I paged through Sheryl Sandberg's women-in-leadership missive, Lean In, while stuffed into a tin-can airplane winging south to Toronto, delivering me to my first, and only business trip. I'd left my husband and 2-year-old daughter behind in our small northwestern Ontario town, confident that they could survive without me.
The trip did absolutely nothing to bolster my career, nor did the book, but it was nice to get away for a weekend on my own.
I am—or rather, was—a reporter for a small community newspaper serving a town of roughly 6000 people. I started the job fresh out of a college photojournalism program, driving myself 2000 kilometres north in a station wagon, iMac lovingly buckled into the passenger seat, celebratory champagne buried beneath the suitcases and boxes.
The plan I reminded myself of when I questioned why, exactly, I was subjecting myself to this drive and the utter remoteness of my home to be, was simple. I’d move north and work for a year, then head off to something exciting and adventurous, maybe a reporting job in the real north of Yellowknife or foray into perfecting my high-school Spanish skills in Nicaragua.
On my very first day at the paper, I nosed my station wagon into the rutted dirt parking lot and looked up at the red brick building to see a floppy-haired fellow bounding up the slumping stairs with a cardboard tray of coffee.
Reader, I married him.
Really, I did. I dated him; the world's worst-kept office secret. I had a panic attack when the delivery truck carrying two sofas arrived in the driveway of our rented home, understanding that I could no longer easily pack my possessions into a vehicle and flee. But I dug into the relationship, and into my job.
Ink and newsprint, as much a part of our relationship as love and fidelity.
Northwestern Ontario winters as bitterly drudging as they are, our daughter, Marigold, entered the world 14 months later. I spent 11 months home with her and despaired at leaving her in the care of a stranger when my parental leave ran out, but the day I walked back into my office and reclaimed my desk, my former job and former life as an independent adult wrapped itself around me like a well-worn blanket, comforting me with its familiarity.
Marigold thrived on a level of socialization I could not give her on my own, and I thrived on talking to adults, using the bathroom without an audience, existing somewhere with my own thoughts and my own life for a handful of hours every weekday.
Yet balancing motherhood and journalism challenged me. Matt was working 12-hour shifts; I had no choice but to work evenings and weekends, and our childcare was not always reliable. I toted Marigold along with me to the office and in the field, hiking her up on my hip with one hand while maneuvering a camera with the other, handing over stacks of Post-its she stuck all over the office walls, listening to interviews I'd taped and episodes of Curious George simultaneously.
Sometimes congratulatory images and articles spread across social media, lauding women who bring their children into work, in politics especially, and all I can think when I see them is, Wow I know how challenging that is, how is she possibly making government-level decisions while her kid is chewing on her blouse?
It wasn't all work with no joy, though. Our son came along three years and nine days after our daughter. I had every intention of circling back to my job a year after his birth. Then, a few months before my workplace due date beckoned, I changed my mind.
After eight years at the same job, eight years at the only job I have held as an adult, the only job I have held in my industry, the entirety of my fledgling career, really... I decided to lean out.
Eight years of my life I have remained in this place where I landed, and my job has been one of the biggest constants. It is the reason I settled here in the first place. Newspaper work is cyclical and I could easily mark eight years of seasons by the stories written in my notebook each week.
Quitting feels like cutting my safety net loose, but the plunge is exhilarating.
These days that go by, days when I'm not entirely sure I actually accomplished anything at all, days of pressing nut-free sandwiches into dinosaur shapes, of sweeping the same spot on the floor three times in six hours, of purchasing dry shampoo in bulk amounts and pondering when I showered last, of color-coding activities on a calendar that takes up at least half of our refrigerator door real estate—these days will not last forever. I know this.
I know this because these days are already a shifting sea, as baby becomes toddler and kindergartener becomes self-declared big kid.
Oh, sometimes I feel like I'm on running on a wheel, a hamster scampering relentlessly inside the cheapest cage sold at the store. Like if I stop moving, all the lights will turn off and everything will cease to exist. But if I'm going to run on that hamster wheel, I want to win Most Valuable Hamster.
Right now, I can't fathom stretching my attention and my resources even further by being an employee, by showing up day after day on someone else's schedule to meet someone else's needs. I have my own hamster wheel and I do not need another one.
Anything new I add to this life subtracts from something else, and that arithmetic cuts my family short and leaves me depleted. I'm not willing to do it.
I know that I like to work. I know that I want to work again when it isn't detrimental to my carefully fought for, seldom realized household balance. I know that I might have this choice taken away from me if something in this precarious balance shifts and we need to shore things up with added income.
So maybe I'm not leaning out. Maybe I'm leaning back, sheltering, instead of squaring my body against the wind and planting my feet. I'm not sure yet. But I don't need to know yet, either.
What I do know is this: I am not going to apologize for leaning out of my career, much as those who lean in should not apologize, either. The thing about leaning is that it isn't permanent. In, out, back, forward; the scales tip as we place and replace what matters and what does not. And we are the individual administrators of those values.
Leaning into the wind—into the bluster of a busy career, or into the tempest of parenting—is in fact the same action, no matter what is powering the gale.