Could I have been “Greater”?

Every time a woman up for a high profile job hits the headlines – as Elena Kagan does this week – my thoughts revisit the path that I have chosen.

Don’t get me wrong. By no means do I place myself in the same league as women like Elena Kagan. I was never anywhere near being nominated for the Supreme Court. But I had once stepped foot on the escalator to professional achievement. I had been close. I am close – still close. But I have chosen a different path.

Growing up in a first-generation immigrant family, the expectations were fairly high. You’ve heard the stories, cliches by now: children who came to the United States without any English ability who go on to become valedictorians and Harvard-graduated doctors and lawyers. I grew up with these kids, sat behind them in homeroom, went to the prom with them.

I was less ambitious than those kids and outwardly less successful. While I attended top schools and earned a graduate degree, my race down the career path was less single-minded and slower than that of my peers. I researched and considered pursuing a PhD (in either education or psychology) for 8 years before finally giving up on the idea, nervous about the commitment I’d have to follow through on. Half way through my maternity leave in a position that had earned me a strong reputation in my field, I decided to resign. Today, I co-run a small but successful business with my husband and we work from home. The reason we chose this path was partially to contribute in our field, but largely so that we can have the flexibility to be parents. The company could be larger, it could be more influential. However, I don’t have strong interest in growing it any bigger than it already is. With the current size and workload, I can continue to volunteer at Fred’s school, be there when he gets home each day and spend whole weekends with him.

I’d be lying if I said that I have done this all for Fred, or all for Fred and Max. I’m doing this for me too. I know that the higher I go in my field, the less likely I am to actually do the work that I enjoy. I have been in “management” and I hardly enjoyed it. Disciplining employees, ensuring profit, navigating work politics and watching colleagues and bosses get sacked left and right for not producing results aged me in a way that years of diaper changing, sleep deprivation and isolation never did. When I stayed home that first year with Fred, former colleagues remarked at how much younger I had looked. Many women argue that mothering is the hardest job they’ve ever had; not so for me. To me, being a mother is less taxing and more intuitive than climbing the career ladder. Mothering suits my temperament and my passions. This makes it “easier”, and this is also why I choose it.

But every once in awhile I get tempted. As stressful as excelling professionally can be, there are some incredible highs as well. I have been as exhilarated by helping build up a successful company as I have been watching my son take his first steps. They’re different highs that intoxicate different parts in me. But both give me a sense of worth and a feeling of purpose.

A few years ago I learned that a former boss back home had gotten promoted. He was only four years older than me, and I imagined that, had I stayed on the same path, I could have been right there behind him. “We could move to Boston,” Max had said to me then. Bless his heart. Max has always been supportive of my professional goals. “Nah,” I waved the thought away. It was just a fleeting fantasy.

The year before we moved back to the States, a friend and former colleague e-mailed me out of the blue to recommend me for a head position at a northeastern boarding school. The benefits were a rent-free 3-bedroom house on a sprawling campus and a six figure salary. I was tempted by the prestige and public recognition, the challenge, the perks and the community. All of it sounded so inviting after having spent the last three years at home with a toddler and a virtual clientele and staff. I mulled over the idea and discussed it with Max for two weeks before letting it go. The job description was glamorous during that brief moment when I conveniently forgot about office politics, missed dinners at home, and the inevitable struggles in answering to too many people’s needs. 

It’s been years since I’ve looked at a job wanted ad. In fact, the last time I looked, job ads were printed on newspaper only. The “temptations” usually come via a well-meaning friend or former colleague. I am always flattered that they’d send me a job listing, and usually I simply forward it to someone else who might be better suited. There is relief in knowing that the jobs I get sent pale in comparison to the work that I’m doing now.

I’ll never forget the words of my assistant Mika when I was trying to muster up the courage to tell my boss that I had changed my mind about returning from my maternity leave. Besides me, she was the only other mother in the history of our company. She could tell what was troubling me and she gave me permission to feel it: “Cecilia, as great as you are as director, they will find someone else. But no one can replace you as Fred’s mother.”

I’ll always be grateful to Mika for that. I turned my resignation letter in to my boss, and I have never doubted my decision since. But while the grass stays green around the house in which I work 24/7, there are times when I briefly look across the fence, imagining what another life would have looked like.

18 thoughts on “Could I have been “Greater”?

    • That is what I tell myself too. Especially over the last couple of years when people have been getting laid off left and right, sometimes I have felt that it’s more stable going into business for yourself!

  1. Cecilia-I think about what might have been and what still might be every day. And I *still* look at job ads all the time! Be glad that you seem happy with your choices and know that we are all ambivalent. It’s part and parcel of adulthood. And remember-you can always change your mind later.

    Delia Lloyd

  2. Thanks Delia. I agree. The thing to keep in mind is that our choices will evolve as our kids grow and needs change. We have to stay flexible to that.

  3. Whenever I’ve doubted my decision to leave the medical profession and be a SAHM, someone has always said the same thing to me as Mika did for you. I take great comfort in it when I wonder what I’ve left behind.
    And I am also reminded at the opportunities afforded to me BY staying home. Like writing.
    I get nervous about my decision at times. But I never regret it. I just need to look at my life. My children. My husband. And I know that I’m right where I need to be.
    And so are you.

    • That’s a great point, Alex – that staying at home has also opened up other doors for us. You sound confident in your decision and I still remember that first blog post that I read where you talked about your decision. It couldn’t have been easy to walk away from a medical career but it is great that you listened to your gut instinct. I met a woman last year who left a surgical career after 3 years to raise children. She’s since been very involved in her children’s schools and in the community and is a member of the school board.

  4. There is nothing wrong with admitting you wonder, “what if.”

    We are human creatures. We are attracted to the bright and shiny.

    What we don’t see, or wonder about, is what Fred and Fred’s life would’ve been like if you had not been on the main stage for him, front and center, as the main character in the story of his life.

    That’s something people don’t wonder about, or question.

    Motherhood is not for the self centered, or self indulgent. Because we’ve had our turn, and now it’s their turn. They had no choice coming into the world.

    My mother worked her entire life, and my childhood memories never are around her. My memories always involve my grandmother, who was with me all day/all night.

    I don’t blame people for choosing work. For me, I just base my decisions on what I wished for as a child, such a vivid wish that I still feel myself wishing it, “I wish I had a mother who was home.”

    I don’t judge. I just do for my children based on what I remember wanting as a child.

    Excellent post, Ceci.

    “Time spent with a child is like currency leaving your hand, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

    • I love this, Alexandra: “Motherhood is not for the self centered, or self indulgent. Because we’ve had our turn, and now it’s their turn. They had no choice coming into the world.” That last line, especially, rings so true. It is our responsibility to take care of them.

      That is very powerful, your childhood memory. It is easy for us to assume that our kids won’t remember, but they really do. I went to a women’s college and Barbara Bush made the commencement speech one year, despite some protests that, as a “housewife” she didn’t represent the graduating students well. She said (I paraphrase), “When we look back on our lives, we will not regret the deal that we didn’t land or the money we didn’t make. We will regret the time that we didn’t spend with the people we love.” That has always stayed with me and it is so true.

  5. Love this post – but then I love everything you write and you just seem to speak my mind for me. I had the whole career thing and when I got to my goal, Director here in the US at HQ I found I did not enjoy it as I did being out in the field, the real world. I also do not regret making the decision three months after my daughter was born not to return to work and am still of the opinion it was the right decision. After 22 years in the corporate world I do not miss it – although for me it was far easier and less challenging than motherhood.

    I saw my father devote his life to his job, the company he worked for but then the day came when he was considered too old to run the show and was retired. I learnt from this that no matter how good you are, no one is indispensable, life will continue, you will be forgotten. So what matters most is your life outside work, your family and your children, who all too soon will be gone so capturing every moment you can with them is my goal.

    • I appreciate your feedback so much, Aging Mommy. And I can’t agree with you more about what ultimately matters. For years I saw my husband devote himself to his company without question, and I tried to explain to him that none of those people he was working for were going to be at his deathbed – none of them will care once his time is “up.” I always think, if we put as much energy into our families as we did into our careers, how prosperous our personal lives would be.

  6. I think there will always be time for work, but only one opportunity to be with Fred as he grows.

    You made a wise choice, and the work will be there when you are ready.

    I enjoy working, but if I could have would have loved to have stayed home when she was little.

    • Thank you, Angelia. Very well said and I totally agree. I understand too that for alot of moms they don’t have that much choice. We do the best we can given our situations.

  7. This is an honest and thoughtful post, Cecilia (like always!) I think the important thing is that when you lay your head on your pillow you can say you gave it your best shot: finding the work/family balance. Finding what is right for you and your family. I think of all I have experienced in life up to this point and, God willing, there is life stretching out in front of me too. Lots of time for lots of exploration!

    Laura (from class – you have two Laura’s following you!)

    • hi Laura, Not sure if you are going to catch this comment since I am so late responding. Thanks for reading and writing. I agree – we have to just pay attention to what is right of our family and feel good that we have made our best effort. I always say that the choice I made – working for ourselves, working from home – was the least imperfect option for us. There are pros and cons to every decision, and in the end you have to choose the one that works best, not perfectly, for your family.

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