Go your own way: Your life might look and feel different from your mom’s, your sister’s, and your friends’…and that’s okay
Especially through my 30s and early 40s, I beat myself up and wondered if I was doing the right thing—because my life was increasingly diverging from most of the people I knew and respected. As events played out, I found myself without a strong peer group like the ones I enjoyed throughout elementary and high school, college, and even graduate school.
So what happened? I got married before most people (as a child bride at age 23 ☺) and then had kids after most (at 35 and 37) after some serious adventures in fertility treatments in my early 30s. Additionally, my career was a discombobulated disaster from college through the point that I had kids—go figure. It was sort of like I held off on pushing myself to get a “real job” because I was waiting to have kids all those years, continuing to keep myself busy with a series of random jobs that were far from well paid or guided by a logical career path that would put me on the right trajectory. Anyone who knew me before my mid-30s (especially my family and closest friends) would dub me as “lame/lard ass,” “disorganized,” “butterfly chasing”…I could go on.
Looking back, I think there were two things that fueled this:
I didn’t want to get too invested in something that I’d have to leave, assuming all along that I wouldn’t be able to have a career once I had a family, especially because my husband’s job was so demanding.
I lacked the confidence to pursue a “real job” in a “real company.”
In fact, the timing of finally entering a more traditional career in tech (mid-late 30s) and the way it all happened (mercy part-time consulting gig through a college buddy of a good friend of my husband’s—HUGE thank you, Josh & Rachel) was the most random and happiest of accidents. So, what ultimately ended up being a career that’s brought me so much joy happened only because of the unlikely coming together of: 1) someone giving me a chance, 2) getting pregnant after years of struggling with fertility treatments, and 3) having the opportunity to unearth that I was pretty good at “real work” and had what it took to contribute meaningfully to a company. It was all of these things that oddly and unexpectedly gave me a more traditional, long-term career along with having a family, all of which has been a perfect life journey in my case.
There are several points I want to convey through all of this:
You can reinvent at any time. Even lame fruitcakes like me can figure it out. ☺ At any point, you can kick into high gear if you’re willing to make it work—take more junior roles and less money than you should if this is something you want to do to get your foot in the door, particularly if you’re trying to get back in the game after being out and/or trying to change career paths. Do whatever it takes to get in and you’ll be able to turn it into what you want from there if you’re good (i.e., work hard, deliver, stay out of politics, don’t lose your head, look for new ways to add value and go above and beyond, forge strong relationships, advocate for yourself, seize opportunities even if they scare you…).
You’re good enough and even better than most. For years, I thought I wasn’t talented, driven, etc. enough to be in a large company. Now that I’ve worked for some of the biggest and most complex, it sort of makes me laugh and kick myself at the same time. Imagine all of the people who comprise organizations—just sit in an airport or occupy a park bench during lunchtime in the middle of a city—and realize that they’re all working for these big, important companies. If they can advance, you can too.
Your past is not your future. It’s never too late to start what will ultimately end up being a meaningful career. Honestly, I really started at 35. Sure, I did all sorts of random things that ultimately helped me be better once I got on track but it really was a lame disaster before that point.
Life and careers are usually completely unexpected. Most likely, you won’t end up doing what you started out thinking you’d do. I’m a liberal arts major in Political Theory and Theology who wanted to pursue a career in public interest but ended up an executive in enterprise technology. As we say in Boston, “you can’t get there from here,” but somehow I did. Beyond my lameness, my job didn’t even exist when I graduated from college in 1989. So just get in there and do whatever you do well, keep your head up, and continuously look around, evolving and learning all of the time, embracing change, creating new opportunities for yourself.
There is no grand plan and there’s no right or wrong way to do this. In my case, I continuously looked at my situation as it was at the time—day after day, week after week—and did my best in the moment, focusing on what I could control and challenging myself to do more, mainly because I was curious if I could.
Constraints can breed brilliance. Once I had kids, I oddly felt “free” to pursue my career—i.e., once I’d gotten that “done,” once I broke through all of the anticipation and constraints related to it, I knew what I was dealing with and felt like I could figure out how to make it all work. This probably sounds totally crazy but the anticipation of having kids since being married so young at 23 held me back in many ways until it actually happened.
Self-doubt and loneliness are inevitable—just figure out how to manage them. I felt very conflicted all along the way—especially through my 30s—as most of my peers chose different paths. Most of the women I knew from school had been infinitely more driven through their 30s, had more traditional careers, and were frankly just tired and couldn’t figure out how to have two working parents (which usually included significant travel) and a family. As my choices increasingly led me in a divergent direction, I questioned, “What the heck is wrong with me?! Why am I now so driven to over-complicate my life and achieve something that wasn’t important to me until now?!”
Trade-offs must be made but you’ll get more than you give up. Now that I have the benefit of being an old fart and on the other side of the hardest part of the journey, I can say that while it looks different than most, my life worked out perfectly for me and who I am. It wasn’t easy. It was often lonely. It was filled with self-doubt and conflict and “am I doing the right thing?,” “am I screwing up my kids forever?,” “how is this all going to work?,” “why do I feel so lonely?,” “when am I ever going to feel like I have friends outside of work?”
So perhaps you’ve always had your act together and knew all along what you wanted to do and why you were doing it. Maybe you were super driven right out of school and just needed and wanted to take a break to raise your kids but now want to get back in. Or maybe not—maybe being a career mom has brought you relentless joy but you now have a daughter who’s different from you and is looking for guidance. It’s maybe even possible you’re a weirdo like me who became an unlikely and late-in-the-game career girl. Regardless of your work and family story, I hope you find exactly what brings you success and happiness, regardless of whether it’s in line with what your mom, sisters, and friends did or if it’s a completely different path that you’re going alone but gives you exactly what you need from life.
The point is that it’s important to trust your gut and do what works best for you, even if it looks completely different from everyone around you. If you do, things will always work out in the end.
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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.