Motherhood + Work + Life = Sacrifice

“I used to have a career, but I filed a lawsuit against my company for sexual discrimination a few years ago and I was ultimately fired. After a long legal battle I needed to reevaluate my priorities. Then I another baby, and, you know…”

It’s a conversation I’ve been repeating with ever more frequency. I know it well. I’m feeling insecure and this is a justification for that feeling. All rehearsed conversations are scripts laced with justifications and insecurities.

motherhood + workThe sharpest lesson I learned from my painful, year-long, litigious experience was that my career does not define me. I also learned that more money isn’t a good enough reason for doing something, and there are more important things than having an interesting answer to that popular dinner party question, So what do you do?

My insecurity does not come from a lack of identity as a professional or even my lack of a paycheck. It comes from guilt. Plainly put, I don’t feel like I’m living up to my end of the feminist bargain especially in light of all I went through and stood for during that lawsuit: gender respect and equality. I feel an obligation to the trailblazing women who came before me to step aside from my singular role as mother, and make room for the role as a leader in the workforce. I feel this same sense of obligation toward the women who will come after me, most significantly, my daughter.

I know I am capable of being a thoughtful leader. I was a leader in my professional career and I am in my personal life. I did, after all, have the nerve to sue a very large company for sexual discrimination and then promptly reinvent myself as a writer. I can do hard things and make difficult choices.

I also happen to like this role.

I am comfortable with speaking out, taking responsibility and making decisions.  I like working with others toward a common goal. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, said recently in a 60 Minutes interview,

I want every little girl who [is told] they’re bossy to instead be told, “You have leadership skills.”

With only 16% of c-level position, and only 18% of Congress being women, this world desperately needs more of us “bossy” types. A world I feel obligated to make a better place for both my children.

Recent statistics show that 31% of working mothers drop out of the workforce for 2.2 years. This break is most often precipitated by the birth of a second child. This results in a decrease of 18% earning power over their lifetime. As of today, I have been out of the workforce for 2.4 years and I am feeling the pull toward my dusty patent leather pumps grow stronger by the day.

My entire life has followed the typical, statistical equation for a white, middle-class, American woman who came of age in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Graduate from college + develop a career + marry at the age of 27.5 + have 2.5 children in your 30’s + carry a mortgage + invest in college funds + take family vacations. It is an equation that would have continued had it not been for the addition of an unforeseen lawsuit… scratch that… the MULTIPLICATION DIVIDED BY THE SQUARE ROOT of the life-altering shift in perception called motherhood.

Perhaps there is no way to prepare for motherhood, but if there were a test one could take on motherhood preparedness, I would have failed valiantly.

Despite my best efforts to seek advice from colleagues, no one told me the sacrifices I would have to make as a working mother. No one explained that my choices would be between difficult and impossible, and often times, I would have to transform the impossible into good enough. No one told me that taking a step back to raise my 2.5 children would result in an significant reduction in earning power over my lifetime and render me 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and offered an average of $11,000 less. Perhaps it’s because these statistics didn’t exist until recently. Or, more accurately, I didn’t pay attention until I found myself a new mother in the middle of a lawsuit for sexual discrimination.

I took a step back because I wanted to be with my children in their earliest years. It’s a decision I will never regret no matter how much I might bemoan some of its drudgery. Right now my youngest is not yet two, and my oldest is almost four. I can see the growing light of autonomy at the end of this beautiful tunnel of early childhood and it’s making me wonder: What will I do when they don’t need me as much? How will I find a way to fit back into the workforce? Since we are not independently wealthy people, this prospect feels inevitable.

I’m feeling the pull to get back into to the corporate world sooner rather than later for many reasons, but at this time, none more powerful than my obligation to my gender. It is still true that I want to redirect my career into one that includes writing, and there is no question that I will always write for work and pleasuer, but this path takes a lot of time and offers very little financial security. I can’t pay for someone to care for my children while I pursue a career that doesn’t pay enough to afford said childcare. This is a sad and true fact. Also, there is only so much more time I can opt out of my former career path before I must start all over working my way back up. Lastly, there are intellectual muscles I want to stretch and a need for some autonomy of my own that I’m aching to scratch out.

And the reason I’m finding so much urgency to be a leader for women in the workforce is because my current options for combining motherhood + work + life, appear unworkable and require more sacrifice than one individual (no matter their gender) should have to navigate.

Here are my options:

A. Reenter the workforce, flex my mental capacities, live up to my potential as a leader and earn a paycheck. But there is no such thing as part-time in my career field. I would have to work full-time and then some. It would take up nearly all of my time and offer limited flexibility. This will require a full-time nanny which will not only limit my children’s experiences, but take me out of their lives for a significant portion of the week which doesn’t work for me until they no longer live under my roof. Or…

B. I can stay out of the workforce, continue to dwindle my lifetime earning potential, perhaps become unqualified for the positions of which I am still qualified, not pay a nanny, expand my children’s experiences, have ultimate flexibility and be in their lives to the fullest capacity, but also find a way to squelch my ever-growing discontent over not living up to my potential and lack of autonomy, and hope that I never have to rely on myself for sole support of my life.

Hm. Which one of these horrible scenarios should I choose? Who will win? Who will lose? In the end, will I wish I did it differently?

I’m not to the point of making an eminent decision but I’m trying to develop a third option. It is the hardest of them all. It requires more faith, will power, consciousness and fortitude.

C. Work hard. Trust in God’s plan. Learn to breathe deeper. Learn to let go of fear and regrets and expectations. Stay grounded. Live on less. Be okay with the unknown. Follow my passions.

If you know another path, perhaps a D option, please, I’m all computer speakers?

Whatever my choice may be I’m sure C will be a part of it, if not ALL of it. Nonetheless, this excruciating, mathematical equation of motherhood + work + life = sacrifice shouldn’t have to be an impossible conundrum. Perhaps necessary, even difficult, but never impossible and never one set squarely on mothers alone.

I feel an obligation to help make this situation better for my children… and yours. Not just by becoming a leader, but by doing what all great leaders do… lead by example.

I’m confident this entails learning to breathe deeper, let go and trust more and the good news is… that can happen in every moment, no matter what shoes I’m wearing, how many numbers are on my paycheck, or even who’s listening.

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A Lingering Vegas Hangover

I went to Vegas with some girlfriends last weekend. The three of us are stay-at-home-moms and each week we meet behind the plexiglass of our 3-year-old daughters’ gymnastics class. A couple of months ago, we decided a Moms Only trip to Vegas was in order. It’s been three years since I spent more than 24 hours away from my children, so I was more than game.

We danced, we drank, we stayed out late and laid by the pool. We ate when, and what we wanted. We got foot massages and I laughed so hard my abdominals still hurt three days later. We put on pretty clothes and spent at least an hour getting ready. I wore heels and Spanx and glittery eye-liner. We went to loud clubs where the music pounded in my chest and it felt good.

Moms in Vegas

We had so much fun that we had TOO much fun. When Monday rolled around and it was time to go home, reality came spinning at me faster than the sevens on those money-sucking slot machines. Ding!

Over those three days I remembered what it was like to take care of only one person… myself. I remembered how electric the nightlife can feel pulsing through my body. I remembered what it was like to sleep until I woke up on my own. I remembered what not having to be anywhere felt like. I remembered the freedom of having choices.

Compared to the rote and often mindless cleaning, cooking, scolding, bickering and cartoon Disney movies of my present-day life, it was like being transported to the Technicolor world of Oz complete with shiny heels, short dresses and good music. I truly hadn’t realized how drastically my life had morphed in ten years until I was suddenly standing in the middle of my 20’s again.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking to be single. I’m not even looking for the ability to binge drink and stay up until 3am. Been there, loved it, over it. What I realized is that freedom and choices are in drastic short supply in my life and I had no idea how much I missed them until I had them back for three, short days in Vegas.

When I became a mother almost four years ago, my obligations burst from the asphalt like a flashy hotel on expensive Las Vegas Strip real estate. Subtract a career, add another child and my choices shrank to the size of a perpetually full laundry basket. It took awhile for the shock of my tethered life to sink in, but what other choice is there when you have children? You just do it. All of it. Over the course of four years, this life became quite natural and I hardly remembered anything else. At some point I found it pointless to think about all the things I CANNOT do because that’s just masochistic. But what I hadn’t realized is that because of this lack of freedom and choices, somewhere inside me there was building a low-grade hum of discontent like the buzz of neon lights.

I came home in a funk. My husband was expecting a different result. He thought I’d be rejuvenated–happy! with my three-day vacation. But I wasn’t. I almost wished I hadn’t gone. I wished I hadn’t tasted the freedom because now I’m in withdrawal, and if I learned anything from my 20’s it’s that no matter how good the high… the crash is always worse.

It’s taken me three days to get my head out of the fog and it is only with distance, perspective and a practiced (if not forced) gratitude, that I can remember the point of going to Oz… to find the way back home.

Brooke & Brady Glam

And I brought some glam and shiny shoes back with me.

Crazy and Sane

When I was a kid, I could only stare at my birthday candles while people sang happy birthday. On my wedding day, as I walked down the aisle and then stood on in front of a floating dock full of guests, I could not make myself look at them. I love to sing, and I actually sing pretty well, but when faced with a microphone and a room full of faces, I fold down upon myself like a crape paper.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I am considered an extrovert. Plenty of times I’ve stood in front of an auditorium of medical professionals and given presentations without a single crack in my voice. A long time ago I realized that when I had something to say, and it wasn’t about me, I wasn’t afraid to say it. Contradictory to that fact, is that I’m not shy about telling you what I think and how I feel here in words, yet somehow, at the very same time, I would wilt in the literal face of emotional attention and/or praise.

Today is my 35th birthday. Every year I pretend like it’s no big deal and I really believe I am too old for the fan fare. But when faced with the reality that there is no fan fare, it always makes me profoundly sad. As much as I don’t want anyone to look at me with feelings of any kind, I desperately want someone to celebrate the fact that today is the day I took my first breath.

I have always found the turmoil I feel on my birthday, fascinating. How could I be both? How could I be an extrovert that shrinks when faced with attention? How could I crave the celebration, but shrivel in the midst of it?

What I am coming to understand is that this equal and opposite thing lives inside everyone.

In recent weeks I have been utterly shocked by people I thought I knew so well. People, who yesterday I would have said, “they would never, ever do… ” have turned and done that very thing I swore they would never do. This flip of human nature always leaves me breathless. I am realizing that the more I think I know, the less I truly understand.

Proof of Heaven

I’m reading a book right now called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, MD. Alexander is a neurosurgeon who was befell with a rare and spontaneous case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis. Since I had meningitis once, and I’m a fan of the right-brained medical perspective on spirituality, this book interested me greatly. Alexander had a 10% chance of survival at the onset of his illness–a survival rate that plummeted to 0% after several days in an unresponsive coma, but not only did Alexander live, but he made a miraculous, full recovery. And not only did he make a miraculous recovery, but he came back and wrote a bestselling book about his very real near death experience in heaven. This is his vivid description of God.

“…found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me.” p. 47

“…an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light.” p. 48

How confounding that he describes God with such a profound dichotomy of characteristics? It is hard to imagine this with our limited experience, language and abilities, but something about it (to me, at least) makes perfect sense. I feel that what Alexander says is true because the polar opposite nature of humanity is also real, and so very unreal. The fact that people can be both hateful and loving, selfish and generous, strong and weak all at the same time, often in equal measures, is truly a testament to God.

And I believe only God knows how we can simultaneously want no one to look at us, and yet crave the world to watch us sing.

Today, a day that has always perplexed me with my own feelings of emotional flip-flopping, I am going to honor these opposite sides of me. In doing that, I must also honor them in you, and those people who have so surprised me with their humanity.

Because the truth is, as black as one can appear on one side; on the other is a dazzling brightness. I believe it behooves us to honor these opposites–to see one another as not halves, but wholes. I think to do otherwise, is to deny ourselves, and ultimately, God.

So… Happy Birthday to my mixed-up/ perfectly sensical, black/white, angry/happy, inky/sparkly all-over, self. And thank you, to all the crazy/sane, sober/drunk/, happy/sad, spiteful/generous people in my life… and in the world. As much as it pains me to look into your eyes, I thank you for acknowledging that today is the day I took my first breath.

It means more than I am able to express… although I will never stop trying.

I am large. I contain multitudes. ~Walt Whitman