained to believe? Or why do we measure our success by what we thought it would look like twenty years ago? Why don’t we talk more about how to handle the detours and changes along the way? Big questions with no easy answers.
At the end of the podcast, Wallace shared the unofficial tagline for the book “Everything you are doing right now is ok”. If I could go back in time and talk to myself as a new mom, that is what I would tell her. This book is confirmation of a truth I’ve come to realize over the years, ambition ebbs and flows. We are taught to believe ambition equates to keeping your foot on the gas, when it’s perfectly acceptable to drive steadily in the right lane for a while.
The final pages of the book were among the most powerful, a rally cry from the authors to keep this conversation going. “These are topics that women don’t often talk openly about, but we should, because the more we talk about them, the more obvious it becomes that it’s not just you. It’s all of us. We are all facing the same challenges”.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.