Why stay in the game? For you, them, & the greater good
This post the second part in a multi-part series. For part one, check out The Mother of All Life Challenges, my brief memoir on becoming a career parent.
There’s no doubt that things will get difficult when you’re juggling pregnancy and kids in addition to your career. You’ll be balancing a volume and depth of things that you never thought imaginable. Beyond my personal story about becoming a working parent, I wanted to pass along a few example challenges that I’ve experienced in my journey of being a wife, mom, and career woman. If you’re in the middle of or beyond this phase of your career, I’m guessing you might relate to many of them. If you haven’t embarked on this part of your journey, well, I guess you have all of these character-building experiences to anticipate!
You might find yourself in a dress and heels in an awkward position trying to change a diaper and get peed on, have to change quickly, and then run all sweaty and late to your meeting.
You might have to cut out of a big meeting with a strange backpack to sit on a toilet with a breast pump machine making bizarre grinding, vibrating sounds that will make someone in the next stall think you’re doing something naughty.
You might have to sneak out of the office to do blood tests or scopes or other uncomfortable things in an attempt to get pregnant and sneak back in like nothing ever happened.
You might run home to see your babies briefly before trying to fit in a date night with your partner, have them puke all over your face, then have to disrobe right in front of your sitter with your eyes closed, and somehow find the shower before you get yourself back together and try to be a regular adult human again at dinner.
You might have to work harder, later, and earlier than everyone else to keep up.
You might have been the key person in closing a major deal and have to watch all the guys on the deal that were hangers-on get paid tens of thousands of dollars more than you, mooching off the magic that you made.
You might find yourself falling behind men who you know aren’t as good as you because of things you have to do to get pregnant and take care of your family.
You might go from having one of the best offices with a window and a senior role in your firm to lesser role in a windowless cube stuck next to a printer station and storage area.
You might walk into a “back-to-school night“ after living in your town for nearly a decade and not know anyone and feel like a fish out of water.
You might have a boss mention that they need to provide a male peer a “career path” to explain why they’re giving him a bigger opportunity than you, implying that they don’t need to give you one even though you know you’ve performed better and given the company more value than he has.
You might feel great about finally getting to drop your kids at school one morning late in the year...and then you pull into the wrong facility—forgetting that they’re now in middle school vs. elementary!
You might prefer to speak on stage in front of hundreds of hostile sales guys vs. going to a lunch with a bunch of women from your neighborhood.
You might learn that you make 2/3 or even 1/2 the salary of male peers after killing yourself for years and feel betrayed, not sure whether to confront someone about the inequity in pay.
You might end up feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere—you’re not entirely one of the guys at work and you’re not really part of the girls in the neighborhood.
These are all things I’ve done and/or had happen to me, among a few other challenging experiences. All that said, I hope you’ll think twice before you quit. You’ve worked hard to get to this point. You’ve studied diligently, toiled late nights and early mornings. You’ve made all kinds of sacrifices to achieve good grades and good jobs. You had all sorts of big goals and dreams. You’ve beat out others for positions and deals, wanted more and more, and now you’re faced with critical decisions:
Do you have kids?
If yes, do you keep working?
Will your current job and the career that’s ahead of you accommodate a family?
If not, how should you adjust?
How should your job relate to your partner’s job?
The point I want to make here is that if you’re good, big companies (and sometimes small ones too) will accommodate you. They’ll let you evolve and grow. They’ll allow you to dial it back and then ramp back up again. There are tradeoffs you have to make with those changes, but staying in the game can be an amazing gift to yourself, your life, even though it will be harder and even completely daunting at times. It’s not for everyone and I definitely don’t want to knock staying at home. I just want to provide some perspective and advice for those who are trying to figure out if they can and/or should stay in the game, if it’s possible to make it work, if they will survive through the adversity, and if they’ll emerge on the other side of the gauntlet.
The answer is yes, but…
You have to be willing to evolve—your position, your pay, your childcare (the type and how much you pay), the other services you engage to support your life and your broader family, whether you are willing to travel or not, how much sleep you get, how much you do for your kids and how involved you are in their lives. You may have to check out a bit at times and let someone else run it for you—I did. Those kinds of tradeoffs aren’t for every woman, but should you choose them, they can provide some amazing things, relationships, and experiences.
Given all of that, why should you work?
Not all women have an option, but many do. So in the event you have a choice, why would you go out of your way to invest the time, money, stress, and everything else that’s required to work?
Here are just a few of many reasons to consider:
Economic independence and self-reliance
I never wanted to feel like husband was my employer. That might sound crass and may not be the way stay-at-home moms think about their relationship, but this is an evitable dynamic unless you come to the marriage with a big inheritance. It’s always been important to me that I’m a meaningful contributor to our family, our lifestyle, our partnership, our “Van Houten, Inc.” Knowing I can support my kids should something happen to him gives me confidence. I like that we’re peers in our relationship, both stakeholders in the economics of our marriage. I appreciate that he respects me because of that and values my partnership and economic engagement in “us.”
I always enjoyed having guys as platonic friends, even early on through grade school, high school, and college. I had three ushers along with eight bridesmaids just so I could include my closest male friends from college in addition to my husband’s eight groomsmen. I’ve seen other women friends who also enjoyed male friendships lose that whole dynamic when they stay at home. The reality is that once you’re out of the workplace, you effectively forego the opportunity for ongoing, spontaneous male friendships. And with that, you lose the connection, the things you have in common that enable you to engage in the same ways that you did growing up. You will probably see this play out at parties as people get into their 30s, 40s, etc. where all the women are in one room and all the men are in the other. As the perennial outlier, I’m usually the lone she-wolf in the room with the guys. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the women or want to be a part of them, but the things we have in common have diminished while the guys in the other room are the people I’m with every day, so we speak the same language and tend to enjoy the same things.
Sticking with a good job, particularly one that requires some travel, gives you the gift of many fun and interesting adventures over time, often with people who become your closest friends. I’ve visited many cities in Europe and the US that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. I’ve eaten at amazing restaurants, seen cool sights, and known people I wouldn’t have otherwise. That said, it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes, those adventures can turn into lonely trips where you’re overwhelmingly homesick in a not-so-great hotel room by yourself. That said, there are always trade-offs in life. My point is that life is enriched by experience—new people, places, things, and challenges—and work can be an amazing vehicle for achieving that.
The continuous challenge that work provides—to solve new problems, create new things, effectively do cool puzzles with other smart people—is absolutely oxygen, at least it has been for me. It’s like challenging yourself with ever-changing, tough workouts—your body can get better and better and you’ll find yourself being able to do things you didn’t think possible. Take crossover jump rope—I failed miserably after my kids first dared me, but now incorporate it into my routine regularly. The same is true with navigating the cognitive challenges of work. You’ll be faced with things that seem too difficult, that you’re not quite sure how to tackle. But then you’ll find yourself figuring it out and producing something unprecedented. Meanwhile, you’ll discover the opportunity to master one thing or another and want to push harder and take on the next challenge. You’ll also find yourself deriving great pride and confidence with each deliverable or milestone you achieve.
You’ve probably heard the expression “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” You may also have heard the term “dessert box”—that no matter how much you eat, your dessert box is always empty throughout your main meal and saved just for cake, pie, or any other sweet treat that awaits. This might seem like a bizarre comparison, but I believe that everyone has a “drama box,” for lack of a better term. What I mean by that is everyone has an innate need for drama, interpersonal interaction, tension, and competition, and that work is the most productive venue for that dynamic to play out. In cases where people don’t have the opportunity to play that out at work, they tend to fill their “drama box” with things that aren’t constructive, trying to compete on things that aren’t necessarily important (e.g., their kids’ abilities) and/or are hurtful to others (e.g., a “Mean Girls” version of suburban housewives). Work can be a tough, competitive place and a bit Darwinian, but it’s been better for me to have that as my competitive outlet vs. other things that might emerge in my personal life if my drama box wasn’t already filled.
To stick it out at work, hang in there over time, achieve career growth, and balance multiple things in your life, you have to muster more strength and grit than you probably knew you had when you started. With each obstacle overcome, every scary thing you take on and every achievement you realize, your confidence and swagger are bolstered.
The continuous challenge of work gives you something great in the moment while building up an internal infrastructure that strengthens you overall, in all aspects of your life. Meanwhile, this dynamic powers better decisions and provides constructive frameworks for solving problems, including those in your personal life. This internal strength and intestinal fortitude will help you adapt, survive, thrive, and tackle challenges with your head held high and the ability to take on the next hill again and again. This infrastructure also supplies you with the power to say no and advocate for yourself while focusing on the right things that will give your internal happiness and peace.