Sometimes it just hits me that I may actually come across as that stagnant, unambitious and complacent friend our parents used to warn us about. Or the only person in the room who’d gladly turn down a promotion to prioritize my family and work/life balance. I may even be (in fact I know I am) that one friend who’ll encourage you to first consider your own happiness and well-being before taking any opportunity to move up the career ladder, even if your salary was tripled.
I read “Lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg a couple of years ago, in fact I mentioned it briefly when I first purchased it, with the promise that I’d come back and do a full review. But I never got round to it, maybe because the book left me feeling more conflicted about my own professional aspirations than I already was.
There’s a reason why I’m starting to really care about women’s well-being and their contentment at home and in the workplace, over career progression and the pressures to reach certain professional heights (both self-imposed and societal). Lately I’ve chosen not to conform to the idea that I must lean in, must climb up the career ladder, must take on more work to prove to myself or to others that I’m worthy or competent. I’m starting to resent every voice within myself that once led me to believe I had to have the perfect career ascension in order to feel like I was achieving something. I’m particularly eager to shake off the guilt that comes with that line of thinking, whenever I feel like I’m not quite there career-wise. And on the other hand, I’m also careful not to automatically associate “hard work” with stress, fatigue, and everything it has caused me to feel at one point – just because I have felt overworked at different stages of my life doesn’t mean being successful always equates to physical and emotional strain. For many women, any kind of professional development actually does provide a huge sense of joy and fulfillment.
However this post isn’t so much about what other women choose to do with their careers. And it’s worth noting, I have nothing but admiration for mothers who decide to just go for it, and not let their circumstances or family lives get in the way of them reaching their career goals. I’m in awe of how far we’ve come as women in a society that is very much dominated by and catered to men. I fully admire this generation of fearless women who have chosen to step up and lead. I like money (!) so I know when the time is right I’ll need to embark on a similar quest and put in the work.
This post is more about me facing my own inadequacies and the pressures I’ve put on myself to be that woman now, as opposed to taking a clear look at my own life and considering what would work best for me. This post is about realising what’s feasible and practical for me at this stage of my life, and ultimately, the impact of my decisions on my family.
I am #FineWhereIAm
While I don’t at all see myself as lazy and unwilling to work, my life has become such that any decision I make in regards to my career has to make sense in three different areas:
- It needs to make financial sense;
- It needs to fit the needs of my family and the systems/routines we’ve created;
- It needs to be stress-free and spark joy (oh hi Marie Kondo!)
I love the fact that flexible work is being brought to the forefront as a real solution to work/life balance issues many parents (mothers in particular) face when returning to work. And the process of leaning in, I understand, goes hand in hand with that: Encouraging employers to adopt flexible working approaches to help families, which then enables mothers to lean in and reach professional heights they otherwise may not have been able to. I am benefiting from flexible working hours myself, and it’s been the best thing for me, both professionally and in my personal life.
But what we don’t often talk about is the fact that being somewhere in the middle, and staying there for as long as we see fit is neither lazy, nor unambitious. Sometimes it simply is the most logical thing to do, for ourselves, for our families and for better work/life balance. In my efforts to navigate life as a busy mum and wife to an equally busy and hard-working man, I had almost forgotten what life without stress and chaos actually felt like. Then I’d go to work and be stressed there too. It was a never-ending cycle, I’d often bring this stress home, causing a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety. Not that these things are the guaranteed consequences of working full-time while running a busy household – I’m sure a lot of working mums cope very well under more difficult circumstances; but that was my reality at the time.
It’s great to be part of an era in which women are being encouraged to lean in and claim what is ours in terms of space, salary, status, etc. It’s great to know that the door can and should remain open for us to be able to climb up whenever we need to. But as someone who has struggled with ‘finding purpose’ and making sense of her career all her life, I’d like to discuss what happens during the transition phases. We don’t often hear from mothers who decide to continue working but in lower positions, or cut down their hours significantly, go through some sort of demotion process, ‘downgrade’. I’d love to hear from the woman who, while on her way up, unapologetically decided to step down and take on an easier, less demanding path for a defined (or undefined) period of time while she gets used to her new normal after a life-changing experience such as the birth of a(nother) child. I’d like to hear about what motivated her decision to be intentionally ‘stagnant’ and not seek that higher position, higher pay, higher status and all of the perks this comes with, at this time of her life.
That middle space is what I want to shine the light on – for those women who don’t want to be stay-at-home mums, but who don’t have any pressing desire to rise to the top either. Is there a stigma attached to it? Because I’m one of them.
The notion of sacrifice differs from one person to another
I was always fully on board with the idea that women shouldn’t sacrifice their careers for their children or for the smooth running of their household, in fact this was something I internalized from my early twenties. I still remember conversations with my mother about this. She would tell me about her own professional journey and encourage me to try and rise to success no matter what. She’s watched me take career breaks and work jobs that were way below what my degree or skillset could afford me on the job market. And she always had her own sublte ways of telling me to level up. And so I used to tell myself that Yes, perhaps I should totally go for that promotion, it comes with a pay rise after all. Or maybe I should go for that leadership role, the world needs more female leaders…
Except what one woman sees as ‘sacrifice’, another sees as a genuine desire, something she truly wants for herself because it’s what suits her needs best, at that time of her life. I guess it took me having children to realise just how different that notion of sacrifice was from one woman to another. That, plus the realisation that my mental health mattered and I didn’t want to be stressed and overworked both at home and at work, is what led me to slow down and decide to “stay put” for a while – until my children reach an age where they weren’t so dependent on me.
In a nutshell, I don’t see me putting my career on hold as a “sacrifice”. If anything I see it as an act of self-care.
Redundancy during my maternity leave: a positive experience
I’ve always considered my career journey to be a bit “all over the place” anyway, though in recent years it seems like I was finally working towards a clear trajectory. Following my humble beginnings working in insurance in my early twenties, I moved onto financial media for a short while, before eventually finding a good, stable job in financial dispute resolution that I hoped would open the door to even more opportunities within the financial services industry. This was what I was working towards, after various career breaks to raise my kids, rudimentary attempts at freelancing in media and other jobs to help me get back into the word of work after losing my confidence. Settling within financial services made me feel like I was going somewhere. I loved my job. But it was stressful and demanding. Then the organisation I was working for went through a series of changes that made the working environment even worse.
Time went by and I eventually chose to bring all of this to an end straight after having my third child, and take voluntary redundancy during my maternity leave. In the midst of quitting, I also decided to change industries, essentially agreeing to “downgrade” and opt out of that fast track to success. And believe me when I say, I wasn’t even earning much at all to begin with. But I felt like I had a career, nor just ‘a job’. And now I was about to end it all.
Contrary to what this usually entails, quitting my job (and being paid to do so) was an easy decision to make. This allowed me to go through a period of re-structuring and re-organising. It pushed me to finally take steps to enter an industry I had always wanted to get into. It forced me out of my comfort zone and into a new field I could see myself being genuinely happy in.
My current role working in the NHS is stress-free, pleasant and not demanding at all. I feel this is what I need at this stage of my life. As I forge my way into this new field, I’ve also chosen to block out the noise around me, and focus on what I’m doing. There’s scope for progression but while my daughter is still very young, I’m not even considering that yet. Most of my friends and loved ones are thriving in their own amazing careers, earning the type of money that’s currently listed under “Year 10” of my 10-year plan. And of course it goes without saying, I absolutely love the fact that they’re all doing so well. They’re great examples of success to look up to. But I’ve chosen to be intentional about slowing down and giving myself time to adapt to life as a mother of three young children. That’s my journey.
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” – Proverbs 14:30
I’m learning to not just be “ok-ish” with my career choices but to actually be at peace, embrace them as healthy and necessary decisions, for me to progress at my own pace. I’m learning that the process of leaning in, as beautiful and as empowering as it is for all women, is not linear, has no set timeline or strict deadline. I’m learning to accept what this means for me in more practical terms, e.g. my earnings, the opportunities that will/will not be offered to me as a result of my choices, etc.
In short, what’s mine will eventually be mine in due course, even if it takes me another 10 years to get there. I’m learning not to put undue pressure on myself anymore. I’m learning that my desire to be financially free and live in abundance doesn’t have to be at the detriment of my well-being or my family life, nor does it need to be an immediate endeavour. I’m learning that my dreams and aspirations will manifest in due course.
But for now, I am #FineWhereIAm.