While working as a real estate developer, I often drove from Indianapolis to Nashville. Before the start of every drive, I armed myself with coffee, a pen, and scrap paper (or a Starbuck’s napkin). I did some of my best thinking during those uninterrupted five-hour stints.
One morning, about ninety minutes into the drive, I was contemplating the pros and cons of being a working mother. Suddenly, I had an idea: I am going to write a letter to my kids to tell them why I work. I scribbled the idea on a paper napkin, threw it into my purse, and forgot about it.
Fast forward several months, to today’s date. I have just seen Sheryl Sandberg on Sixty Minutes, and I am anxiously awaiting my copy of Lean In. Having started a 365-day work sabbatical, I am conducting my own experiment with not working outside the home for the first time in my life. But I still haven’t written that letter – until now.
Read my letter, and let me know what you think. Then write one of your own. What will you tell your kids? Here’s what I’ve written to my son, K, and my daughter, M:
Dear K and M,
On today’s date, you are ages six and three, respectively. In the media and at the dinner table, Americans are having animated discussions about women in the workplace. I want to share with you my thoughts on the topic, and I hope much will have changed by the time you read this letter.
As you know, I was on a career path as soon as I graduated from college. In the subsequent years, I earned graduate degrees and sought opportunities for career growth and leadership. After your births, I experimented with different combinations of part-time and full-time work, but then decided to return to full-time work. For three years after M was born, I juggled our family’s needs and my career. After a particularly grueling six-month period in which I was traveling to Tennessee, Iowa and Colorado (and working nights and weekends), I reached a breaking point. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I was stressed and anxious about work deadlines. I was overwhelmed with guilt about not spending more time with you. After much hand-wringing, I decided to ask my principals if I could transform my role within the company. Graciously, they granted my request. For several months, I did work that required no travel and allowed reduced hours. However, having gotten a taste of more time with you, I realized that I wanted even more. I was fortunate to be in a position to choose not to work for a year. I approached my generous principals again, this time requesting a one-year sabbatical. As I write this letter, I am nearly sixty days into it.
Why have I enjoyed working outside our home? It makes me feel confident, intelligent, valuable, and vital. It enables me to grow intellectually and personally. It challenges me. It stimulates me. It enables me to contribute monetarily to our household. It helps me connect with the larger community. It provides you, my kids, with a mother who is valuable to the community and the household in the same manner that many fathers, including yours, are valuable.
What is hard about working outside our home? It is nearly impossible to have a sense of balance. I constantly miss you – and miss out. It is exhausting, overwhelming, and stressful. It involves endless feelings of guilt about the time that I miss with you and can never get back. On most days, I am neither mothering nor working at my full potential.
Why have I enjoyed not working outside the home? In the last two months, I have grown closer to you. As your mother, that is simultaneously joyful and heartbreaking to admit. I love being the one to take you to school and pick you up. I love being the one to drive you to activities, read to you, play with you, take you to the dentist, and give you baths. Of course we have moments of mutual frustration, exhaustion, and annoyance – but I’ll take them all. I love mothering you. I also love having time to return to my passion for reading and writing. I am getting involved in our community in ways I never had time for when I was working outside our home.
Before I wrote this letter tonight, I sat around a table with fifteen women – some of whom work outside the home and others who don’t. As we discussed our views of work, I heard so many comments that I had thought to myself but never uttered aloud. We have all identified the same set of pros and cons. Now, most importantly, we are talking about what to do next. We are all concerned about how our choices will impact you – our kids – and the choices you make in the future.
Before closing, please let me offer you one bit of advice: follow your passion. If you follow your passion, you will be true to yourself – and then you cannot go wrong.
All my love,
PS – M, per Sheryl Sandburg’s request, from this day forward, I will stop calling you Bossypants and instead call you a Leader. Thank you, Sheryl, for that great piece of advice.