As an introvert masking as an extrovert, I had planned on a quiet lunch to recuperate from giving a 90-minute presentation. However, I found myself eating my warm, boxed lunch with a dynamic, confident, just on the other side of middle-aged, most definitely an extrovert woman. She introduced herself and did most of the talking, for which I was grateful. Eventually, she started giving me her resume—not in a boastful way, just in the way one does at any sort of professional conference. The natural course of conversation usually follows the question, “So, how did you end up here?” even if the question is never actually articulated.
I listened and was so completely impressed. I also intermittently felt myself blush whenever she touched on various points of which I felt did not measure up to the high standards this amazing individual had obviously set for herself. Her accolades, experiences, passion, drive—all of it made me wonder what in the world was wrong with me. A day of presenting to my colleagues had almost broken me—literally. While lamenting to my husband, I had equated the preparation for the day while trying to work, wife, and parent to walking uphill in the snow (both ways was implied).
But this woman had apparently done it all, family in tow, lived to tell the tale, and she looked pretty happy about it. And I wondered again, what was wrong with me that I struggled daily to balance motherhood and my career as a teacher.
Then, my musings on my inadequacies were interrupted; it was my turn. She asked me, in not so many words, the question: “How did you get here?” And, I told her.
Then, she asked me the question that is such a source of anxiety and even shame for me that I am mortified any time someone within my professional realm poses it.
She asked me what was next.
I told her I had no idea, and then in a voice of defeat, I sort of exhaled the words quickly, “Maybe nothing.” I told her my husband and I have a little boy who is our world and that before I became a mother I had a Christopher Columbus attitude regarding my future and was determined to explore it all. I was at a sprint with a plan and a backup plan. I was a force to be reckoned with, and I was confident about it. Ed.S., Ph.D., principal, even director—yeah, that was going to be me. All of it.
But then, motherhood. And then a pandemic. And then, my first experience with anxiety. Add in a nice little health scare for my husband, and I looked up and realized that to balance all of my messy, unexpected, terrifying, wonderful, extremely ordinary and simultaneously freaking magical life, I didn’t think I could possibly do one more thing.
I told her that nothing was next and that I might not ever advance my career because I didn’t think I was a person who could handle “doing it all.”
And then, this angel of a woman looked at me with tear-filled eyes (yes, this pillar of strength paused mid-sandwich bite and started to cry) and told me to stay right where I was because I would never get days with my baby back. Ever.
Time passes regardless of whether you are sprinting, walking, or standing still.
I think a lot about a college professor of mine who once commented that the trajectory of a woman’s career basically flatlines when she has children. She said this like she was shocked. She went on to cite some statistics to support the claim and stated that it was a feminist issue because the same thing doesn’t happen to men in their careers. I remember wondering (unmarried with no children) how anyone could assume that bringing another human being into the world wouldn’t impact a woman’s career. I wanted to stand up and say, “Of course the trajectory changes!”
What I’ve learned now is that the trajectory doesn’t have to change if you don’t want it to. But something will be sacrificed. Somewhere. And maybe someone, be it you, your spouse, or your child.
I’ve also learned that I don’t want to sacrifice the most important people in my life so my career trajectory looks like someone else thinks it should. I’m more interested in the trajectory of my life.
Am I too stressed to be kind to people in the grocery store?
Do I have enough energy at the end of the day to build cities out of Magna-Tiles with my toddler or teach him how to tend a garden?
Am I enjoying the church service on Sunday morning, or am I planning out my to-do list for Monday morning?
Am I as interested in supporting my husband as I am a team of colleagues?
I’m not in search of balance anymore. I definitely want my efforts to be unbalanced—heavily weighted toward home. I can no longer justify giving away the best parts of myself to people who aren’t my people.
So, let’s stop asking working moms what’s next. Instead, if you see a working mom who is doing a great job, just tell her you’re glad she’s there, a part of the team. She might not want to lead the team—she has a more important team she’s busy leading. Her next might be supper. Or storytime. Or date night.
And that’s okay. Leave her be.