During my maternity leave, I considered not returning to work. That might not seem like an incredible confession, but it is for me.
Not only because I’ve never publicly shared it, or because it’ll surprise most anyone who knows me, or because I’ve worked my way up to a senior leadership role, but because I genuinely love to work. And I love to inspire and coach other women to excel in their careers.
You can’t plan your whole life and you definitely can’t know what it feels like to be a parent until you are. Remember you are making the best decision you can with the information you have at the time. My son is now 10 years old and I am confident I made the right decision for myself—but the working mother path isn’t easy.
Being a working mother required a dual identity I hadn’t been prepared for. I felt the need to take on the extra assignment at work to show I could—to prove that I and every other working mother could work overtime. I was determined to make homemade cupcakes for the birthday party. And I talked about neither of these experiences at work or home, except with my husband and closest friends.
It seemed like everyone else had this all figured out, while I was the one missing work deadlines, missing school programs, missing my family, missing myself.
Pumping at work in the unisex bathroom gave me two daily opportunities to look in the mirror. (This was before separate pumping areas were mandated at work and the organization created spaces they have now.) So I had the chance to see how my hair was holding up throughout the day, and to really see myself.
On the great days, I smiled and told myself how amazing I was in my suit simultaneously taking care of business and my baby at home. On the tough days, I looked at my reflection and cried through the incessant knocking and audible sighs that could be heard through the door.
Being a working mom amplified everything I was experiencing as a female leader.
I remember a boss told me that I had a reputation for sharp elbows and it would hold me back in my career. The month before, he had praised me for imitating his sharp elbows to get something done at work. It’s really the quintessential double bind that every woman is held to at work.
Women are expected to smile all the time and be nice to everyone, yet we learn “nice girls” don’t get ahead at work.
Women are held to a higher standard for work and professionalism, and then we are disparaged for thinking we are too good for others.
Women are expected to show no vulnerability at work (I mean, God forbid we ever cry) and then others say we are not relatable.
And again, you’re even more under the microscope when you’re not only a woman in the workplace but a working mom.
Someone once suggested I shouldn’t take on an international travel assignment that would advance my career because I had a child at home. I made the decision that works best for me and my family, and I already knew what suitcase I’d like to take.
A quote went viral last year and it summed it up: Women are supposed to work like they don’t have children and mother like they don’t work outside the home.
Recently when a former colleague visited my new office, he casually remarked about the number of family photos on display. Though the comment probably meant little to him, it deeply struck me. For most of my early career as a working mother, I had no photos of my child in my office out of concern of being held back at work (consciously or unconsciously) for being a mother.
It took working with an executive coach to help me speak openly about the joys and challenges of being a woman at work, not to mention a working mom. It started with sharing my family Thanksgiving card with everyone at work—a visual reminder of my life outside of the office—to begin to blend the two sides of myself, and acknowledge the strengths of them when combined.
I love working. And I am great at my job. I truly believe that you can love your work and love your family. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It also doesn’t mean you will “have it all.”
When I left for a business trip not too long ago, I felt a bit wistful about leaving, until my son told me he’d be thinking of me having fun while he was having fun. It’s really everything I dreamed of and worked for as a working mother—for my son to feel self-assured, loved and proud of my work.
My biggest learning as a working mother is that good enough is everything. I had to stop being a perfectionist. I had to be okay with not knowing all the answers. I had to get comfortable with asking others for help. I had to find joy in each day. I was stronger than I realized. Each of these experiences as a mother has helped me be my best self at work, too.