I guess you could call me a 26-year-old career woman. I’ve always dreamed of where my talents could take me, and I’ve done well in my young career. I’m motivated by success in my job, and pushing myself professionally is something I just wake up looking forward to doing. Being a woman, I also have a biological clock, and I would like to have children someday. My adorable niece brings out my nurturing side, and I see how happy many of my friends are being moms. I’m surrounded by babies and mommies, and it hits me, “Oh, right, I’m supposed to be thinking about that.”
Now that I’ve just started a new job that I love, the guilt to think about parenthood has intensified because I have a renewed enthusiasm to commit to this job and eventually seek advancement. My job-related happiness bubble bursts every time I realize I’m more excited about how I’m going to help the department achieve its goals than I am envisioning my life with baby clothes and strollers in the next few years.
I feel like a criminal for saying that. That desire just hasn’t hit me yet. But even when it does, I’m worried that being a mom will take over my life. Someone once said to me, “When you have kids, you’ll stay at home to raise your family, won’t you?” I think she was trying to tell me that that’s the only way to be a good parent, and shame on you if you thought you were going to have a career and a family. Who knows how I’ll feel when the time comes, but I’ll admit now that I don’t know how happy I would be if I wasn’t still pursuing my career long after having kids, because it’s so much a part of who I am now.
So naturally, I catch myself thinking that I have to reach my peak before I have kids. That nagging voice in my head saying I should get this desire to have a career out of my system sure puts a lot of pressure on a woman in her 20s! Thankfully, the timing was right for me that a new book came out that addresses this very issue: “Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead,” written by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. Chapter 7, “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” really hit home. In this chapter, Sheryl advocates pushing yourself as far as you can go before you step away to have a family. She urges women who plan on having a family to keep leaning forward in their careers, rather than slowing down to anticipate the life change.
The following excerpts struck a chord for me, and might be reassuring for anyone else in my shoes.
Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce already looking for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decision must be made.
The birth of a child instantly changes how we define ourselves. Women become mothers. Men become fathers. Couples become parents. Our priorities shift in fundamental ways. Parenting may be the most rewarding experience, but it is also the hardest and most humbling.
By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back. Before, she was a top performer, on par with her peers in responsibility, opportunity, and pay. By not finding ways to stretch herself in the years leading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind. When she returns to the workplace after her child is born, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated.
Sheryl’s advice has helped me realize that we do evolve when we become parents, but there is no harm in wanting professional success outside the home. She also helped confirm for me that if I want to do as best as I can in my job after having kids, I’ll need to set myself up for that success now, because there are barriers that our society still has when it comes to supporting women in their careers.
I know we are so much more than what we do (our jobs), but I like working and contributing and learning and growing and leading. Yes, my career defines me, much the same way that being a mother defines a person. I guess I’ll keep forging ahead!