Being on mat leave helped me think about what I want—and don't want—when it comes to my career
In the summers when I was around eight or nine, I'd go to the pool and sit on the deck's lip near the diving well. I'd watch people launch themselves like cannonballs, vault into a backflip or gingerly step off the edge, slicing into the water below. It looked like fun. But I decided I'd never do it. It never looked safe enough.
Professionally, I've been that kid sitting on the edge of the pool for years. My career path has been successful but conservative. I work in a stable industry, in a nice enough job, making incremental progress on a predictable career path. I've never really pushed. I've played by the rules. I've been, in a word, safe.
Then came my son.
My maternity leave was nothing like I imagined. It had its hardships—the short-on-sleep nights, hours-long crying jags, even some unexpected health setbacks requiring difficult decisions. But I woke up every day feeling I had a purpose. Every night, I went to bed feeling I accomplished something worthwhile.
Even in the times I felt overwhelmed by a situation—my son screaming in the middle of my physical therapy appointment or blowing out a diaper in the doctor's office—I acted. I knew I could solve the problem.
This was a confidence, I realized, I didn't often experience in my professional life.
On the last night of my leave, I sat rocking in our nursery chair, watching my son as he fell asleep. I had this dreadful feeling like I was about to depart a gorgeous utopian island to which I'd never be allowed to return. I feared the strong, confident, capable version of me who emerged during my maternity leave would vanish the minute my alarm sounded the following morning.
I wasn't entirely incorrect about that last part. A few days, then a week, then a month of work passed by. Every day, I longed for 4 p.m. so I could go pick my son up from daycare, hoping he'd napped enough so we could have about an hour of time together before he crashed.
But the trivialities of my workplace that I'd shrugged off in the past began igniting every nerve. I'd arrive at daycare tired and irritable. I wasn't at my best for my son, and that devastated me. I felt for the first time like I was sliding into postpartum depression.
If I was going to work and spend so many hours away from my son, was this the way I wanted to spend them? I felt strongly that the answer was, "no," but I was less certain of what that meant.
Find another job? Sure—but doing what? I'd spent so long focusing on what I thought was a safe, clear career path, I hadn't considered that it might not fit anymore when my life circumstances changed. What kind of work could make me feel fulfilled while providing a schedule flexible enough to spend more time with my son and—of course—enough money to support him and our family?
I enlisted the help of a career coach who talked me through my strengths and weaknesses and what I needed and wanted from my job. Our conversations kept returning to the same place: freelancing. Never in my life had I ever considered anything close to entrepreneurship, so the idea of going out on my own terrified me at first.
Could I—should I—leave the stability of working in-house behind? Was that really responsible to do with a newborn? At the same time, the idea of freelancing was thrilling. How empowering would it be to build a business—even a small one—from scratch? How refreshing would it be to focus only on work that excited and interested me without drowning in institutional red tape?
Success wouldn't come immediately, and it would require working nights, weekends, and holidays at times—but how wonderful would it feel to take my son to storytime at the library in the middle of a Thursday morning without asking permission?
When I began this foray into motherhood almost 18 months ago, I knew it would change me—but I thought that change would come in a different form. I thought I'd become more anxious and cautious, but instead, becoming a mom seems to have given me a clarity and bravery I couldn't have expected.
With each step I take toward this new professional path, I feel the strong, confident, capable version of me from my maternity leave re-emerging. For the first time, I'm climbing onto the diving board of my professional life and walking toward the edge.
And for the first time, I want to jump.