Not Leaning In
March 28, 2013 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me feel comfortable about not being very ambitious and reasonably happy on the mommy track.

I'm mid-40, female, with a good (nearly three figure) salary. I'm also married and have a 5-year old. I've been in my current job at a major public university for almost 7 years and was recently promoted.

Up until my mid-30s and before I was married and a homeowner, I was pretty career oriented. My job was interesting and exciting and provided a lot of my social life. These days I'm not at all interested in furthering my career. My current job is pretty boring but it's predictable and easy enough and flexible to accommodate family obligations. It doesn't challenge me intellectually but it also does not tax me emotionally. It's fine. I have good benefits through a public employer and I guess the term "golden handcuffs" applies since I doubt I'd find the salary and pension that I have now any place else. So I'm feeling kind of stuck career-wise, but at the same time, I'm not sure I really care.

I have a lot of friends in the same field and many of them are advancing and taking on more responsibility (both with and without families to support) and I'm slowly realizing that I don't have the drive to do the career thing anymore. With all this Lean In stuff going around these days, I feel kind of like I should want more, but I really don't. I'm sure society can spare one woman, we don't all have to high-achieving, go-getters, right?

I went through a mentorship program at my work this year and explored a bunch of ideas about how I could advance my career there and came up with some potential strategies but I felt like I was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of me, but I didn't really care. In the end, both my mentor and I agreed that there wasn't some clear path for me and that sitting tight wasn't such a bad idea.

And then I think about my daughter and want to be sure I'm setting a good example as someone who can take care of herself financially and be a responsible productive member of society but also, I want to do homework with her every night and go to all of her school plays and not feel like I have to be in two places at once.

Bottom line: How do I feel okay about not really caring about my career and also be a good, strong female role model and a good mom? How did you do it? Did you regret it later?

To be clear, we're not rich for our city and cost of living but we're certainly comfortable. I get that I'm doing better than the vast majority of the world and have nothing to complain about and am also sort of inventing something to agonize about. My life is good.
posted by Mrs Roy G Biv to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
My life is good.

I think that's really all you need to know.

You can set a good example for your daughter by showing her how a woman can strike a balance between work and family, and by being there for her, and by not stressing about how earning that tiny bit more money could buy you unnecessary luxuries. You can be a good mother and a good person just the way you are. Enjoy it.
posted by lollusc at 10:15 PM on March 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

Single father here.

Bottom line: How do I feel okay about not really caring about my career and also be a good, strong female role model and a good mom? How did you do it? Did you regret it later?

Do you remember being a kid? Did you have any idea how hard your parents were trying while they were at work? They went to work in the morning, came home in the afternoon, and you had a house and some cars and maybe went on vacations if you were doing well.

Your kids don't care how ambitious you are. Especially if you're making $90k/year in academia or whatever. Your daughter will see that you work at a university and that everyone's taken care of. That's enough.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:21 PM on March 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

Success is not about money, it is doing minimal harm and being happy.
posted by edgeways at 10:24 PM on March 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

You have financial security, stability, and you're not stressed out. I would imagine you've used good work ethics and social skills to get there. I think you're probably doing a great job in terms of being a role model.

And you can do a lot of cool, intellectual, fully-engage-with-the-world-in-all-its-fascinating-glory things that have nothing to do with your career, and you can do them with your daughter. I'm talking about hobbies and science experiments and following your/her curiosity to investigate random interesting things. That aspect of parenting seems pretty fascinating when you really engage.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:27 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I guess I should clarify that it's not that I feel like I should be making more money; we're fine financially (though we'd be more fine with more money!). It's that I feel like I should be wantig to constantly advance my career and take on bigger roles. There seems to be some sort of model where you're expected to keep moving up the ladder of achievement but I just have no interest in that. I don't want to be the head of my department (I'm an administrator). I guess I could see myself managing a big project or doing something more but I could also see myself just doing my same old job for the next 20 years. I don't want to Lean In.
posted by Mrs Roy G Biv at 10:41 PM on March 28, 2013

I don't want to Lean In.

Okay, then don't.
posted by heyjude at 10:51 PM on March 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

With all this Lean In stuff going around these days, I feel kind of like I should want more, but I really don't. I'm sure society can spare one woman, we don't all have to high-achieving, go-getters, right?

Yeah, this is a really pervasive and kind of cruel (IMO) lie. Working mothers get the worst of it, but this whole idea that everyone should be trying to get ahead and build "leadership skills" and gun for the corner office/endowed chair/senior partnership/[fill in measure of success here] affects us all, and it kind of sucks. Some people like what they do in their less prestigious job. Some people don't give a damn what their job is, as long as it keeps the lights on and doesn't leave them so drained that they can't enjoy the rest of their life. If you're one of those people, that's just fine (if, on the other hand, you feel stifled in your job and really wish you were making money doing [other thing], then that's another matter. But it doesn't sound like that's what you're asking about.)

You can still be a role model for your daughter. You can model a healthy work-life balance for her. You can model doing a good job, no matter what your job is, caring about fulfilling your responsibilities right and on time. You can model a good sense of perspective--it's not good to get super-stressed, you are probably not facing matters of life-and-death in a university job, but at the same time--someone, somewhere (probably many someones, again, in a university admin job) is depending on you. What you do matters.

These are all lessons that will serve your daughter well, no matter what she decides to be when she grows up.
posted by kagredon at 11:03 PM on March 28, 2013 [25 favorites]

Stop reading things about leaning in or anything else that tells you what your goals should be or how to define sucess.

Then figure out how you define it in the context of your family. Sounds like you did that. Sounds like you have what you want - stable job you don't hate; time with the kid; flexibility; enough money.

Don't feel bad for not wanting more right now. Especially don't feel bad because you feel like you should based on someone else's judgments. Leaning in has to happen in your own context. You are doing it right. Good for you.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:15 PM on March 28, 2013

Looks to me like you're showing your daughter wonderful things. And able to be there with her, and for her -- it's great. That's the most important thing that I know of, the biggest job we're given.

Lean into that.

Lean into her ear and tell her you love her, tomorrow night as you're doing homework together.

When the time comes -- if it does come -- the fire will light inside you, the project will show up, the position will open, whatever. Until then, enjoy the life you've crafted, with your family. It sounds great.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:31 AM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

OK. I get this. When I was in my teens and 20's in Manhattan, I was extremely driven. Big Dreams.

Now I am 43 and live in Los Angeles with an amazing amazing husband (one divorce behind me) and an incredible toddler son. Could we have more money? Sure! Do I live comfortably in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Los Angeles with ALL that has to offer? Fuck yeah!

I have zero ambition, even for our relatively small new business, that is doing well. 10 years ago I would have been gaga over our sucesses, wanting to expand impatiently! Now? Both my husband and I just want to spend time with our son. We are happy, work hard when we work, plan appropriately, and are happy to keep things in perspective. All we really want is to spend time with our son - our business is simply a means to our goal - nothing more.

We love our business! But more than Family Time.

I know Wayne Dyer talks about this, and he was mentored by Abraham Maslow.... I don't think it is on Maslow's Hierachy of Needs, but it is similar...

Basically, as you go through different life changes as you age, you naturally value different things.

For me, I used to be an active political activist, both participating in protest groups AND serving on local government. Now? Not so much. I still care, I just care differently.


You are totally normal and in transition. Go with the flow. Enjoy your life wherever it takes you!
posted by jbenben at 12:36 AM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's that I feel like I should be wantig to constantly advance my career and take on bigger roles.

My observation is that actually a lot of people don't really want those things, or want them to a wide range of different degrees, because they see the stress involved, the diplomacy headaches, the requirements to give up free time, they don't see themselves enjoying the responsibilities of making decisions for a group of other people...etc. etc.

t doesn't sound to me like for you the advances are great enough (either personally or financially) to give up a perfectly good and happy life that you're genuinely enjoying for a sweaty, striving climb your organization's ladder when you're doing fine and you're happy and your daughter is happy.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:33 AM on March 29, 2013

So long as you're leaning into something, like a hobby or building an identity that doesn't revolve around being someone's wife and mom, you're okay. It doesn't have to necessarily be your career.

Btw, steady income, stable jobs, and pensions and benefits are really, really good things these days.
posted by discopolo at 3:58 AM on March 29, 2013

Lean In can be considered social re - engineering, and I would not at all discount your personal feelings of resistance and discomfort. That's a healthy reaction to such kinds of approaches.

Instead, focus on the very individual level of happiness and satisfaction you and your family enjoy - use your own yardstick. Ignore the whispers of those outside your world suggesting you "should be doing this, or that."
posted by Kruger5 at 4:07 AM on March 29, 2013

And then I think about my daughter and want to be sure I'm setting a good example as someone who can take care of herself financially and be a responsible productive member of society

These hopes are fine, but they're also going to be more abstract to your daughter than coaching her though an allowance and volunteering with her. These goals don't have to be met exclusively through your having a high-powered career.

Good for you for trying to think your concerns through. And how great that your daughter has a mother who's concerned for their mutual happiness.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:26 AM on March 29, 2013

We have a lot in common (age, industry and general circumstances), although it sounds like I had my children younger (mine are now 19 and 12).

I hunkered down at my current job after my younger child was born. When I have made half-hearted attempts to leave, I always end up hesitating because my current job is relatively well-paying, relatively flexible and relatively manageable, intellectually and emotionally. All of those are hard to give up once you've gotten used to them and are more motivated by security than by whatever challenge the widget factory wants you to get fired up about.

The issue for me now is, I've been here 14 years and I think I'm perceived as a "lifer" - good at my job but not ambitious. My depth of knowledge in my field is now too deep - in interviews, it is more difficult to convince someone that the skills and talents are transferable. I don't necessarily want to move up the ladder, but I'm competing in lateral moves with younger people who come a lot cheaper and are probably willing to invest more of themselves into the job.

Now, as my children have gotten older and parenting has become less physically taxing, I find myself very restless but even more shackled by the pretty-good money and the pretty-good intangibles. Some days I feel like my senior status and long tenure in the job makes me valuable, but I also feel very vulnerable - like if I make a misstep, I'm out without a lot of prospects.

No advice here, just perhaps a cautionary tale about not settling down too much.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:31 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

As Joseph Campbell would say, your life works out best for you if you follow your bliss.

Maybe your bliss just doesn't happen to be about your employment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:48 AM on March 29, 2013

My job is a tool that lets me live my life. I'm lucky because I'm pretty happy doing what I do.

I'd advocate continuting education, keeping abreast of trends, etc, but if you are happy where you are, if your work provides you with what you need, then I'm not sure what the problem is.

So many of the men in high-level jobs, the guys who get to have it all because they have a stay at home spouse and kids, still don't seem all that happy to me. Sure, they have the prestigious job, but that's about ALL they have.

I worked at BellSouth with a bunch of these folks. All high achievers. When we merged with AT&T they were all let go, and judging from my LinkedIn, none of them has managed to transfer that success elsewhere.

Think about how you work for yourself and your family, not about how you work for X Corp, or Y Univ.

I'm successful because I'm flexible, I'm willing to learn new stuff, and I'm not afraid to make lateral moves or even to step-back to learn something new. My contemporaries have gone from BellSouth to AT&T to Sprint to Verizon and none of them are very happy.

If you have no burning desire to run the world, leave it to those who do. You'll be the one making snowflake cutouts with your daughter while they're stranded on the tarmac at DFW because of weather.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:31 AM on March 29, 2013

I'm mid-40, female, with a good (nearly three figure) salary. I'm also married and have a 5-year old. I've been in my current job at a major public university for almost 7 years and was recently promoted.

Now I'm just a silly 20-something but it sounds like you've already "leaned in" and were successfull in your leaning, but are smart enough not to lean so far as to fall over. We never know what the future holds and there may be gravitational shifts later (like kid going to school or something) that adjust your gyroscope so you can "lean in" more.

Really I feel that book was written for people who want to get where you are, not for people who are in your place and want to get to Grand Czarina of Upwards Adjusted Horizontalism or something.
posted by WeekendJen at 5:51 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

With a "nearly three figure" salary in your 40s, you might want to lean in a bit more... (just kidding, I know you meant nearly three before the comma).

As for how you feel, I think it's perfectly normal and fine. Read more Anne-Marie Slaughter and less Sheryl Sandberg.

But your workplace may think differently. Are you allowed to stay where you are rather than being on a constantly upward trajectory? From what you said, it sounds like there are leadership opportunities, but it's not a big deal if you turn them down and keep doing what you're doing, so that sounds good.

If you're in your mid-forties, you have at least two more decades of work ahead of you. Your child will grow up and your priorities might change. Just because it seems like everyone else is striving to be the CEO doesn't mean you have to, but if you feel your ambition returning later, you have plenty of time for that too.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:59 AM on March 29, 2013

My understanding was that "lean in" basically meant the same thing as "don't count your chickens before they hatch" - don't turn down work opportunities in anticipation of having a kid or a specific future work/life balance. That's not what you're describing here - you are pretty happy with your job, and don't want deal with the trade-offs of getting promoted. I wouldn't be surprised if this described the majority of workers in their 40s - it certainly described my mother at that age.

I don't think that Sandburg was arguing that every single working woman needs to be on a leadership track, because in my experience the majority of working men aren't. Most of them have found a job they like and are developing seniority in that job without an eye for a managerial position.
posted by muddgirl at 6:18 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe consider the positive role model you can be to your child and other young women as someone who has found a career that they enjoy, suits them, gives the appropriate work-life balance to do the things you want to do... I think loads of young women (myself included) tend to see career and family as one-or-the-other. You don't have to be Hillary Clinton. You can coast here for 10-15 years, until the kid's out of the house, and then decide what's your next move. We can't ALL be CEO's, it takes all kinds to make an organization work. Good for you for not getting blinded by the lure of "success".
posted by ista at 6:28 AM on March 29, 2013

Also worth noting that my own mother was a SAHM with no apparent career ambitions while I was growing up. I'm now mid twenties, single, with a career, and consider myself someone who "can take care of herself financially and be a responsible productive member of society"... So the two aren't mutually exclusive (you know this). My mom and I are different people and I'm eternally grateful for her support, but that's just not the path I chose. Your daughter will understand this too.
posted by ista at 6:37 AM on March 29, 2013

I was all ready to come in here and cheerlead the idea that you're doing fine (and actually, I do think you're doing fine!), and tell you that the most important thing with respect to being a good role model for your daughter is having a regular job versus a prestigious/upwardly-mobile job (which I believe is true).


I think Sweetie Darling is providing some real wisdom in her comment that you should take into account. Not to necessarily do anything different, just something to keep in mind. As I understand it, the whole point of Lean In isn't necessarily that you need to have the corner office, it's that when you make the decision to downshift and stop pursuing your career, you close off for yourself a lot of options down the road that might have provided fulfilling ways to balance career and kids. Leaning in is a way of keeping options open.

I don't know, I hate to be a pessimist about the all-pervasive cultural message that being a good mom is the most important job in the world, but from the perspective of someone raised by a smart woman with a lot of potential who quit her job for 20 years to raise kids and never successfully made it back into the paid labor market, it seems like there's real pressure to focus on the in-the-present needs of your kids--or the satisfaction you get in spending time with them--to the absolute exclusion of considerations about your happiness in the future once your kids are raised. I think that does real harm to women, because the truth is that you will probably need to be working for longer than you need to be involved in the day-to-day life of your kids. To me, it's a bit heartbreaking to see how driftless my mother is with no kids at home and no work to give her the things she used to get from raising kids (regular interaction with other adults, a sense of meaning and pride, responsibility for building something every day).

It's a tough thing, I would just encourage you to not totally focus on "what makes sense today?" to the exclusion of "what will make sense for me in 15 years?" It could totally be that you would see yourself satisfied enough at your current job, or you will be eligible for a pension in 20 years so retirement and travel is on the horizon once you're done raising your daughter. Or maybe not, and you need to be thinking--even just a bit--about what makes sense for you in that case as well.
posted by iminurmefi at 6:48 AM on March 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hi, I'm currently in college and my little brother is about to enter high school. When we were younger, my mom had kind of a boring job but it was super flexible. Whenever we were sick or there was an unexpected snow day, she could hang out at home and that meant a lot to us. I couldn't have even guessed how she was doing at work if you had asked me.

Now that I'm gone and my little brother is crazy busy with his extracurriculars, my mother's starting to take on way more at a challenging job. She's actively changing the face of our small city through her job on a daily basis, and I couldn't be prouder of her.

All this to suggest: whatever you decide now doesn't have to be permanent. In fact, I think having the time to spend with your kid when she's young is a huge blessing. And then, when she's older - and spends less of her time at home and understands more about your career - you can revisit taking on a larger role if you miss it and think it'd be good as a role model for her.
posted by estlin at 7:27 AM on March 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Your example as it is shows your daughter something important: it's possible to take care of yourself financially and be a responsible, productive member of society WITHOUT being the department head. Life can be good, and one can be happy, without being super woman. A balanced life is a great example to set, too.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:44 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are doing what makes you happy and not letting anyone tell you that you shouldn't want that? You are leaning in.

If I was your daughter and I saw my mother being proud of her identity and her choices, I'd be proud of my mom in turn.
posted by capricorn at 8:54 AM on March 29, 2013

I'd like to add to estlin's comment. My mom shifted focus from her outside-the-home career to her in-home-career of raising five kids. As we got older and became more independent, she developed new ambitions -- some involving being of service to our community, advocating for better quality of life in our city, that sort of thing. And then when she was in her 60s, she took on a whole new career, one that really clicked with her, and now at age 80-something, is a shining star in her field (which involves helping the downtrodden). It's wonderful. I am so proud of her.

I think the reason she was able to see such an extended career arc (outside the home, and in), is because she took the long view, and didn't burn herself out trying to be the Do-It-All Woman. I have friends about your age who fell into that trap, and they are hurting -- their bodies and minds are breaking.

Your life sounds lovely to me, and you've obviously done well in your career. Be proud of what you've built.
posted by nacho fries at 9:49 AM on March 29, 2013

There are lots of activities that have a both a utilitarian aspect and a enjoyment/hobby/status/fame/fulfilling aspect. Why should our worth be judged on how aggressively we pursue one particular example - a career - and not others? Nobody is accused of being a bad driver because they own a car that is merely reliable transportation instead of constantly striving for one that is just a little bit faster. No one is judged inferior for doing weight training to maintain bone strength instead of setting world records. Nor are we bad tourists for not packing our vacation days so full of activities that we are worn out and miserable. How you divide your time and energy between various activities is your (and to some extent your family's) business.
posted by 445supermag at 9:56 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there's two conversations happening that, when they cross, can feel at odds. One is that women (generally speaking) should be building "leadership skills" and gunning for higher positions and breaking glass ceilings and all that. Which is fine, it's a good conversation to have. The other is that individual success should be defined by the individual, and there are choices to make, and feminism is about having the choice. So if you're interested in breaking glass ceilings, you can go for it, but if you're interested in being a stay at home mom, you can do that. And all the places in between.

As an individual, I don't think you should feel guilty or bad or whatever for defining your success or happiness around a comfortable, secure job that doesn't emotionally drain you, even if it's not CEO. You're not harming the "cause" by not aiming higher or 'leaning in'.
posted by asciident at 11:25 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you already know all the relevant arguments, but are having trouble actually feeling that sense of calm conviction you've arrived at rationally.

Meditation practice is a classic hack for feeling grounded in and comfortable with one's own life. Plus the discourse that surrounds meditation is strongly about being fully present in and giving yourself to your current sphere -- Zen, for example, has been skeptical of career ambition since at least the Tang Dynasty (corporate samurai notwithstanding). I imagine there must be several meditation groups in your city, if that kind of community support strikes you as helpful.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:21 PM on March 29, 2013

You say " It's that I feel like I should be wantig to constantly advance my career and take on bigger roles.". Stop thinking about what you SHOULD be doing, and think about what you WANT to do. There are no wrong decisions in this case, and nothing that will irreversibly fail you. You gain something with either decision: more time with your family or more time with your career. Your value system should inform your choice, but it's all about whether you are happy, not what somebody else says you SHOULD be doing with your life.
posted by be11e at 3:51 PM on March 29, 2013

I like what snorkmaiden said a lot. Set an example of being someone who has a career, but isn't defined by it; who has a family, but isn't defined by it. You're you, and you've got a range of interests and things you do, and that's great! You don't want to raise an anxious workaholic any more than you want to raise someone who thinks herself incapable.

My mom worked through my childhood (with occasional intervals of a few weeks at a time where she'd be home late and Dad would make dinner, and she'd join us just in time to eat). I think it was great! And now that I'm in my twenties and working in the same field, I have some idea what it is she actually does!

That is to say, your kid has no clue. They see how you act: do you expect (and receive) respect when people talk to you? Do you have and express thoughtful opinions? Do you take on projects at home ("book Susie into ballet camp" totally counts) and see them through even when there are roadblocks? You can model all those great traits at home just as well as or even better.
posted by Lady Li at 11:04 PM on March 29, 2013

From another perspective:

I'm a mid-level manager of people, which sounds dull, but actually I love it. Let's play I'm your boss. If you were my employee, and we had this talk, I'd be ok with your plan. But not without some reservation and worry. I would probably actually try to come up with some sort of advancement plan/path that involved low-stress, low time-commitment steps, but still did not consist of you sitting in the same job forever.

That's partially because I would care about you, and partially my own self-serving interest. Here are some of my concerns:

1) Burnout is a real thing. Jobs become too easy after a while, and then easy becomes tedious. Tedious becomes intolerable. People quit on me. Sure, I can offer them a new spot then, but it's harder to come up with something on short notice and once they've already convinced themselves that they want to quit. Worse, some people don't quit when they burn out, they just do a half-ass job, or a good job with a poor attitude, just enough to not get in trouble, and it makes everyone else miserable.

2) Your expertise is valuable, and you're hoarding it. I'd prefer to put someone in your job that's not quite up to it, and have you mentor them part time while learning something new yourself. Now I have two people that can do your job, and two that can do the one you're learning. instead of one each. Or, you could be a supervisor of several people doing your job, passing on those lessons learned and being the 2nd check on their work. I'd kind of like to get you in on the management meetings where decisions about how you do what you do and how to make it better are made.

3) Makes your safety net bigger - if the unthinkable happens and you find yourself without a position (layoffs, reorganization...) now you have experience with x, y, and z to look for, instead of just x.

4) Movement at the higher levels happens anyway. I'd rather get someone I know, trust, and like promoted to being one of my counterparts than have the powers that be stick me with someone I don't like.

5) Someone below you might want your job as part of their progression, and I might want to have the option to give it to them for all the above reasons.

With all that said, I also work with people who have done the same thing for 30 years. There's advantages also to letting someone just be the best X that ever X'd and not ever have to worry about it. So I'd probably let you stay if that's what made you happy. I wouldn't hold it against you, but I'd keep a close eye on you and worry. Burnout happens to the people you'd least expect, sometimes.
posted by ctmf at 9:20 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

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