I sat at our living room table the night before I was returning to work, feeling fearful and sad. I’d had eight weeks of leave with my son, and was now using the rest of my sick leave to return to work part time over the course of the summer. My boss was understanding – he had two children himself – but if I wanted to get the corporate sponsorships we needed to start off the school year right at the small undergraduate program I managed, I needed to get back to work.
I didn’t dislike my job, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing forever. Corporate fundraising basically boils down to selling. I sold student consulting projects to corporate sponsors. The corporations benefited because they received access to talented students and dirt cheap consulting. The students benefited because the learning experience they gained working with corporations was unlike anything else they did in their college career. Believing in what you sell is a key to success, and I did. I felt like I was making a difference for both parties involved.
Yet liking my job and my coworkers didn’t make returning to work easier. I was just getting up to speed on being a mother, and I felt as if I had a long way to go. Breastfeeding had been easy, but other areas would prove to be challenging, such as dealing with sleeplessness, keeping up the house, and just taking care of myself while taking care of another person. How would I fit work into the picture?
That night, Bob and I talked about what it would take to keep me at home. I think he knew that I didn’t really want to be at home, but that we needed to walk through the steps. We realized that to continue to pay our mortgage and our student loans, we really needed two incomes. Even renting out our basement and cutting out all “extras,” like clothes, travel, restaurants, and cable, wouldn’t make up for my lost income. Making do would require cutting down to the bone, like getting rid of our car and giving up cell phones. That just didn’t seem reasonable.
In addition, there was the matter of my unfinished PhD. While it would be possible to complete it without my job, we would have to start paying for classes since I currently received tuition remission by working at the University. Finding time to conduct research and write the dissertation would be challenging, and hiring a babysitter would be out of the question with just one income.
It was clear that what we valued, which was financial security and my career advancement, meant taking the hard step of driving into the office the next morning. So I did.
Different values, different decision
My friend Nicole commented to me one morning after reading Brigid Shulte’s Overwhelmed that she didn’t identify with it.
“I guess it’s because I got off the rat race train of a full time job,” she said. “I just don’t feel that overwhelmed.”
Nicole is a free-lance photographer. She runs her own business, which allows her to have a flexible schedule to spend time with her boys. She uses a half-day nanny share for her younger son, and her older son attends a DC charter school for preschool. Her choices reflect her values.
Nicole’s experienced a lot of success. She completed law school, after which she studied in Germany on a Fulbright. She was a Presidential Management Fellow for the Federal Government, and worked on a number of policy issues, including transitioning to retirement for the Government Accountability Office. Her choices now, however, reflect an exercise that she did with her husband of making a mission statement for her family. They realized that by having less money, it would allow them more time to pursue things they really loved, including spending time with their children.
Finishing what I started
For me, finishing my PhD was the most motivating factor for me returning to work. I had spent years doing the coursework part time while working full time, and had spent about a year conducting dissertation research before getting pregnant with Tony. My comprehensive exams were completed. I was on the precipice of finishing. All it would take would be one last push.
Earning my PhD was a goal that I started to consider in college. At the time, several of my professors encouraged me to do my PhD in English literature. After teaching for a few years, I become more interested in education policy. The degree that I sought out at the University of Maryland in Education Policy and Leadership gave me insight into how organizations are run, how politics and organizational structure affect outcomes, and how leaders can make a difference. Rather than focus on the macro level of national policy, I began to look at the micro level for how organizations achieved their goals.
The most important person in my life, my grandmother, also had encouraged me to pursue my degree. Right before she passed away, I had made the decision to continue my studies past the master’s degree to earn a PhD. When I told her, she said, “I always knew you would.”
I’ve always valued education highly. I loved learning and reading since I was a small child; one of my favorite books was an illustrated dictionary. When I realized that leaving work might also make it more difficult to complete my doctoral work, it helped remind me of why I wanted to continue to pursue it.
My small baby also inspired me. I ended up defending my dissertation on his first birthday. When work got frustrating, when I was sleep-deprived, I remembered Tony and my own goals and knew that I didn’t want to ever resent or blame him for not finishing my doctorate. I wasn’t sure that if I never finished, there wouldn’t be some part of me that would think it was because of him. So I pushed through.
Thankful for my decision
Three years later, when my second son was born, there was no question about returning to work for me. It was more challenging than the first time; less sleep, a more demanding schedule, and two little ones to get up with at night.
Earning my PhD had opened up a new job for me. After I completed it, I was appointed to the faculty at the business school teaching about management, teams, leadership, and organizations. Everything I learned about schools and nonprofit organizations was translating into the same types of behaviors and skills that students needed to learn for the business world. The job allowed me an incredible amount of flexibility; although with Gus I returned to teaching at eight weeks, for three months I only taught at night, and then I had two months off before returning to work full time and placing him in daycare.
If I had decided not to go back to work on that evening four years ago, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. However, for others, a different set of values will win out. The key is keeping in sight the long term values and goals you’ve set for yourself. Will returning to work stand in the way of creating the family you’ve always thought you would create? Will staying home allow you to leave a dead-end job and pick back up with an entrepreneurial pursuit? Or will sticking with your job allow you the financial security to provide for your family and achieve your own professional goals? Only you and your partner can answer those questions to make the decision.
It’s important to keep in mind that no decision is irreversible. If you go back to work, you can decide to leave if it doesn’t work. If you leave your job, staying in touch with your contacts can make an easier transition back in a few years. In a future post, I’ll talk about economic consequences that women experience for taking a break from work, as there are some financial implications on your lifetime earnings and earning ability. Some women address this by pursuing higher education as a way of returning to work. Although your values may be solid, the paths that lead to achieving them can vary greatly. Your emotions, intuitions, and rational considerations should all be part of the decision you ultimately make.
Good luck. I know you’ll make the right choice.