25 April 2013


I've been thinking about ambition lately, both in a general way and also as it relates to the workplace.

I've not read Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, but I did read Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in the Atlantic earlier this year about parenting and working, and I just read in the Washington Post this article by Elsa Walsh about a "good enough" life. While I take issue with Walsh's framing of the "good enough" choice as a woman's decision alone (I think problems with work/life balance are not exclusive to women), the article resonated deeply with me overall.

My boss is leaving her job, and many of my coworkers have asked me if I intend to apply. Many of them then seem quite surprised when I say that I don't, and that the main reason for not wanting to is that I'm not interested in taking on any additional responsibility right now (I also don't feel that I'm qualified). I make enough money to support my lifestyle; while I'd rather have more time at home than I do, most days I leave the house at 8, get home at 5:30, and rarely bring work home; my office is supportive of an occasional need or desire to attend a parent/teacher conference, be in the audience at a school play, or stick around to be there with the refrigerator repair person shows up; I get generous vacation and sick time; my employer contributes a generous sum to my retirement plan. In the imperfect world of work/life balance, I have things pretty darn good.

While I appreciate those benefits and support, I would prefer to see Maddie and Riley more. They are at a stage where we all want to be together most all of the time. For me, someone who wasn't sure she wanted to have kids at all and who then for years (years!) did not feel that deep, Primordial Bond to her children that people talk about, this change is a surprising shift. I had begun to wonder if I was defective in some way, rendered callus and unable to attach to people in the wake of John's death. Maybe that was the case for a while, or maybe that had nothing to do with it at all, but now, now! Many nights these days--after years of sleeping in their own beds--I find one or both of the twins in bed with me at night, and on the nights that doesn't happen, I'm sad. We all feel that our family time is at times infringed upon by our busy social lives. When a school friend wanted to stay at our house until 6 the other night, Maddie piped up, "But our mama time starts at 5:30!"

Oh, sure, they still can make me crazy (Will Riley ever give up the constant picking of his nose? And memo to Maddie: six is too young to start with the foot stomping and the eye rolls. Also: I'm on to you guys. I know you're stalling about going to bed.) But mostly, we just like each other so much right now. They are too young to know I'm not cool, old enough to enjoy great books and listen (at least occasionally) to reason. They are enthusiastic about pretty much everything. They are happy, and being together makes us all happy. I understand how they need me in a way that goes so much beyond their physical care and comfort, so much deeper than a predictable schedule, and I want to be there to respond to those needs while allowing them to face challenges and grow independently of my love and parenting.

So I say no to tossing my hat in the ring for what could be a logical big step up the professional ladder. I feel already stretched to the limit on work, home, family, and social life. If I add to the mix, I don't want that addition to come from work.

Does this make me less of a feminist, not taking all the professional risks that I could? Does it make me an underachiever? Does it make me wise? Or does it just make me the pragmatist that I usually am?

Sometimes I think about what I would do if my not working were a viable financial choice for our family. Would it change how I define myself if having an office job were not part of the equation? I think about what brings me joy and satisfaction. I wonder about my responsibilities in terms of who I am as a person, my family's needs, and society as a whole. Other than the paycheck, what is my job bringing to my personal life, to my children, to my community? Other than the paycheck, what would be lost if I were not doing this job? What would I rather do? Or am I where I need and want to be?

I have male colleagues at my level in the workplace who I assume are being asked about my boss's job and their interest in applying. I don't know what they plan to do so, and I wonder if their thought process around it is the same. As I parenthetically stated at the start of this post, I perceive work/life balance as a family/societal issue, not just a woman's issue, although there seem to be ways that women feel it more acutely than men.

I'm looking forward to an evening with the kids, maybe going out for sushi, definitely reading some Nancy Drew (they are obsessed with N.D. and the Hardy Boys right now), some outdoor playtime in the gorgeous spring. While I'm at work, home is never far from my mind. When I'm at home, I rarely think about work. I'm not sure what any of that means, or what, if anything, I want to change or can.


Unknown said...

I'm proud of you

Christie said...

So they do grow old enough to listen to reason occasionally. Thank God. Nice post, lady. Let's go and get some wine.

Jboo said...

I think this makes you a very wise feminist! Enjoy!


Scrappy_Lady said...

I'm happy for you. While you might be questioning your feelings around it, it definitely sounds like this is a good decision for all of you. I'm glad you were able to make it.

Someone else said they thought you were a "very wise feminist" and I agree.

liz smith said...

I was in a similar position a few years ago. I was asked to apply for a management position which would have been a step up from my supervisor position. I just couldn't do it. I knew that if I took it would lose time with my family and be unable to meet my commitments in other areas. I think that being a feminist means being strong enough to make the choices that work for you.

Janine said...

It sounds to me like you're in a pretty good place. I don't think your feelings indicate anything negative, they just reveal where your priorities are.
You've found a good balance. I don't that we, as mothers (and as the wives we once were) can "have it all". It's just not possible. Something has to give ... something sacrificed. You've chosen your time with your children, without having to sacrifice your job as it is now. That doesn't mean you lack ambition. It means your ambition is to be close to your children. :)
Enjoy this time. They will, all too soon, find out that you are way less cool than they thought. In the meantime, treasure every book, every meal together, and every overnighter in your bed.
You're doing a great job.

Anonymous said...

I would never doubt your motives or your feminism. But this parenthetical gives me pause:
"(I also don't feel that I'm qualified)." If you read Sheryl Sandberg's book, you might think twice about making that statement.
Your choice not to apply is a very legitimate one for almost all the reasons you state, but do be aware that you may not be accurately perceiving your qualifications or abilities!

OTRgirl said...

Even as I'm working towards a promotion, this sounds like a wise decision for you. It's good to know where your joy fountains are and spend as much time there as possible. Ambition for ambition's sake seems like an empty choice to me.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thank you! I have been chewing on this same idea since reading all the media about "Lean In." I work full-time, have a graduate degree, and enjoy my job, but I do NOT want to work more than 40 hours a week, and do NOT want to have to ever put my job before my family. I would hate my life if I had to do this. My kids are also at the stage where they love being around me, and I love being around them. Because we only see each other mornings, evenings, and weekends, I really cherish the time we spend together, and guard it jealously.

The other thing that I think goes forgotten in the conversation about women going for promotions to high-level administrative positions is: it's really hard to do if your partner also works full-time and is not able/willing to step in to always provide the childcare when you have to go on frequent business trips, meetings, working nights to meet deadlines, etc. And if you're a single parent, even harder. I read an interview with Sheryl Sanders and in it, they noted that her husband left his job so she could take the job at Facebook. She also noted that her sister lives a mile away and is always glad to step in to provide childcare. Our family does not have these options, and I'm guessing a lot of other families don't either. I value some of Sheryl's points, but I also think she is looking at the problem (I haven't read the full book, just the articles by her and about her in Time Magazine)from her own viewpoint and lifestyle. I also don't believe (maybe this makes *me* a bad feminist?) that one has to be at the top of a corporate hierarchy to make significant differences in society. Just look at how social media and grassroots movements have changed elections and social policies over the past few years--I'm guessing hardly any of the members of these groups are executive officers in large companies...

Mizasiwa said...

Wow - I am so glad I'm not the only one that didn't feel that instant connection to their kids but has found it later. I too have found this pull toward my family and the bond are strong and tight!! I agree with most of your other commentors you have made a good decision based on your own family needs now however I must agree with one commentor who said you should not just assume you are not qualified... I know its hard to be a single mom and all that entails however - I don't think these kinds of promotions come around often in your current place of work. The person you work for now is accomodating but who will take her place and will they too be accomodating or threatened by you? Not tryong to be a downer just thought of this side of the coin... I know you will work with whatever comes your way and overcome any bad stuff! Have a great weekend!

Anonymous said...

I'm a senior associate at a law firm and I think about this stuff all. the. time. I don't want to fail, but I also don't want to succeed (too much) because I want to be with my kids every possible moment. Damn is it tricky.

Deborah - What is a Split-Site PhD? said...

I can understand the need to not add new responsibilities when you already have a completely full schedule. All of the outside factors are irrelevant, the relevant part is doing what is best for yourself and your family. You have an opportunity at work but you also have opportunities at home.

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Anonymous said...

Just wanted to drop you a quick message to say hi and that I pop over every now and then to see if you have posted anything. Hope you are well.

BiancaW said...

Sorry - never meant to be anonymous. That previous message was from me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog - it has helped in so many ways. I read it from "cover to cover" I was sad when it came to the end but from your previous posts it sounds like you are doing well. All of us out in the blogosphere wish you the best!

Yankee, Transferred said...

You cannot get these days back. If you want to hold on to them, you might as well. And you were not made callous by John's death...you were deeply, heartily distracted by it. That's something entirely different. That would be the reason for the delay in feeling the deep attachment, in my opinion. I'm proud of you for knowing and chasing your dreams. Follow your bliss. It's worth it. (This from someone who turned down several promotions when her kids were little.)

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