Thursday, June 13, 2013

Achievement, Ambition, Empowerment, and Contentment

Whew, that title is full of some big ideas.

I've had a few conversations lately that have stirred my mental pot, especially around those big ideas.

At work the other day, I overheard a lunch conversation that started with this: "if you could snap your fingers and have a new career that didn't require you to start all over with school, what would you do?" Most of the women are older than me. And most couldn't imagine having a different career. Me? If I could snap my fingers to a different career? I'd run an international aid organization of some sort. I know, kinda random. I'd love to have the organization and management skills to change lives through charitable giving. Don't get me wrong. I love my career. It allows me the other things I value in life: a marriage and family. But I occasionally wonder about a life full of international travel and saving people from starvation and disease.

I was lucky to have a visit recently from a friend who moved away a while back. I'll call her Janey, to protect her identity.

We stayed up late drinking wine, and she told me about the possibility of a career turn that would involve 3 intensive years in a fast-track nurse practitioner program. It would be an amazing career move. And a physical move. It would also create insane demands on her and her family. Did I mention she has 2 young children? It sounded terrifyingly overwhelming to me.

She discussed how tedious her current job was, and the general boredom she felt in her career. The concept of her current job sounds amazing. But yes, the details of her job were a bit mundane and repetitive. Yet it's a good job, and allows her to work from home. This is handy when you have 2 young kids.

We were both the recipients of world-class educations and the encouragement to be whatever we wanted to be. We were taught that we shouldn't settle for boring jobs. We should never accept the status quo. We should feel empowered enough to reach for whatever we wanted, no matter how difficult.

But now we have kids. And mortgages. And a tenuous sanity to preserve.

So I had to ask myself:  What's the difference between settling down and just settling for something less?

And then:  What model of achievement should I be presenting for my daughters? And what should I be teaching them about ambition, and empowerment?

I'm starting to think that our focus on women's empowerment is becoming a double-edged sword.

(WARNING: If you get squeamish about medical details, are looking to avoid description of birthing, or just generally want to avoid incidents of TMI, skip down to the next part with bold font!)

I was reading a post on my local mommy group website where a mom was inquiring about hypnobirthing as a way to avoid tearing during birth. I took the hypnobirthing class. I used the philosophy to have 2 unmedicated births. I tend to think of it as a good strategy to get through birth without unnecessary medical interventions. It never occurred to me that one could PREVENT themselves from tearing during childbirth. Doesn't that kind of depend on the size of your baby and your general skin elasticity? But there are those out there that encourage women to empower themselves to have exactly the childbirth experience they want. So if you don't want to tear, you can work hard enough to find a way not to tear. Wow. That's a lot of pressure... What if you DO find a childbirth technique that promises to help you avoid tearing. But you tear a little anyway. Does that mean you're a failure? I'm content to see tearing as a possible (and likely, given my prior experiences) side-effect of the birthing process. You get a few stitches, you use witch hazel pads and a peri-care bottle for a week, and you move on. Does this mean I'm too content with the status quo? Should I feel more empowered to demand the birth I want when Little Miss makes her grand entrance in a few months? But I don't want to feel like a failure when the midwife pulls out the needle and thread...

(OK, you squeamish readers can start reading again here.)

Do the current messages in our society really help us? "You can have it all! Get your career established first. Travel the world. Then when you're financially secure in your early 40's, have kids then." And "Don't settle. You CAN have a career! And a marriage! And kids! And fun leisure time!" And so women wait so they can have it all! And then they have to struggle with infertility, because a 30 year old body bears children more easily than a 40 year old body. The realities of biology don't change because we've suddenly become more empowered. Skin stretches, and then sometimes tears. We start our lives with lots of eggs. Most of the good ones are gone by our 40's. The limitations of a 24 hour day aren't swayed by successful women encouraging us all to do more, be more, achieve more. There are only 24 hours. We really can't clone ourselves to simultaneously attend a work meeting and a preschool dance performance. 
Or maybe I'm just not empowering myself adequately...

I brought up the topic to a wonderful group of moms from my church. They're smart, they're successful, they're kind, and they're wise. They're my grounding force in the face of the questionable advice provided by society and my local online mommy group. Once a month, we share food, wine, support, conversation, and prayer. Because we know our limitations. We need each other. And we know that there are just aspects of life we need to turn over to a higher power.  But we discussed my questions. 

Not one of them thought we could "have it all". According to them, we have natural seasons in life that demand and allow our energy to be directed to different areas. We have marriage partners with whom we give-and-take to make our family work well together. Our careers are just part of the picture. We have priorities that truly are more important. Like our marriages. And our children. When you sit with a group of women that include some who have buried children, it somehow becomes perfectly reasonable to shape your life and aspirations around those of your own children. It all falls into perspective. 

Of course, perhaps our expectations would be different if we could all afford to hire out parts of our lives - childcare, shopping, cooking, cleaning... Have you ever noticed that women to talk about "having it all" seem to have their own staff? Or at least have mothers living nearby who are willing to do those things for free?

We discussed the concept of "vocation". Martin Luther (the Reformation guy, not the civil rights guy) discussed vocation as a gift from God. Both bankers and blacksmiths have the ability to serve God in their jobs. They have the task of being the best banker/blacksmith they can be, in order to help others and fully utilize the gifts that God has given them. There is no such thing as a lowly or exalted job. There is just OUR job, and we need to do it well to give glory to God. You can be a wonderful 7-11 cashier. You can be a wonderful nurse. You can be a wonderful CEO. You can be a wonderful street sweeper. They all give glory to God! 

You can be a wonderful wife and mother. These are also vocations. Think it's not important? Imagine losing your spouse or child for a moment. Yeah, they're pretty important. Imagine not being around to teach your children what love is about and to prepare them to go out into the world. Imagine your children not having a mom. Yeah, the job is pretty important. 

So I'm thankful for the perspective my friends bring. I'm thankful for not needing to live up to the expectations of society. I already have some pretty big jobs on my plate. I'll stick with those and let others battle the angst of their "empowerment." I think I'll just pray for the power to do my own jobs well.

Hope you have a great week!


  1. Interesting points. I think that work/life balance, and career fulfillment, varies so much depending on the day, the week, the month. And it's so individual. What works for one family is not going to work for another. The only thing I've learned about this epic struggle so far is that entering any sort of judgement into the equation is counterproductive. All you can do is what feels right to you.

    With that said, off to work on an MBA paper at quarter of 5 before my workday starts ...

    1. You're right Charis. Everyone's balance should look different. I suppose that's what true "empowerment" is about.

      Judgement is the big elephant in the room when it comes to career vs. family. Mine is self-judgement. I need to get over that...

  2. I have no wisdom to offer regarding work-life balance, but we need to be more forthright as a society in acknowledging that "choosing" to have your family at age 38 or 40 is a huge gamble. "Planning" your family is a misnomer. Sure, we can plan--but if God is not on board then our plans are in the realm of "planning" how to spend the money when you win the lottery. After you have a miscarriage you tend to see a bunch of specialists and then you realize just how little our fabulous "modern" medical system knows about pregnancy and childbirth. The higher the specialist you see, the more likely he/she is to admit that he/she has no idea why your miscarriage occurred. Our society needs to admit that the working life is really long--45 years and counting--but the childbearing years are really short. And we need to be willing to "empower" our daughters with the idea that children and family are a worthwhile, commendable, utterly praiseworthy part of life. They are not a waste of your college education. They are precious and they are time-consuming and it's time very well spent. (Sorry for the rant!) - Polly

    1. Every time I see a friend pull out of the workforce to raise children, I wonder if the pendulum is swinging back towards valuing childrearing more. Law school, MBA's, and PhD's in science are getting shelved over and over for the "humble" but extremely vital role of motherhood. I can't help but think that this will have a positive effect for our daughters. (And sons and their future families, too.)

  3. So funny, I just saw this.

    I have been thinking and thinking and thinking about this conversation since we had it, and I, too, have initiated it with another group of friends. I wish I could say that I have come to a "conclusion" with regard to my own feelings as you have, but I can't. I love my family. I love my husband and my kids (does that need saying??) but...butbutbut. There still is this part of me that says "why are you a trailing spouse? Why aren't you doing something interesting? why aren't you doing something challenging and important? Is your professional identity enough?" I can't seem to shut down that voice. But at the same time, the more I think about it, the more I lean AWAY from pursuing the Nurse Practitioner program. So I'm really all over the place! I'm jealous of your seeming ability to be content - I am still working on getting there.

    oh, and thanks for the wine. ;)


    1. I think my "contentment" is made easier by the impending arrival of baby #3. I can't imagine taking on anything new right now. But with the girls getting older and headed towards school, it could be the right time to consider other things if there weren't a baby on the way.

      Let's reconvene this conversation when baby #3 is in preschool. With more wine, of course.