Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman’s life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we’re considering the meaning of work as single and married women. One single woman and one married woman have written essays, to be published on different days. On a third day, they respond to each other’s experience. Read the single woman’s essay here.
When I was younger, I thought about career and family as an either/or proposition: either you were a career woman or a family woman. In my mind, a career woman had a fancy job with a pretty office, expensive suits, a nice car, a demanding schedule, and big expensive purses, and the family woman, well, didn’t.
I didn't know exactly what shape the family woman’s life would take, but I took it as a given that I would not be her. I would be the Fancy Career Woman (let’s call her the FCW). And that is how my career started. Four years ago, I took a job as an associate attorney at a local law firm. It was my first real job, and while I was initially thrilled, the feeling didn’t last.
The FCW life I had imagined for myself felt like an ill-fitting garment. And when I surveyed the lives of the other FCWs I knew, I didn't long for what they had. I wanted, desperately, to be in the “other category,” whatever that meant to me at the time.
What I longed for was something other than a hefty paycheck, prestige, and an easy answer to the cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” What I wanted was flexibility. Freedom. Creativity. Space to breathe, dream, and forge my own path.
When I confessed my feelings to friends, a few of them asked me if I was prematurely angling for a flexible working situation for when I had children. Candidly, that was not a part of the equation. In fact, I don’t think that being married or yearning to start a family had much to do with it at all.
I’ve always been entrepreneurial, creative, self-driven. I’ve always been optimistic enough to believe that I can make something work, even if my decisions look like head-scratchers to everyone else. I’ve never, truly, yearned for the type of prestige that my friends were chasing. To me, the path to professional success looked different—more like a jungle gym than a ladder.
So, two years into my associate job, I shed my FCW status to launch a small legal marketing business. The decision was the right one, but the journey to it had some struggles.
My husband and I worked through several hurdles that, at first, seemed insurmountable: most especially, finances. We were fearful of my voluntarily abandoning a stable job with benefits and a paycheck, especially since we had just bought a house. To assuage some of these concerns, I decided to pick up a side job so I could earn a steady paycheck while I built my book of clients.
While at the time that choice overwhelmed me (it wasn’t easy working two completely foreign jobs with unique skill sets), in retrospect, I am grateful. The experience taught me that while it may take some elbow grease, working toward a more favorable work-life balance is possible. And while the strain on my time was challenging for that season, my husband and I learned, together, the rewards of making such choices as a team.
I’m not an FCW anymore, but I work for myself, run a small team, and love what I do. I set my own schedule and spend a lot of time with my son. And right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.
A foot in each world
When my son was born last year, I was concerned that my dual role as entrepreneur and mother would eat me alive. How would I run a business while also running a home? Did I have what it takes to do both, and to do them well?
Indeed, there are the common, ever-present struggles involved in balancing both: mainly, drawing boundaries between my professional life and my obligations as a mother. I am grateful to be surrounded by support from family when it comes to childcare and my ability to carve out working hours, but there are plenty of days that the obligations of one—work or family—need to trump the other.
For me, this often poses a mental struggle. Is it okay to temporarily push one priority aside to address the other? For instance, if I need to take my son to a doctor’s appointment during one of my designated workdays, that means inevitably work will cut into evening time with my husband. This is workable, however, by setting clear expectations with my husband, and he with me. We have learned to let the other know what we need, when we need it, whether it be stealing a few extra work hours, or asking for help with the baby so we can enjoy some much-needed alone time.
Complementary, not conflicting, priorities
At the same time, my first few months as a mother uncovered a surprising truth: having a baby made me more successful as a professional and a business owner, not less.
Above all else, being a new mom has taught me how to be thrifty with my time. While chunks of uninterrupted work hours are hard to come by now, I’ve learned how to make the most of precious “fringe” hours that used to involve Instagram scrolling, Netflix surfing, and Pinterest pinning. I’ve learned to cut extraneous tasks from my business so that I can focus on the essentials. And above all, I’ve learned that it is okay to work in a manner that fits my productivity cycles best. If I do my very best writing on Saturday afternoons when my baby naps, I lean into that time. And if I want to set up a playdate on a Wednesday afternoon even though that’s a time I usually work, I can do that, too, and not feel guilty about it in the name of sticking to an abstract “ideal” schedule.
But it goes both ways: I think my work makes me a better mother, too. As a business owner, my work is never “done.” There is always more that I could do. In a similar way, my work as Benjamin’s mother is never done. There is always another aspect of his growth and development I could research, a new skill I could teach him, a better way to feed him, play with him, arrange his napping schedule. But my work has taught me that while we are never, ever, “done,” we can choose to be done today. Just as I trust that my company will grow and thrive even if I take time off to rest, I trust that my baby will be well and healthy, so long as I do a faithful days’ work of caring for and nurturing him well.
The challenge posed by dual roles
This is not always easy. My work-at-home life presents not just logistical challenges, but also emotional ones. Because I don’t have a boss or other superior, it’s up to me to decide what I should be doing at any given time. This is often mentally fatiguing, and I frequently feel anxiety over whether I’m using my time optimally.
This struggle, however, has pressed me away from some damaging habits and into a healthier mental state. A Type A perfectionist, I perennially struggle with a desire to control my environment in order to calm my own inner storms. But now, I can’t—because frankly, I don’t have the time or energy for the mental struggle involved in this control-grab. In balancing my dual priorities of work and family, there is little room for perfectionism. Some days, “get three things on my list done, and call it a night” is the best I can do.
This applies most often to keeping my home clean and organized—a standard I promptly lowered as soon as I brought my son home from the hospital. The ritual of a weekly deep-clean has evolved into a “keep it tidy and reasonably clean” standard. Even in the midst of the pandemic, in which I’ve felt more compelled than ever to keep things clean, I’ve found myself consistently choosing more time for rest and leisure over vacuuming the couch—a choice that feels natural and healthy.
Embracing integration over balance
My friends who share similar working situations have taught me the value of integrating my work and my personal life instead of viewing them as disparate items to be balanced and juggled. Integration means that work, parenting, and personal time are all part of the single, continuous fabric of our lives. They are all a part of who we are, and they need not be compartmentalized. The concept of integration means that in certain seasons, one priority—work or family—will ask for more of our attention. At times, our work may demand more of us, and we will have to rely heavily on childcare, frozen meals, and reduced housekeeping standards. At other times, our families may require us to place work on the back burner so that we can be fully present. Regardless, it’s an ongoing challenge to see our work and our personal lives as not in conflict, but beautifully complementary.
I deeply admire the FCWs in my life, and I don’t believe that “career woman” is a dirty word. At the same time, though, I don’t believe I’m less of a professional because I keep a flexible weekly schedule and don’t go into an office every day. I believe that my work makes me a better mom, and, simultaneously, my son makes me a happier, more patient, more fulfilled business owner and colleague. This is an opportunity I don’t want to squander: I want to lean into my integrated, complementary roles as a mother and a business owner. And ultimately, I hope, pray, and constantly work to ensure that they are forming me into a positive presence in this world, making me less of who I should be, more of who I am.
Do you have reflections on the meaning of work in your life that you'd like to share? Tell us here, and your response may be published by Verily at a later date.