Reader question: I leaned back, and I’m bored. Now what?

I recently received a letter from a reader about what I know is a common career dilemma. This reader wrote that she was moving up the ladder at a consulting firm when she became pregnant with her first child. She loved her job and her firm loved her; indeed, she was promoted to a senior position while she was on maternity leave.

Upon returning to work, though, she found life rough. There were the hours and the commute of course, but on top of that, as a new mom, she felt “I had to be in control of everything — I was the self-appointed maid/chef/primary parent, and didn’t expect my husband to do much of anything at home, and he obliged.” When she became pregnant with her second child a few years later, she decided to “transition to a role that would afford me more time to focus at home.”

She took a job at a different company. The change came with a large pay cut (from earning well into the 6-figures down to 5). However, it also came with a ton of flexibility — the ability to work where and when she wanted and to leave work behind when she was off the clock.

She likes her company, but “with all that being said, my kids are now 4 and 2 and in the past year a fog has lifted,” she writes. She realized that her expectations were lopsided, and in the past year she has learned to ask for help and to distribute the load of parenting and household work more equally with her husband. “Now I am looking back with a sense of regret at my choice to take a step back in my career,” she says. “Part of me feels that if I had known then what I know now, I would have outsourced more, voiced my struggles with my husband, and asked for help.” But the question becomes: now what? “I am finding it difficult to fill my hours at work, and although this was welcome at first — time to organize my closet! Time to menu plan — I am, for lack of a better term, bored.” In conversations with her manager, she learned that there was not much else for her to do now. So, “short term, what do I do when I have done all my work and it’s only 12 p.m.?”

I know this reader is not the only one to fall into this trap. Plenty of people listen to the cultural narrative insisting that women with children should not hold jobs that require travel or longer hours, even if they really enjoy the substance of these jobs. Plenty of women absorb the message that their identities should hinge on being “perfect” mothers, which — whatever that means — never seems to include earning enough money to support the children well (and why not, I ask?)

Anyway, people wind up taking jobs where the selling point is the flexibility or limited hours, rather than the substance of the job itself. I know that a lot of people would find extra time and mental space great, but honestly, I think work is more fun if it’s challenging. I know I wouldn’t be happy long-term if I was bored, and I want our reader (and everyone!) to feel excited by projects. I want our reader to feel like she’s using her brain.

Of course, there’s no point in beating oneself up about past choices. It’s hard to fight cultural narratives, and it’s hard to take these fights head on in our own families when it feels like there’s a giant force pushing back. Our reader did what felt right in the moment given the circumstances. The good news is that though she leaned back, and tolerated an unequal division of labor, she stayed in the workforce. Opting out completely would have made it a lot harder to go back in.

While it’s possible that she could find a more challenging role at her current company — which is worth looking into — I think it’s also a good time, post-fog, to look elsewhere as well. She’d mentioned returning to her old consulting company, which is an option, though if she feels strange about that, there are a lot of consulting companies, so she should feel free to apply to any of them. Being promoted into a senior role at one firm looks good elsewhere. I’m sure she could find a firm that would be happy to have her.

She could also use some of her extra time to really think about her ideal job and what her ideal schedule would look like. What kind of work makes her excited and happy? What would make her feel like doing a little jig on Monday mornings? There are a great many jobs in the world, and since the reader is currently employed and has space and flexibility to think and network, she doesn’t have to move quickly. She can give herself the gift of time to think this through. It’s quite possible she’ll find a job that’s just as flexible but far more challenging and better paid. These things aren’t always either/or. She can take the long-term perspective. 2020 is the year she will make her big move. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. But by the end of the year, she’ll be doing something that makes her want to lean back in.

I’m curious what other people think. Have you taken a job because of its flexibility or limited hours, but wound up feeling bored? Did you choose to do something creative with the extra time and mental space? Or did you seek out another job once the immediate need for flexibility or limited hours was gone? Please let us know!

Photo: Trying to figure out a new path…

17 thoughts on “Reader question: I leaned back, and I’m bored. Now what?

  1. One suggestion in this ‘in between’ phase would be to invest time in skill building and study – even if a paid course/qualification is not possible or not appealing, there are plenty of free MOOCS or cheap online courses, or just buying a good textbook and working your way through. This will improve both confidence and employability, and can also be part of the process of identifying that dream job. For me, investing in my own professional development, even if my workplace isn’t supportive, has always paid off (in a literal financial sense as well as the ‘That was worth it’ sense)

  2. Looking forward to hearing readers thoughts on this, also curious to hear if others have been in the same situation and what they did about it.

  3. As someone who left the workforce, feeling mentally challenged is definitely an issue. Personally, I have found volunteering to be a great outlet. I volunteer for my kids activities. For example, I’m a co-leader of a Girl Scout troop, not just a mom who signed up as adult support and comes along on outings sometimes. I find it infinitely fulfilling being in charge, deciding what is going to happen and how it is going to be done. Our little troop is very active and the girls have a great time. I also play in a community band and flute choir, I play the organ for church and sing in the choir, and I volunteer for BSA Scouts where both my boys have almost earned their Eagle rank. Obviously my kids aren’t ages 4 and 2, but there are opportunities to do things at that level as well. Career isn’t the only are where she might find more mentally challenging and fulfilling work.

  4. I am or rather have been in the same position as her though my story was a bit different. I had to leave a well-paid job when my baby was 4 months old due to a lack of childcare and long working hours. I struggled for 7 long years to get another job as we kept moving to different cities. I tried everything, from cold calling potential employers and reaching out to my network. Upskilling failed in my case due to my own laziness. However, I *knew* what kind of work I wanted to do in my field and I made sure I let it be known to as many people as I can. I didn’t care about the pay but I love my field and simply wanted to work.
    Miraculously, a friend’s cousin who works in the same field as mine heard of this and I sent him my resume and the rest, as they say, is history. After that, whatever opportunities I have got have been due to my networking and it has opened up more avenues for me to a point, where I am excited and hopeful about upskilling and am currently in the process of doing the same. I don’t have a steady stream of work as of now, but I *do* have projects going on that I am hopeful will lead to something else.
    Long story short, figure out exactly what kind of work you want to do in your field, network and upskill yourself. If money is not exactly a pressing issue at this time, then sooner or later, things work out. The important thing is not to lose hope.

  5. Almost a year ago, I left my job at a very large company (where I was building and managing a new line of business and a member of the senior leadership team) for a more flexible role at a very small company. Although the ability to set my own schedule and take as much time off as I want has been nice, I am finding it hard to stay engaged and motivated at my new company and am considering searching for something new within the next 6 to 12 months. Because I remained in the workforce with a title that looks similar on paper, transitioning into something with a higher level of responsibility will not be as difficult as it would have been if I’d taken time off altogether. However, part of me wonders if I should have just outsourced more and stuck things out. I will definitely keep that in mind as I move on to my next gig.

  6. I agree that these sorts of “seasons” in our lives can be a great time to invest in personal development. I chose to leave the work force for several years. When I re-entered the work force, I took a job with the hours and flexibility that I wanted, but perhaps doesn’t make the full use of my skills and abilities. My children are still fairly young so I’m not quite ready to look for a different job just yet. Instead, I’m working on a master’s degree and developing new skills in areas that have changed dramatically over the past few years such as social media and marketing. My hope is that when I’m ready to look for a new position, I’ll be able to show potential employers that I’ve been growing my expertise even if my current job title doesn’t reflect all I can really do.

    Perhaps your reader could take part in continuing education, new skill development or even try writing for industry-related blogs or trade publications. Best wishes to her!

  7. Why is it that the “interesting” jobs are the ones that consume inordinate hours and require massive sacrifice? Why is it so hard to get hired back at a challenging job after taking a short term step back? Why is there no middle? It’s not as though after 3 years of a slightly less demanding job you are now stupid or something. I don’t get it.

  8. I’m not sure this is so much about leaning out as it is about just needing a new challenge. Plenty of people stay in the work force or on the fast track but still get bored and hit a point that it’s time to find a new job or company. It sounds like the writer had lots of challenging work pre-kids, then she had two little kids, which was it’s own challenge, and now she’s ready for another new challenge. That’s great!

    To the writer, I’d say, “You don’t really know that you’d be happier if you’d stayed in your old role. Maybe you’d be totally burned out right now. You’ve gained lots of perspective over the years about what you want and don’t want in your family and job situations, and now you’re in a great position to find a new job that hopefully gives you more challenge and some flexibility.”

    As OMGD said, you are still a valuable employee even if you took a more flexible job for family reasons (Can you imagine a man being “punished” in his career for doing the same thing to – say – care for aging parents? No, he’d be considered a saint). I think you have a lot more career capital than you are giving yourself credit for and you have lots of great years of work ahead of you. Good luck!

    1. Haha! Thank you for saying this so much better than I did! I do think there is a perception that any time a woman takes her foot off the gas pedal, the change has to be permanent. In academic medicine (my field) it seems to be the case somewhat, but is not necessarily even universally true there, depending on what you want to do. It’s frustrating because life happens to everyone eventually, and everybody deserves to be cut some slack. It seems to me to be a waste of intellectual capital to only value workers with this uniform life experience.

    2. Great response!!! Well said. And you are 100% right that it seems far more challenging for women to lean back in than for men. But, could this also be because we are the ones most likely to do this?

    3. Chelsea, I like this comment (and enjoy this post overall, it’s a fun scenario to think through!). I think there’s a bit of a ‘false choice’ fallacy in the question ( a little Gretchen Rubin-inspired note) . It’s not “big stressful job” or “little boring job”. There are, I’m sure, shades of gray or even other avenues she may not have thought of. Maybe since she gets her work done by noon, she could use the extra time to write a novel, take a class, start a side business. Or look for a job in between the two extremes.

      1. Yes! I think this is a perfect situation for that exercise where you change the “or” to “and”. I assume not *every* interesting consulting job is 100% travel and zero flexibility. She wants a job that is both challenging *and* has some flexibility (maybe not unlimited flexibility, but *enough*). OR – as you say – she decides to create challenge for herself with the extra time. Is there a need that she sees at the organization that she can fill? Maybe consider this a sabbatical or Google 20% time and use it for deep thinking.

        I think the crucial thing for her is not to get sucked into the idea that she’s irreparably tanked her career. That’s not a helpful place to be. Also, she’s still working a full-time job in her industry. If that’s leaning out, then what exactly does it take to lean in? I mean, I get that consulting is competitive and all, but really… If she’s got a good work history and good references… Unemployment is low right now… She made one choice when it made the most sense, and now she’s going to make a different one with the benefit of having more experience of a parent. That’s life experience… let’s not pathologize it.

  9. For me personally, getting involved with my kids activities would not make me feel like using my brain. I took the freelance route for more flexibility when our eldest was born, doing more or less the same level of work as I did before (and for more money, after taxes). Not reaching higher levels though, because between paid work and kids, finding new projects doesn’t always get the amount of time it needs. I guess there must be higher level part time projects around. But, all in all, very happy with my choice and not missing office gossip one bit!

  10. Can you create your opportunities? Create your own company? What can you offer others as a consultant? What else have you always wanted to do? I

    f you want to get back to your old company, why not ask? They loved you so much – there might be a place for you yet!

  11. I also worked as a consultant and took a step back when I had my kids. I don’t actually regret it. My kids are 4 and 5 but my youngest was a terrible sleeper and is only recently sleeping through the night. The fog of sleep deprivation has only just lifted for me! I’m glad I got an easier and more flexible job for those few years, purely for the sleep deprivation aspect.

    In my case I only took a €13k pay cut so not a massive difference like this lady. It has definitely reduced my earning power long term though. I went from above average for my experience before kids to only now being back in average pay for my experience.

    However I think in my personal case it was worth it. My old job was very stressful with lots of travel. They used to e.g. call me on Monday and say “you need to be in London tomorrow at 10 am until Friday evening”. That would have been a big sacrifice when I had a baby. My husband also is away for work a couple of days a month (and works in a public sector job with a guaranteed pension so would not have been open to leaving) so we would have probably needed some live in childcare. We could have made it work but it would have been very stressful and child care costs would have been much higher.

    In my case I’m glad I leaned out. Different situations suit different people.

    In total I took 2.5 years off entirely from when my eldest was born till my youngest was 1 (I got made redundant when my company was sold and got a nice payout). I did find it a little hard after that to get back into the workforce at the same or higher level, partly because I didn’t want to do the same job. So I lowered my expectations of salary slightly and 2 days later I had a job on 13k less than my previous salary. It took a couple of years after that to work my way back up and now I’m in a job that is actually a little easier than my old job but better paid. I’m smack bang in the average salary for my current years of experience so I’m happy enough.
    As the kids get older I will probably lean back in a bit more too and up my salary more.

  12. This read was perfect timing for me. I just made a choice to do a job that solves an interesting problem that may not be as flexible over one that promises flexibility and not quite as interesting. I don’t know why it seems like we have to choose one over the other but that is a discussion I have all the time with my husband. He says I should be able to find a job that is both interesting and flexible that I can grow and move up in and I hope one day that I do but for now I have found that for women it tends to be a choice between either flexibility or solving an interesting problem, at least in my field.

  13. I manage a team of consultants at a software company. The hours can be crazy sometimes and we do travel but it’s not the 80% travel, chew you up and spit you out approach of a big management consulting firm. We still work on interesting projects with a ton of variety. So that might be something to look into…I’m sure my company can’t be the only one with this sort of role.

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