I never contemplated not working. I probably contemplated not having kids more than not working. I graduated from Business school in 2005 and have worked pretty steady in corporate roles since that time. When I was in university, I used to imagine myself hurrying down a crowded downtown street with a laptop bag over one shoulder, talking fast into a phone, swerving around people, allegedly rushing to make a meeting.
I wanted the busy, fulfilling, chaotic life I imagined of a businesswoman.
I met my husband in university and we have now been together over 18 years. We talked at a young age of having a plethora of kids but it was never an end goal. It wasn’t, ok, we’re going to get married and start a family and that’s what we will do in life. It was, one day we’ll have kids, obviously, but we’re not in any kind of rush to do that and we want to see the world and have experiences first. And so we did. We moved across the country (Canada), we travelled to Europe more than once, South America, across the United States and leaned into our careers.
Before I became a mom, I was always a bit confused when I heard of this debate going on: motherhood versus career. I wondered, why was it an either or? Can’t a woman be successful as a mother and in a career? Our society and the inherent engrained systems would tell you no, at least not easily and probably not without some sacrifices. And young, naive, childless Vanessa said, systems be damned, I don’t have to choose, I will do both and I will rock them! For some women, seeing possibility rather than limitation is easy. They will do it all and they will rock it. While for other women choosing is easy because they see the value in being available for their kids. It’s not a sacrifice, it’s the preferred choice. And then for a third group, it’s a struggle. It’s a constant ongoing battle of guilt, indecision and conflict, no matter what choices they make.
Well, when I finally got around to having kids, I didn’t see the need to choose or change. I loved my career and I would continue to pursue that because that was part of my identity and my fulfillment as an individual. I even remember when it was time for me to go off on my first maternity leave, I thought, am I being punished? Why can’t I keep working? Do I have to go off for a year? In Canada, it’s pretty much unheard of if you don’t take a full year of maternity leave. But I knew myself and decided I would take 6 months, that seemed like more than enough time to be stuck at home with a baby. And sure enough, after about 4 months, I was ready to go back. The new role of mother was lovely and I loved my daughter but I was bored with the monotony of being at home with a baby all day and I craved challenge and stimulation again. I had had an easy recovery from child birth, no complications, my daughter was an easy baby, mentally my only anguish was the boredom.
Being back at work after maternity leave felt right. I felt the sense of fulfillment that I was used to having with my career. It also gave me the chance to miss my daughter, who some days I would only see for maybe an hour a day. I still felt like myself. Yes I was now someone’s mother but I still felt that I had very similar priorities as I did before. I enjoyed the happy balance of motherhood and career. I was defying all the odds and everything I had been told by society! I found being a mother fulfilling and I found having a career fulfilling. But less than 2 years later, while on my second mat leave, something started to shift in me. I felt the early twinges of a pull away from the corporate world.
I returned from my second maternity leave after 6-1/2 months off and I arguably could have stayed off for a few more months. Quite the change from the first time around. I found two babies was less ‘boring’ and I found myself much busier. But nonetheless, I returned to the corporate world, to a promotion and threw myself into the busy life of two daycare drop offs and pick ups, an hour long commute and very little time to myself. I enjoyed what I was doing though so it was worth it in my mind.
By the time I was pregnant with my third baby I found myself facing a serious 180 degree shift in where I was finding fulfillment. I was no longer enjoying my career at the soul crushing corporation. Had it always been soul crushing? I assumed it was the third pregnancy that did me in and that now that I was going to be a mom of 3 my perspective about my career must have changed and somehow it had become less important to me. The root cause of my career disillusionment must be directly tied to my identity as a mother. You really do need to choose. It’s just as everyone said. Career or motherhood.
So for months I rationalized this purported step back from my career. While I once thought I could be successful at both, I no longer enjoyed my career, and it must be because I’m a mom. It’s because I’m a mom, it’s because I’m a mom, was the excuse in my head. My kids just need me more now and because I’m a woman I have all these innate mothering instincts to put them first. Careers are long, I’ll get back into mine eventually. It’s not a priority right now. My children are the priority. These are all the ways I rationalized my struggle. Talk about making motherhood a scapegoat. Why did one have to do with the other?
I finally came to the realization that it wasn’t because I’m a mom that I didn’t want a career or that a career didn’t make me happy, it was that THIS career was no longer making me happy. Yes being a mother had shifted my priorities but that didn’t mean that being a mother was to blame for my career disillusionment. What I came to realize was that if I’m going to be away from my kids for hours a day, it better be for something worthwhile and the company and role and career I currently had was no longer worthwhile. This was not about opting out, this was not because I was a mom of 3, this was simply time for change.
Like I said at the beginning, I never contemplated not working and I still don’t. After being in the corporate world for 15 years, married for 11 years, a mom for 6 years, it’s only natural that my priorities and goals would change. This is not about motherhood versus career, this is not about invisible limitations we shackle ourselves with, this is about priorities and individual/family values that will naturally evolve as we go through life. It’s not this or that, but it may be a bit more of this for now, rather than that.
Here’s the thing, there’s no playbook for motherhood and If you’re looking to other women or mentors to carve out a path for you, you may find yourself headed in the wrong direction. Everyone’s journey is different, everyone’s feelings are different. While some women opt out of their careers before the first baby is born, for other women it takes longer and for still other women, they never opt-out. What I’ve learned in my motherhood journey and in my career journey or really you could just say, in life, is that the choices you deem to be right today may not be the right choices in a year or two or ten. We are constantly evolving and changing and by being adaptable and open to those changes it will help us be better mothers, wives, daughters, friends and humans.
So, what happened with my career? Well, I’ve discovered a new career path that brings me tons of fulfillment again and I feel like me again. And guess what, I still love being a mom too.
Follow Vanessa @vheembrock