“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.
The 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.