What I wonder and what I have

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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23 Comments

  1. Hillary
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    This really resonated with me, Lindsey. I teach law school part-time and practice law part-time, and my female students, in particular, often want to know how I fell into this situation. I always emphasize that what’s most important is to do your best work from the start — if you earn credibility and people want to work with you, you’ll have more choices in the long run. For me, it was important to make choices that gave me the opportunity to volunteer at my boys’ schools, be home for dinner most nights, and work primarily from home. Other people would certainly make different and equally valid choices. But, ultimately, it’s about putting yourself in a position to choose, I think.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. And yes, you are so right – it’s about putting yourself in the position where you HAVE the choice, which at least in my experience required a lot of forethought and planning. That’s the part I feel is often overlooked, and the part that results in the what-ifs (for me). xox

  2. Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this… I was especially happy to read your thoughts when people tell you how lucky you are. I am pretty sure that I am guilty of saying that to people in my life and you are so right. My guess is that most of them worked very hard to have the set up they do and that luck has very little to do with it. Thank you as always for opening my eyes just a bit wider 🙂

    admin Reply:

    I perhaps came across as more strident than I intend. It’s not that I’m not lucky – it’s more that the suggestion that random luck got me where I am is what bothers me. I am tremendously lucky and I know it. xox

  3. Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    What a good point – I’ve found myself saying “how lucky” when really I don’t even mean it, so why say it? You’ve worked and made choices along the way, as we all have. “Fortunate” is maybe a better word? Still doesn’t get at the hard work, though. Thanks for the reminder.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, I prefer fortunate to lucky … but of course I’m lucky too, and I know it. xoxo

  4. Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Dear Lindsay-
    Agreed. It is not luck- it is fact so many daily sacrifices that are done instinctively and carry with them a tremendous amount of conflict- there is always the sense for me of the ice not lived, the what if..
    But we cannot have age 11-18 back. I choose to believe that the years we can infuse our children with our love are limited.
    And the older mine gets, the more I want to be around .
    Katy

    admin Reply:

    Me too. Oh, me too – I feel that being around is getting more, not less, important. xoxo

  5. Posted April 28, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Wow. I have this same internal debate about lucky vs. earned all the time with myself (in fact, reading this made me recall that I wrote about it briefly last year, though in a slightly different context on my blog http://www.littlelodestar.com/?p=3039, but I do note the same chafing you do when people tell me I’m lucky halfway through the post). My own thoughts do waver a bit on which side of luck/earned things fall sometimes (especially if I get too deep into it), but I do agree wholeheartedly with you on one point: I deliberately took steps very early on to be able to get the kind of flexibility that I now have (working for myself, at home, part-time though hopefully increasing as my daughter gets older and older). It sometimes can incense me that people don’t see the foundation I purposely laid to accomplish that; and that in many cases others are not precluded from these options, at least not if they had taken different paths earlier. I could go on, but just wanted to say YES! to what you express here.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you for this. And I feel uneasy about what I said because I didn’t mean to say I’m NOT lucky – of course I am. Hugely. But it’s not dumb luck, you know? I think that’s what rubs me the wrong way – the suggestion that somehow I just lucked out through random chance. That’s what I mean … xoxo

  6. Posted April 28, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    These articles on working are really interesting for me. I put my career first until I was 32 and worked a ton. And now that I am stay at home mom, I have no desire for a career. (this is bad news because I have to go back to work in a couple of years …)

    So I love this idea of creating something flexible. And I agree – you aren’t lucky. Or you created your own luck with a lot of forethought and hard work. Thank you for sharing your experience and showing how you put it into place.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you … I know just the flexible career for you. Write a book! Many of them! I’m already in line to read … xoxox

  7. Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I love the idea of all the multiple universes that spin off from the choices that we have made… I also agree flexibility is key — I think being a teacher (and my husband is too), we have a great set-up, with the whole family home together for the summer. And I do love actually going to work, to MY classroom, and an environment that I often have far more control over! I’ve appreciated reading your posts about working moms. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    yes, it’s true, isn’t it – the universes that we form through our choices. I’m struck by the way I don’t always know what will come of a choice, or what kinds of other things it will trigger, you know? xox

  8. Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Lindsey,
    I was struck by the intentionality of this line, “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.” You are always very thoughtful as a mom and, I imagine, in your job as well. To me, that is consistent with the overall message of Lean In — that we think and choose and work deliberately.
    I have my own doubts, too. But, like you, I try to focus on the beauty of the choreography in this wild and crazy dance.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much – I really appreciate that you read and hear it this way – it makes me feel better about my choices which sometimes don’t seem as intentional as I’d like them to be. The pattern – the vast design – only reveals itself, I find, with the perspective of years! xox

  9. Connie
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    This resonated so much with me: “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 hear ya loud and clear. It takes hard work, choices, sacrifices, etc. While I enjoy enormous luck and good fortune in many aspects of my life, it’s not like I sat back and it just came to me. And some days I wonder the same thing — what if I hadn’t made these choices… where would I be? But day in, and day out… the way it is right now works for my family and that, above all else, is what matters. xoxo

    admin Reply:

    Yes, exactly. Where would we be? But that kind of thinking, at least for me, is the way into a rabbit hole that leads nowhere good!

  10. Isabelle
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    This is a great piece. I wonder if the people who use the word lucky are possibly envious and just not recognizing the hard work/intentional choices you have made or if maybe they are reflecting back things that have have not gone well for them despite similar hard work and decision making (tough job market, new boss who doesn’t allow flexibility, children with special needs, etc.) I think all of us wonder about the roads not taken and where our future path will take us. Thanks for your thoughtful exploration of this topic.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, for sure – I am certain people don’t mean it dismissively or in any way pejoratively (when they use “lucky”). At all. I didn’t mean to convey that … sorry if I did! Thanks for this kind comment. xox

  11. Posted April 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I read this post with tense muscles, I rarely pause to really consider all that my choices mean. I did relax, largely because you were so candid. One of my biggest struggles is in the very flexibility that I’ve created. Sometimes I wish for the scapegoat of powerlessness, the chance to say, “I don’t have a choice,” because there are times when the choices I make, that I *get* to make and that I have to make, create heartache, mostly my own.

    I do my best to forgive myself, but the scar tissue is dense.

    admin Reply:

    The scapegoat of powerlessness. Oh, YES. Yes, yes, and yes. But I’ve once in a while (annually) been truly powerless over my job and it is hideous, so I think ultimately I’d choose this path. But I know just what you mean. xox

  12. Kate
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I get the lucky comments too. I think it’s a poor short hand for “that sounds like a wonderful thing that I don’t know how I could do.” Or that’s how I hear it. They do not negate my work or sacrifices. And oh, I am lucky.

    The flexibility thing is interesting. I chose options with much much more because my husband is much much less flexible. I think there is also a need for a balance of flexibility in a marriage that would be interesting to explore.

    admin Reply:

    Agree that that’s where the comments come from. And they’re not meant negatively at all.

    And same here re: my husband having a lot less flexibility. xoxo

  13. Amy
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I agree with all you said here especially your point about luck. I am constantly asked how to find the part-time, flexible arrangement I enjoy. I always use the line, “You don’t find it. You create it.” The only ingredient you didn’t mention that in my case makes my whole set up possible is the stable, more traditional job my husband has. I know he would enjoy a more flexible work arrangement as well, but he’s sacrificed that (at least for now) so I have the flexibility and options I have. And for that, I’m truly lucky (and grateful). Thank you for all your writing. I truly am touched by it. xo

    admin Reply:

    Oh, yes. Thank you for pointing that out. What my husband does and doesn’t do certainly feeds into what I can and can’t do, that’s for sure true. It’s all one big organism but it’s also always changing, no? I so appreciate your kind words. xox

  14. Posted April 28, 2014 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    This was awesome because you are right . . . luck is so the case here. Damn straight you worked hard and made choices that put you where you wanted to be. I’m proud of you for saying so! (Also loved seeing KJ tweet this post!!)

    admin Reply:

    Thank you xoxoxo

  15. Posted April 29, 2014 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this topic. I too have gone for flexibility although this has really meant not having a ‘career’ as such. Sometimes I wonder about what might have been. While I may wonder, I also know that I am happy and accepting of choices I have made and feel that I have created my life whatever shape it has taken 🙂

    admin Reply:

    I think we all wonder. It’s just a question of also living what IS and appreciating it, at least for me. xox

  16. Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Lindsey- I’m constantly amazed at how you can live such a full life and still find the time to write such thoughtful posts! I, too, get defensive of the word ‘lucky’, or even worse ‘you have the perfect set-up’ when it comes to my work/home situation. When people tell me this, I hear ‘you have it easy’, which is probably not even their intention. I know I’ve had some luck on my side and lucky timing with an in-office daycare and a 24-hr/week work schedule, but it’s been a lot of hard work to meet expectations of my job– hardly just luck. Thanks for your honesty and perspective on this!

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much for this. I have certainly been immensely fortunate and lucky too – I didn’t mean to say otherwise. Just that it’s not random, you know? xox

  17. Posted April 29, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    This is poignant in the gratitude it shows. Now that my youngest child is almost 9, and I have stayed home for 14 years, I am very grateful that I have done that. So very, very grateful because that is what I wanted all along and I love the gratitude that I have for it.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, YOUR gratitude is poignant. Thank you. xox

  18. L
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Would you mind maybe posting some information as to the process you went through to create your flexible situation? I realize this would be different in every profession, but are there lessons we can learn from your experience that might help the rest of us create the same sort of luck?

    admin Reply:

    Hi! I’m not sure what I can share that’s useful other than having a sense of what I wanted a long time ago and aiming for that goal … which meant saying no to very alluring options because they didn’t work with the master plan. It was prioritizing the eventual over the short-term, which has always been my way (to the chagrin of those around me sometimes). And staying at companies for a long time and earning credibility through hard work and dedication. I know that is not super specific or useful. I’m sorry, and good luck!

  19. Posted April 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Such a great post. Such an important conversation, for us all. I have a lot of flexibility in my current position…… and I can barely remember how I managed before. (Except I do remember, and that is that I made A LOT A LOT more money, and so I hired all the support I needed as a single mom with a very big job.) The flexibility has been so key to my sense of enjoyment of my life, and my sense of being more deeply connected to my son’s rhythms, even though I still work 40-plus hours a week and have a sitter here every day. But on the days I’m home, that 90-second chat with Zack when he just gets home before I shoo him so I can get on another conference call is the best. I was one of the lucky ones before, in that the choices I made, to be away from Zack so much of the time while I was building up my reputation and yes, my savings account, were also as clear to me then as this choice has been. I know that only a very small level of professional women get to the place we are, to be able to set up and hold onto our flexibility. But I hope that keeps changing as we keep talking about it all. And….. not to speak something not fully formed yet, but I’ll be launching something very exciting around this topic with BlogHer in a few weeks/months. And I hope you’ll support it and participate!! xo

    admin Reply:

    I can’t wait to hear the big announcement! And yes of course I will support with all my power xoxoxo

  20. Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I can so relate to this, Lindsey. I’ve always worked as a teacher, and created my career to maximize my mothering time as well as my opportunities as an educator. I’m often asked why I’m not an administrator, and my sincere answer is that I so value my ‘off’ time with my children that I wouldn’t consider admin for a second. We all make choices in our lives-sounds like you and I have made similar ones to protect that which is most sacred to us.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, absolutely. I’ve protected what I value the most but it hasn’t been without tradeoffs and heartache. I would have loved to be home full-time for certain years, for example, but I knew that in the long run I was going to want (and need) to work and that that long-term goal would not be served by taking time off. That is a hard one but it’s what I chose. xoxo

  21. Posted May 2, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I would say one of the words I would use to describe you, or what I know of you from your writing and our brief exchanges through GNB, is that you are deliberate. You have a clear vision of what’s important and how you spend your time. That is an admirable quality as I can be a bit wishy washy. When it comes to my kids, I know exactly where I stand but as for my own desires and needs, well…that’s the wishy washy.

    You’ve created the opportunity for yourself and are a great role model to many!

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much for these kind words, Hallie … I can’t tell you how much they mean. Sometimes it’s helpful to see from others what is reflected back because in my own mind it doesn’t always feel as clear. xox

  22. Posted May 5, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    As I am working on building my career currently and trying to figure out how to be more flexible, I find a lot of inspiration in this post. Because one day, hopefully soon, I hope to be a working mother. And I don’t want to have to make this tremendous sacrifice of self when that happens. I want to keep my work. But I know that how I work will inevitably change when I become a mother. I find so much flexibility when I read about mothers like you who manage to be flexible, who have essentially built what appears to me to be the best of both worlds. And I admire all the tough choices that you’ve made and I know that you don’t have it all. But you have something that you deserve to be proud of.

    Thank you for being amazing and sharing your story to help inspire people like me.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much for this generous comment. I hope that if my story does one thing it provides an example that it IS possible to do “both” (though those are reductive categories, obviously). I look forward to hearing about your path! xox

  23. Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Someone just recommended your site to me, Lindsey, so I’m reading through. I know why he recommended it: your writing is poignant, clear, brave, and thoughtful. I especially like this post, which echos many of my own feelings about choosing to be a work-from-home parent.

    My kids are older now — high school and middle school. My productivity has increased. There’s more time for work, but more time too to reflect on their impending absence once they fly the coop.

    We make the best choices we can, and we pivot when our circumstances change. Flexibility is king for those of us fortunate enough to have (and to make) that choice.