Unfortunately, you can’t make everyone happy
Fortunately, that’s not your job
Right after I was accepted to graduate school for my MBA, my dad said to me, “It’s really a shame when women take valuable spots when they’re only going to work for a couple of years before having kids vs. men who are going to maximize the investment across a long-term career.”
I’ll never forget that moment because it really knocked me for a loop for several reasons:
I know he was beyond proud of me for being accepted to a top-five program in the US. I’d pursued it completely on my own and made it happen without help from him or anyone else.
He had ALWAYS encouraged me to have a career—from day one, he’d pushed me hard to excel academically, invested heavily in my education, made me work for pay early and often. Getting a graduate degree was the natural evolution in what I always thought he expected of me.
There’s nothing that he valued more than self-reliance as a primary life goal. As a parent, he saw economic independence as the most important gift that he could give the five of us kids (four girls and one boy) and that education was the best possible way to achieve that. In the context of pushing us to study hard and succeed, he often told my three sisters and me that his biggest fear was that we would one day show up on his doorstep in the rain crying with several kids hanging on us and say, “He left me!” Moreover, the expectation was that he wanted us to find a happy life with a good partner, but that it would be best if we were able to take care of ourselves vs. depend on a spouse to support us.
Fast forward 20+ years and it’s definitely safe to say the investment in my graduate degree has paid off a gazillion times over. You could probably even state that the ROI (return on investment) for me exceeds that of many of the men in my class—just in hard numbers on what I paid vs. what I’ve made over the years, along with the qualitative contributions I’ve been able to achieve for myself and others. I believe you could also make the case that I earned my spot fair and square in that MBA class and that no man was “wronged” or “deprived” of an opportunity. I think you could even be so bold as to assert that the world is a better place because of it. ☺
I start with this story not to criticize my dad (he’s absolutely my hero in every possible way), but because even the people you admire and love most may not support your career and life choices along the way—and that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay—this is your one life to live and it’s absolutely critical that your choices are pure to your hopes and dreams vs. the ones that others might have for you. I know happy endings aren’t always guaranteed, but chances are they’ll come around over time as things work out and you show them a way of doing things that they didn’t imagine possible. Like many cases in life—both at work and beyond it—the best way to convey your message is by just doing, by living your life the way that makes sense to you and executing in a way that will eventually become clear to everyone else.
Actions speak louder than words, and while that can take a bit of time to play out and require superhuman patience and intestinal fortitude, my personal experience suggests that the first three of my Commandments for Success—1. Deliver. 2. Stay out of politics. 3. Don’t lose your head.—is the way to go on this front. Engaging in debates with your friends and family when you’re in the thick of it will likely be fraught with unnecessarily disastrous consequences, particularly in a situation that is intensely personal and emotional. Trying to convince them that they’re wrong and you’re right just won’t lead to the outcome you want and might, in fact, result in divisive conversations that do unnecessary damage to both you and them on a bunch of fronts.
Beyond business school, there were many other times when both of my parents worried about the career decisions I made that took me away from the traditional role of wife and mother as someone who was married to a successful attorney who had a demanding job that ideally needed a “partner” to enable his stock to rise as high as possible. Every time I was with them on family trips (we live in different parts of the country), I’d get all sorts of unsolicited advice about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. Sometimes, it would come in the form of leading questions. Sometimes, it would be statements like, “I’m surprised they have meetings with men and women together where people travel without their spouses.” Sometimes, it would be about how my kids might end up with a closer relationship to our childcare provider than to me.
Beyond my own parents, it also came out in comments from my in-laws who were often uncomfortable with my choices. In both cases—with my parents and my husband’s—I honestly believe they were all genuinely concerned for our marriage and the welfare of our kids because my choices were unprecedented from their perspective. They’d never seen a woman/wife/mother make the choices I was making or a couple do the things that both Paul and I were doing the way that we were doing them. They had no context for whether it would be okay. As parents, they couldn’t help but be judgmental and opinionated about all of it.
As my kids became “real people,” it was fun and rewarding to hear the back-handed compliments start to emerge. Things like, “Well, I do have to admit they’re really nice boys and seem to be doing great.” My point is that things worked out and the results started to speak for themselves—my boys, Paul’s and my relationship, and our life more broadly. Until it all played out for them, there’s really nothing that I could have said that would have convinced them that I was right and they were wrong.
Pursuing a life that’s full of work and family and all sorts of other things you want to do and accomplish may not be the one that others have chosen themselves or for you, and might cause even the most important people in your life to doubt and judge you. I hope you’ll keep in mind that it will be absolutely impossible for you to make everyone happy in your life. Do your best to avoid taking this on—having everyone else’s approval—as your burden on top of everything else you’re doing. And never forget who you’re working for—yourself and those who are in your care. Stay strong and stoic and let your actions and results speak for themselves. Be patient as it plays out, keeping your eyes on the prize, relishing your amazing journey, shutting out the noise and negative distraction, and helping them eventually see what you knew would come to be.
In the end, your accomplishments will feel all the sweeter when you and they see all of the unprecedented things you created that otherwise would not have been possible. ☺
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.