I Couldn’t Lean In or Opt Out
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a working mom. It was always what I aspired to do. I thought of myself as a role model to my children — and to every woman in my office whose water was about to break.
My own mother worked and raised two young children after she divorced my father. With just a high school education, she had to work the night shift. She missed every play and choir concert, but she was still my hero.
Life would be different for me, I assumed. Surely, focusing on my career, raising a family, maintaining relationships, and following dreams could all be done.
For eight years, I was deeply committed to the cause of the human interest nonprofit where I worked as a stewardship writer. I felt like I was helping to make a difference in the world. But my job was all encompassing — no time for a personal life or any type of balance. I believed that if I just gave a little bit more of myself that I would finally get promoted. And that the promotion would make me feel better about working the day after Thanksgiving and missing my daughter’s holiday program at school.
So I pushed harder, even when it took too much out of me. I dreamed that one day I would earn the title of director and manage a small team. And I was on a path to success: I had perfected processes within my organization, and my name was synonymous in industry circles with a project I’d eagerly invested so much time and effort in. But I felt that at any moment I’d come unglued and people would be able to see that I was far from “having it all.”
When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I knew I wanted to return to work after her birth. But instead of returning full-time — while attempting to manage a school-aged child and an infant — I asked to work part-time, which was an option offered to other employees at our organization. This was the balance I needed to feel connected in both of my very important worlds.
Days before my maternity leave was scheduled to begin, my request to return part-time was denied. Apparently it wasn’t necessary in my department to provide any support to women who were committed to their careers and to being mothers. Incredibly talented women, who were adored not just by me but by our clients, were pushed out of their jobs just because they’d started families.
I was angry and disappointed. And I needed to make a change.
But what do you do when work isn’t working? Opting out was never an option, and leaning in had taken over my life. To continue to be the woman and mother I wanted to be, I did my own thing. I sat down.
For me, that meant taking a less-demanding position in fundraising. Some say I’ve taken huge steps back. My title isn’t as impressive, my organization isn’t known throughout the world, and my salary is nowhere close to what it used to be. But that’s okay, because now I have something I didn’t have before: balance.
Sitting down meant being a working mom, but feeling as though I had choices as to how I wanted to continue my professional life — a life that was extremely important for my sanity and financial well-being. The only way to rid myself of the constant pressure and discontent was to find something that made the most sense tome. I’m continuing to work toward my professional goals, just on more relaxed terms.
My new job will certainly guide my future. But I don’t know whether it will be my final career, and I’m okay with that. I’ve realized that my career doesn’t need to define my entire life. When my children are older, I intend to reclaim a piece of the me who strives to lead and not follow, the one who craves endless opportunities to achieve whatever is to come next. But for now, I’m able to do what I want: I work in a job where I feel rewarded and my kids have me whenever they need me.
Sometimes it’s hard to step back from the life you think you want in order to discover the life you really need. There are days when I yearn for the chaos of my old life.
However, the ultimate gift is that I can choose to sit down, but I can also choose — when I’m ready — to stand up.
Virginia I. Stanley lives outside of Philadelphia with her family. She’s working on a collection of short stories.
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