I Didn’t Lean In. I Pushed Back.

This is a long post describing my struggles over the past eight years as a career-oriented mother. I didn’t lean in. I pushed back. I rejected much of what society tells a woman like me. About how to build my career. About the value of my role as a mom. About what my marriage should look like.

For the bulk of my thirties, I prioritized caring for my family over furthering the work that had defined me up until then. I took extended maternity leaves. I worked on and off, mostly part-time. I created space to support my husband as he built his startup. I held back my professional ambitions for a later date. Choosing this path was deeply challenging. I constantly doubted myself along the way.

Deciding how to allocate time between parenting and profession is extremely personal. There is no right answer, only the right answer for you. Whether a women stays home or works in an intense job, there should be no judgement.

I know I am extremely privileged to have been able to make the choices I made over the past eight years of raising young children. I wish more parents could have the opportunities I had. We need more options for men and women. We have a long, long way to go. But, the more we reject the rigid identities and workplace practices that society imposes, the more they will have to bend.

Here, for what it’s worth, is my story.

***

It was July 2010. I had just completed my master’s degree at Harvard in economics and international development. I had left behind a promising trajectory at Google for a less lucrative path that I was far more passionate about. By writing and using social media throughout graduate school, I had built a reputation for myself within my new field. I was immensely excited about my professional future.

I also had a new ring on my finger. Just months before, my boyfriend of four years had proposed. One afternoon, we started talking about our plans for the future and discussing when we’d ideally have children. Option A was to start immediately. We knew we wanted to have two or possibly even three children. There was logic in starting sooner vs. later: conceiving younger meant less risk of fertility challenges, and it would give us time to enjoy each child. Option B was to wait a few years. It would give us time to be together as a couple again after two years on different coasts. Personally, I also wanted time to fully invest in this new direction of my career. I’d finally found the work I felt I was meant to do in the world. With potential energy bursting from the seams, I wanted to establish myself before starting a family.

The argument for my career tipped the scales and we settled on Option B. We mapped out when we’d have each child so we wouldn’t wait too long and we’d have a decent gap between them. It was a tight timeline, we thought, but doable.

Days later, we got pregnant. What’s that saying? Man makes plans, God laughs.

So Option A chose itself. I intended to start looking for work in the new year, after our wedding and honeymoon. I’d been approached by a former Google colleague who worked at Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. She wanted me to join her team. It wasn’t my first choice as I wanted to work somewhere new, but I told her we could talk in 2011. She persisted and went so far as making me an offer anyway.

I had that offer in hand when I discovered I had a human being growing inside me. My other options suddenly weren’t options anymore. I didn’t feel right starting a new job and committing to a new team only to disappear six months later. I also wouldn’t be eligible for maternity benefits as a new employee. So I returned to the Googleplex once again. Accepting that offer was the first tradeoff I found myself making because of my family. It would not be the last.

I contributed what I could in the six months I had before taking maternity leave. Like many moms, my heart tore in two at the prospect of returning to work and leaving my tiny four month old in someone else’s arms. Commuting two hours a day between San Francisco and Mountain View also would take up an enormous fraction of the non-working hours I could spend with my daughter each day. I dreaded the prospect of pumping between meetings and worried my breastfeeding days were numbered.

The culture at Google.org had been quite flexible prior to my taking leave; we often worked out of the office, and could make our own hours as long as the work got done. As I prepared to return, I asked if I could come down to Mountain View three days a week and work from home the other two. I was told the answer was no. There had been a management change while I was away; my new boss felt it was important that the team be together more consistently. Understandably, they couldn’t give me special privileges. I proposed shifting to a part-time role, where I’d just work three days a week at reduced pay. Again, the answer was no.

So I quit. I understood the organizational rationale but I was surprised at the inflexibility. It was five days in Mountain View or nothing. I wasn’t willing to commute for hours a day and to be chained to a desk five days a week; missing out on my daughter’s early years. While I felt bad that I couldn’t make the contribution I had wanted to, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice dedication to my family in order to do it.

That was the moment that truly marked the beginning of pushing back.

I have to be honest: deprioritizing my career was always a struggle. For the first few years, I second guessed the decision entirely. How had I found myself in a marriage with the traditional gender roles of a breadwinning father and a caregiving mother? If anything I thought I’d be one to turn the tables; over the years many men had jokingly offered to be the stay at home father to my working mother. My husband and I had the same job when we met at Google; he literally came into the same role in the same team, except I was two years his senior. To add insult to injury, while I continued to hold my career back, I watched my female peers rise. I watched them land themselves on magazine covers and get recognized in the media on lists of successful professionals. I felt like I could have been one of them. Yet, here I was at the dinner table talking about my grand plans to reorganize the laundry room.

Still, whenever I turned inwards, I knew my decision was right. I knew that I was struggling against a narrative that had long been drilled into my head of who I should be: the ambitious female whose career underpinned her identity. No one is impressed with you at the cocktail party when you tell them you’re home with your kids. I told myself again and again, that I would have decades to build my career, but I’d never get back the precious time with my baby. I understood that division of responsibilities made sense in my marriage and that the reality was that I was more competent at managing our lives than my husband. I had faith that, when I was ready to really return to work, there would be no shortage of exciting opportunities waiting for me.

I’d also often found conviction in Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life, where he discusses career driven people’s tendency to over invest in work and underinvest in family, despite relationships with family being the most powerful and enduring source of happiness. And when I still had moments of doubt despite all of my reasoning, I’d revisit the top regrets of the dying: #1: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. #2: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

This isn’t to say I didn’t work at all. I worked a decent amount. Shortly after my departure from Google.org, I got a an email from the woman who led Google’s charitable giving team. She was happy to have me work part time, primarily from home, coming into the office as needed. I remember feeling so grateful taking breaks from my laptop to breastfeed my daughter throughout the day.

Then I got an offer I almost couldn’t refuse. A political science professor at Stanford was looking for a partner to design and run a program to improve governance in the developing world. As part of the role I’d also be a fellow at Stanford’s design school. I had been writing extensively about the need for design thinking when building technology for international development. Here was my opportunity to get actual training and legitimacy on the subject. Moreover, this was a rare opportunity to do on-the-ground development work but stay based in the Bay Area. It was a dream come true.

I told the professor I couldn’t do it. As unbelievable as the job was, I was planning to have a second child a year later, just as the program would be getting off the ground. What he needed was a cofounder who could give the kind of multi year commitment that starting something required. I sent him candidates. He came back insisting I was the right person. I told him that taking a standard maternity leave wasn’t going to be enough, and that I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as the program required. Still, we decided to work together for the fellowship year and figure out the rest later.

A month into the fellowship, I was pregnant again. As the year passed and my belly grew, it became abundantly clear that I couldn’t run the program we were designing without compromising its leadership. Every time I got on a plane to do fieldwork (human centered design, after all, requires face time with the humans you’re designing for), I found myself in tears. Leaving my daughter for even a week at a time tore my heart to pieces. I knew that once that second little human landed in my arms, I wouldn’t be able to leave him either. As my fellowship year came to a close, my partner got an offer to work within the Obama administration that he couldn’t refuse. Needless to say, I was relieved.

The 2012–2013 academic year turned out to be the most significant work I did during the past eight years. At Stanford, I really had my cake and ate it too. Despite being full-time, I worked mostly from home and commuted only when necessary. I enjoyed plenty of time with my toddling daughter while doing fantastically exciting work.

Things shifted after my son was born. My husband started his next company. The idea was big and bold and hugely demanding. I’d gone through one startup with him already; so I had a sense for what another would mean for our family. Still, I wanted to work in some limited capacity. I advised my husband’s team a few hours a week and wrapped up some loose ends with the grant we’d been using for the Stanford work. Together they provided the bullet points my resume needed while I took on more of the load at home. Standing back and surveying our family reality from first principles, it was clearly the right place for me to be.

Still, the questions returned. Why was his career taking priority over mine? Originally, we had this idea that we’d alternate whose career would take precedence, with one of us taking a backseat for the other from child to child. We weren’t sticking to the plan. First he was making more money so it made sense for me to step back, now he had his startup. Also, what kind of partnership were we modeling for our children? Mom stays home while dad works? Was that the role I wanted my daughter to emulate?

Around when my son turned two, I began a fascinating project with a wildly ambitious entrepreneur. He was on a mission to help humanity at global scale, and I could provide the strategic support he needed to bring his ideas to life. Thinking so big and bold was thrilling. But the flexibility of the work was just as important. I was a lone soldier teasing out his strategy and there was no urgency, so I could work from home and make my own hours.

On average, I worked about two days a week. It provided the intellectual stimulation I clearly needed. I remember feeling unhappy in my marriage and having the feelings evaporate once I started using my brain again. Turns out it had nothing to do with my partnership and everything to do with me needing to be a more complete version of myself.

Raising our children and managing our lives remained my focus. I knew how much I valued time with the kids and knew my husband needed the support. Still, I chafed at my massively disproportionate share of our family responsibilities. The notion that his contribution to our bank account was what balanced the scales made me sick to my stomach. I had been holding myself back for five years at that point and I was impatient at best. The possibility that my career might take a permanent backseat to his felt outrageous.

I considered getting an important, high paying job just to make us feel equal again. It would be demanding and stressful; and my husband would have to take on more of the domestic load. We’d look more like the partners I’d read about in modern feminist manifestos. Equal share of the domestic responsibilities, was what real career woman deserved. I was tempted.

But I knew I didn’t want that life. I knew that the strain of that kind of job would compromise being the mom and partner I wanted to be. I knew it would mean we’d just outsource. Monday through Friday, I’d see my children in passing in the morning or evening. I wouldn’t get to see my daughter’s face light up when I picked her up from school. I wouldn’t get to carry my sweet son into preschool, his arms and legs wrapped around me (“Hold me like hug,” he used to say). I didn’t want to miss that. Moreover with a demanding job, I might be too stressed to be present with the limited time I’d have with my kids. Rather than supporting my husband while he tried to build a company, I’d be resentful if we weren’t 50/50.

I found myself frustrated that I had to justify my decisions so often to everyone around me. Lean In was published in 2013, just months before my son was born. It felt like it had become the prevailing mantra in my peer group. Here I was, doing the opposite. Not for a year or two, but for half a decade. Now a successful female tech CEO, one of my former co-workers told me “you should be one of us.” Another friend and female tech exec told me she was surprised to see me at home after the impression I’d made on her when we worked together. A male tech entrepreneur told me the part time work I was doing wasn’t a “real career.” I felt like I wasn’t respected by my prominent friends, male or female. I wondered if I deserved their respect.

As the indignation grew inside of me, it became increasingly important for me to demonstrate that you don’t have to lean in to achieve great things in your career. That it’s possible to prioritize motherhood for a while and to not permanently compromise the resume I’d spent a lifetime building before having children. I wanted others to know it could be done.

With one girl and one boy, we didn’t have a gender rationale to have another child. Still, we started talking about number three. Aware that the burden would again fall massively on me, my husband expressed his desire for another child but left the decision in my hands. As crazy as it was, when I dug deep, the answer that came back was yes. I knew how powerfully I would love my third child and that I’d never regret the decision. In contrast, I could see myself regretting stopping at two kids. I told myself again that my career would be intact when I returned to work, even though two more years on top of five felt like an eternity. It meant I’d be taking off most of my thirties, a critical decade in one’s career. I hoped I hadn’t been kidding myself this entire time.

So I pulled the goalie. Before long, I was pregnant again. I continued my project with the young entrepreneur. It was exciting and I was learning new things. Ultimately, he lacked conviction in the direction I was taking his project. I was turning the corner on my last trimester and it felt time to part ways.

I planned to enjoy the last few months of my final pregnancy and take the entirety of my son’s first year and a half off. This would be the last time I would have a baby, and I intended to be fully present for it. Instead, my mom was diagnosed with cancer just before I gave birth. So, I have spent the past eighteen months supporting her as best as I think possible for a daughter living in another city with a newborn and two young children. Fortunately, she’s stable now. A few weeks ago, my middle son started kindergarten and I stopped breastfeeding our baby. At long last, it’s time to take more space for my career and turn all this professional potential within me into something real.

So here I am. Finally. Eight years later.

I’m only a couple weeks into exploring my next career move. Already, I’m feeling myself lighting up like I haven’t felt in years. After only a handful of meetings, I’m finding myself with no shortage of incredibly exciting opportunities.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’m finally able to go for it on the career front, I still refuse to compromise being the mom and wife I want to be. There’s a certain amount of space that I want to retain for my family. And I refuse to apologize for it. So, the vast majority of full time job opportunities out there are nonstarters. Fine by me. I’ll find options that work on my terms. I’ll take on multiple projects simultaneously that I’m passionate about. I’ll also take on a handful of advisory roles. Critically, no one will own my time but me.

I didn’t lean in. I pushed back. It took a lot of turning inwards and a lot of reminding myself why I was doing what I was doing, but I pushed back. I pushed back against the narrative that my career is my identity. I pushed back against the corporate status quo that left me with too little time with my babies. I pushed back against the notion that it’s not okay to have a gap in my resume. I pushed back against the judgement about my decision to downshift my career to create space to be with my children. I pushed back on the notion it wasn’t okay for my husband’s career to take priority over mine for awhile. I dug deep, and I managed to do what was right for me. And I’m still pushing back.

No part of me judges mothers who chose to lean in. These are intensely difficult and personal decisions. Every mom gives immensely from the depth of her being to her children, regardless of whether she works 0 or 100 hours a week. The constant judgement and guilt that so many mothers feel for doing anything other than serving their families has to stop.

I know how incredibly privileged I am to have been able to take the route I have. Not working added significantly to our financial strain. But, we had the means to live on a single income. I know the vast majority of mothers have no choice but to work to make ends meet. Furthermore, most women don’t have the kind of network and access to opportunities I do. Rest assured that I understand all the privilege inherent in my story.

But I also feel strongly that it shouldn’t have to be the case that you have to be so privileged to spend a lot of time with your children without compromising long-term career prospects. I was able to find a half dozen amazing projects on my own terms. Those projects kept me growing professionally despite working ten hours a week at best over these years. Opportunities of this ilk are too rare. I want to make more of them. We need to keep pushing the ball of the feminist movement forward so we have more options. That’s what matters. Choice.

I’m still telling myself it’s going to work out and that I’ll achieve great things professionally in the end. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

And thank you for reading.

Steward and Curator at Dent. https://www.denttogether.org/ IG: @developingjen