Consider This: The Meaning of Work As a Single Woman - Verily

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. 

I can remember vividly where I was seated in my college library when I received my first job offer. It was an email from the person I interviewed with, who would be my boss. The entire email read something like this:

“We’d like to offer the position. The salary is X plus benefits. What do you think?”

I accepted the offer within an hour of receiving it. I didn’t ask any questions—like what “benefits” were included (something that hadn’t been discussed in the interview process). In fact, I had barely processed whether I even wanted this specific job. My sole focus was accepting the job, because then I’d have a job. Graduation was just a few weeks away, and I’d internalized a message that it would be problematic to walk across the graduation stage without a job lined up.

I left that job less than a year after I started it. It wasn’t the job that was the problem; it was most definitely me.

You see, the idea of having a “career” was not something I aspired to. I had assumed I’d find my husband in college and, when that didn’t happen, at least soon afterwards. In my mind, a job was what I was supposed to do in the meantime, but I didn’t think I’d be in this working world all that long. And because I didn’t think I’d be a professional for long, I didn’t give much thought to the types of positions I’d like to pursue, much less how my skills would be well-suited for specific work in the world.

When asked how my singleness has impacted my career, I must start here: I’m in a career that I love because I haven’t gotten married yet.

How the practical led to passion

Shortly after I left that first job, I wandered professionally for a few years. I juggled a myriad of mostly part-time jobs—“trying on different hats,” I told myself and others. Even in these moments, though, I wasn’t really searching for the right fit professionally. Instead, I was searching for the sort of job and schedule that made work less miserable.

Nearly all professional lives are full of value trade-offs. One person might be willing to take a lower paying job because it’s closer to home and/or will offer greater work/life balance; another might take a more demanding job because she has professional and financial goals the position will help her toward. In my days of juggling multiple part time jobs, the only value of work in my mind was the ability to pay my bills. But the piecemeal approach I was taking to my work and life wasn’t even helping me pay my bills all that well, and I was definitely starting to burn out from juggling my schedule and the various very different responsibilities of each job.

Eventually, I landed a full time job, and one that matched my skill set, too. I was also a bit wiser this time around and negotiated a salary and understood the benefits package before I accepted.

I poured myself into this job. I learned a lot, was challenged, cried over stress and mistakes, and celebrated the victories—big and small.

At the time, I also felt I was growing as a person in a way similar to how a committed, romantic relationship would stretch me. The combination of self-discovery, discipline, and affirmation that came from my job provided me with an identity and purpose that I had been searching for in my adult life. I was part of a team, too, which made me feel less alone.

In hindsight, I think the combination of my deep desire to get married, my lack of true ambition for a career, and the growing challenges and demands of the job created a perfect storm for an unhealthy relationship with my work.

How passion for work changed my personal life

I overidentified with my job. My worth became closely connected to my success at work. Everyone feels good when their work is complimented, of course. But I felt loved and seen when my work was affirmed, and that filled the emptiness that came from my search for romantic love.

I felt like I was meant to do my job, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but over time my professional identity became the core of my identity. In my personal life, I sought friendships and relationships with people who understood my work at the deep level I did. We’d have long conversations on the weekends about topics related to my work, and sometimes their work, too. It was enthralling to me to have so many friends I could engage with so meaningfully about my work.

I barely noticed that while I was in my office five days a week, I was in some form of “work mode” seven days a week.

Boundaries were difficult for me to set, not only because I loved my job, but also because I held onto a false belief that my personal life was not as important as the personal lives of the married women and mothers I worked with.

Telling my boss or colleagues I had dinner with a friend planned or even just needed a night to recharge didn’t feel like a valid reason to leave a project unfinished or say “no” to an after hours work event when compared to nighttime routines with kids, family dinners, or other similar reasons another colleague might have for not being able to step in. I would find myself watching a TV show and checking my work email—“because I have the time to,” I would think to myself. When evening events arose among the team, my other single coworkers and I were often the ones attending, because it was a social opportunity for us, too.

As you can imagine, I eventually burned out at work.

As I recovered, I chatted with my other single girlfriends about some of these challenges. We discovered we weren’t alone in the struggle to prioritize our personal lives and our professional lives appropriately. On one level, it seemed we needed to just be stronger about boundaries.

But I discovered on a deeper level that the issue for me was primarily that work filled a sense of purpose I thought marriage and family would have by that point. Working overtime, even when it wasn’t required, made me feel less sad about the reality that I was a working woman and not a wife and mother, yet.

Taking a step back, without taking time off

There have been times, especially when I’ve been most burnt out, that I’ve thought, “Wouldn’t it be a nice luxury to have a husband who could carry the financial load of the household for a period of time so I can recharge?” Heck, even just to have health care from his job would open up part-time job opportunities that could give me a breather from the rat race of my career.

I recognize that my line of thinking here is a fantasy more than it’s a reality for many families. Layoffs, under-employment, high cost of living, and so many other unknowns in life can create circumstances where even if I were married, I’d still be working more than I’d like. Over time, I’ve learned I need to quit wishing for the mission of marriage and family as a way to get out of my professional role, and instead accept the mission I am currently living.

As I’ve pieced together the parts of my life I want to cultivate more—relationships, hobbies, and health—I’ve discovered that I had a lot more purpose in my life than I previously thought. As my worries about work started to take a back burner, I started hearing things people in my life had been saying about me all along—things like how certain conversations helped friends find clarity in a difficult situation or peace about a choice they were making. I saw how spending time with my loved ones made life more fun for all of us. And I was more in tune with the fact that eating healthy, exercising, and taking time to rest helps me to be more attentive to the people and projects in front of me.

In choosing to honor the role I play in my friendships, my family, and my community, I’ve found that saying “I have dinner plans” or “I have a workout class” or “I’m in need of a night to recharge” is much easier to prioritize than it was before.

I hate ending with a cliché, except it’s one of those clichés I wish I hadn’t rolled my eyes at for so long and had instead taken to heart. For me, there’s been great freedom in coming to understand that at the end of the day, whether I’m married or not, work, no matter how meaningful, is ultimately a means to support my life and not the other way around. And my life today really is worth living well. 

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.