While working motherhood, in all of its mess, trade-offs, and joy, is a topic that fascinates me, I have not written a lot here about my own professional life. That’s interesting, when I think about it, since it’s something I’ve written about a lot elsewhere. I wrote A Foot in Two Worlds for the Princeton Alumni Weekly and reflected on my work and personal choices for Poets & Quants.
It was with great interest, therefore, that I read KJ Dell’Antonia’s post on Motherlode, In Hindsight, is Stay-at-Home Parenting Something You’d Recommend. Her assertion that those who are happiest, as working mothers, are those who have made flexibility a priority, really struck a chord with me. There’s no question this has been my strategy: flexibility above all else. And I’ve aimed for it with laser focus since I was very young. I took a job in consulting out of college because I figured it left the maximum number of doors open. I went to get an MBA as soon as possible, and coming out of business school I took a job in large part for the flexible road it put me on. I’ve made choices since then that have continued to support that goal.
The thing is, I’ve felt ambivalent about this priority for the last couple of years. Lean In made me doubt myself, though I very much enjoyed it. And even before reading that book I have pondered, sometimes in private and sometimes aloud, what would have happened to me professionally if I hadn’t taken the flexible road at the age of 25, but instead really “gone for it” career-wise despite the questions marks that might have thrown up regarding a future of balancing home and work.
We all have what-might-have-beens, don’t we? I actually think that every single person who is human lives in the shadow of them.
Though I definitely think about these professional what-ifs, I have concluded that I can live with them.
What I wonder about is a bigger career, perhaps one in the industry I always loved (retail), perhaps in another city.
What I have is flexibility. I work a lot of hours every week – more in this job than in any other – but much of the time (not always) I have a lot of control over my time. I work largely from home so I can be around to answer homework questions and to be at school plays a lot of the time. There are definitely still times – a lot of them – when I feel overwhelmed by the demands on me and like I simply do not have space in my head for the running list of responsibilities. Working from home has its downsides, of course, and I do sometimes wish I had a place to go that was just “mine” and where I was simply at work. But on the whole, I would choose this, I realize over and over again. I would choose this small office with the ringing phone which happens to be down the hall from Whit’s bedroom, this folding laundry while on conference calls, this being able to rush to pick-up if necessary, this endless list of to-dos that gets crossed off and then, magically, like mushrooms, repopulates the next day.
People often tell me I am lucky to have the professional set up that I have. And I’ll be honest: without fail, that irritates me. I feel tremendously fortunate, that is true, and yes, many things have broken my way. But I also designed this life in my head from the very beginning, and made a great deal of choices to set it up this way. To conclude that I landed in this career out of luck seems to dismiss the very real and concrete moves I made, and hard work I put in, to make it so. I paid my dues as early as I could and I earned my credibility the only way I know how, through hard work. I made choices that meant not making others, and I have regrets as does anyone else.
But I have flexibility. And I have a career I care about, that contributes meaningfully to my family’s income, and for better or for worse, my children are growing up with a working mother. Most of the time I feel whole-heartedly, without reservation, happy about this. It was affirming to read KJ say that it was flexibility that most correlated with satisfaction for other working parents. That’s true for me.
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