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…