My boss talked to me one day about how best to succeed in our industry. My boss, like me, was married with children. She suggested I have someone come in and clean, recommended I find a mentor to help guide my career, and warned that the work-life balance was tough for women because we were missing one thing that most of the men at our level had: stay-at-home wives. I couldn’t really appreciate what she was saying until a few years ago.
Fast forward six or seven years, as I listened to Ann-Marie Slaughter talking about her life experiences and her new book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. I found myself crying through the entire 10 minute interview. I don’t really know why I was so moved by the interview, but it affected me in a unique way. In the interview, Slaughter discussed her decision to step away fro her job to focus on her family and children. And this mirrors the decision that I made more than three years.
I should have known early in my career that balancing everything would be difficult, but I think I was filled with naïveté that things would somehow work out. When the kids were toddlers, my husband and I were sure things would get easier when they were in school. And when they were in elementary school, we were sure things would be easier when they were in middle school. But as middle school approached and we realized that balancing everything wasn't going to get easier, my career was accelerating towards more responsibility, a higher title, and more travel. And as much as I embraced this change, I slowly found my thin grip on everything disintegrating.
Towards the end of my career, my boss was an empty-nester with a stay-at-home wife. All of my peers were men who were either single, children-less, or with stay-at-home wives. Suffice it to say that none of my peers had the time-constraints that I had: the need to leave at a reasonable time to pick up children from school or make it to practices, the difficulty with late-afternoon or evening meetings, the inability to stay late on Fridays for a round of golf. My productivity was on par with, or greater than, theirs. But it seemed my lack of interest in Friday evening bar crawls and inability to stay late in the office just because seemed to weigh more on my boss’s opinion of me than my work performance.
At the same time, I was asked to take on additional projects while still maintaining my own projects. This resulted in a doubling of my deliverables and the number of people I was managing. And that was on top of an already-demanding workload. But I took on that added responsibility with pride. I was honored that my boss had thought of me for this added responsibility. He must really believe in me, right?
The next several months were difficult for me and my family. I worked approximately 60 hours each week, often spending many hours on a Saturday or Sunday at work. I was doing the work of two people, and yet I was still the one picking the kids up, making sure they were at their practices, cleaning the house and cooking dinner, checking homework, and all of the other things that are done at home. After dinner and bedtime, I would work several more hours, often falling asleep with my laptop in my lap in bed. And I would wake up the next day and do it all over again. But I was working toward the goal of meeting the deliverables and hopefully exceeding them when possible. I knew my hard work would pay off.
It didn’t. Because when it came time for yearly reviews, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that although my hard work was appreciated, I wasn’t going to get the high rating that I was expecting (and had gotten in EVERY year previously) because the projects I had worked on weren’t the most important and visible to the company. I had worked hard, but not on the projects that would increase my boss’s standing in the company. And so he could only give me an average rating. Not a bad rating, but it was the worst rating I had ever gotten at the company and one that I knew wasn’t deserved.
And then I realized something. It wasn’t that my boss didn’t appreciate my work. He did. And it wasn’t that my work had been poor. It wasn’t. In fact, I had met or exceeded every goal and deliverable. But my perceived value didn’t match up to that of the men in my group. Why? Because he was more connected to them and their deliverables. I was given the projects that no one else wanted. The ones that had very little consequence to my boss. And no matter how hard I worked, it really wasn’t going to matter.
Meanwhile, at home, our oldest child was approaching sixth grade. The house had become a ball of stress, with both my husband and I having little time to ask about homework or test grades or new friendships. We tried our best, but things started falling through the cracks. We even got our daughter to her dance recital late because I got the times mixed up. That’s something that would never have happened in previous years, and something that still elicits and pit in my stomach when I think about it. The more my husband and I talked about the kids and how best to parent them, the more we realized that one of us had to spend more time with them. And the more I realized that that person should probably be me. I felt that my career had become a distortion of itself, not what I had hoped or dreamed of. And the fulfillment that I got from it wasn’t enough to keep me in it.
And so in the spring of my son’s fifth grade year, I stopped working.
It’s been quite a change. An emotional rollercoaster ride. I never thought I would find myself unable to answer the question “what do you do?”. And I never realized how many people ask that question!
As time passes, it becomes increasingly harder for me to answer that question. I used to say I’m an engineer or give my business title at work. And that answer always elicited more questions. Questions about my job or the types of patients we helped or which surgeons we worked with. But always more questions.
Now I often hesitate before answering that question because the answers that were natural before now seem disingenuous and don’t flow naturally off my tongue. I find myself pausing to think, and flinging out whatever strikes my mind on that day. Most often it’s some version of “I used to be a bioengineer, but now I stay at home and take care of the kids”. And I feel like the words fall out of my mouth and hit the pavement flatly, with the person I’m talking to having no idea how to respond to them.
Most people make a graceful exit or change the subject smoothly. But others can’t seem to hide their disappointment/confusion. They seem perplexed, and some even ask what I do all day, as though they pity the fool who would have such an overabundance of time. But usually I find that my answer ends the conversation and people move on to talk to someone else, someone more interesting.
As though being a stay-at-home mom has even taken away my intrigue and left me utterly uninteresting as a human being.
And perhaps that’s why I’ve come to think of myself as totally inconsequential. A person whose presence can easily go unnoticed. And that’s not an easy feeling to swallow when you’ve been an overachiever your entire life. It’s hard to balance having a PhD and the many past accomplishments in my life with the fact that no one asks about me and my life anymore. Because what can really be going on in the life of a stay-at-home mom? They probably feel that they’re getting the highlights and cutting to the chase when they ask about the kids. I should probably be happy that they care enough to ask about the kids. But it would be nice to have someone ask about me and what I’m doing sometimes, even if I don’t know how to answer the question.
On the flip side, a question of how we’re doing (not me, but our family) is confidently answered, as we’re doing better than I would’ve imagined. I think we’re a close-knit family unit that gets to spend quite a bit of time together. And I consider that a blessing, because I know that many families can’t piece together the time to vacation together or go on outings together like we do, with work and chores and everything else that life brings. I get to do the mundane things during the day when the kids are in school and my husband is working, so our weekends are focused on the kids and our nights are dedicated to homework and family. Household chores and obligations don’t crowd out those activities, and that truly is a blessing.
And that’s probably what created all of the tears during the AnneMarie Slaughter interview. I was awash with feelings of happiness and loss, gratitude and frustration, but most importantly, feelings of validation. A sort of catharsis caused by hearing my feelings articulated cogently. Slaughter talked about the struggle of making this monumental decision, and how she knew it was the right decision. And I feel the same way. With all of the uncertainty (financially, professionally and personally) that has accompanied this decision, the one certainty is that it was the best decision for my marriage and my family. And on most days, knowing that is enough.