Working parent but more emphasis on parent
ambivalence, ambition, and accidentally being much better at parenting post-COVID
I had an interesting chat with a mom a few weeks ago. I didn’t know her very well but her kids are about my kids age and she makes a living writing, like I do. After she innocuously asked me how I’m doing I barfed out that I’m not sure what I should be doing during this vacuum of the time/fear we had previously put into managing COVID protocols. Now, I told her, I’m not sure what my goals are, not sure what to should focus on or care about, worrying that the socio-economic-public health rug will be pulled under us again at any moment, plus just feeling like a different person than a few years ago.
Me too, she said. Oh my god, me too.
I tried to make sense of this ambivalence and low-key anxiety with Jessica Wilen, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Yale Medical School and author who publishes A Cup of Ambition, a weekly newsletter focused on working motherhood. Trained as a therapist, executive coach, and mediator, she’s a mom of two little kids who, in September, launched a coaching practice focused on working parents.
I sent her the following rant prior to our interview. After that is an edited, condensed version of our follow up conversation wherein I didn’t so much ask her questions as word-vomit the way I did with my friend at coffee.
I want to talk about this stage of the pandemic because I suspect other working mothers identify with this right now. First, as a freelancer, I gave up pitching ideas/brainstorming during the start of the pandemic. I decided I did not have time/energy to come up with or research story ideas for free. So a certain brainstorming quality that I had pre-pandemic has been a little pinched off. I accepted work that came to me and did less hustling up for new work because we were all on lockdown, and then you had to be prepared to be on lockdown again if you or your family got COVID or the school/daycare shut down. I made more time and energy for my family out of necessity.
Now, school is back, we have all had COVID, we have more or less gone back to life as it was and my husband is traveling for work again more making me the default parent more which isn’t that hard right now partially because COVID trained me so well for this but also because I have less work to do. However, maybe I would have more work to do and not be the default parent if I didn’t consider myself accordingly. There is technically nothing stopping me from claiming the same travel time and then getting extra help with childcare except that shit involves a lot of work and money!
I wonder if other moms similarly curtailed their ambitions/work over COVID and aren’t sure if this is the time to put more energy/time to other commitments and not to mention, what do we want now anyway? Tied into these questions are feeling bad that not everyone has choices to make about their career. Buttttt I also imagine not too many men are wringing their hands similarly.
JW: I do think it's important to normalize that these past few years have been a shit show. It's okay if, right now, your career isn't your number one priority. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—we’ve all been focused on literal and metaphorical survival—it makes sense that you might not be self-actualizing right now. I hope that some people find relief in hearing that.
When I was in my early twenties, I envisioned my career progression as a linear progression, a staircase of opportunities and growth. Of course, the reality is that it’s much more dynamic than that. In my newsletter I talk about how ambition ebbs and flows.
I recently read a great article, written by an adult son about his mother. She put her career on the back burner when her kids were young and once her kids were in college, she became more serious about her work and now she's a renowned opera composer. So, to anyone feeling ambivalent, I would say just because now isn't the time you want to go all-in on your career, doesn't mean it will always be that way.
In my experience, this ambivalence becomes problematic when it’s causing distress.
Tell me a little bit about what your clients are bringing to you right now.
The type of coaching I do is more transformational, as opposed to transactional. I'm more interested in exploring ways we can better align your values and beliefs than in helping you make a better Powerpoint. Of course, I do some skill development with clients but I always push clients to delve deeper than the quick fix or easy hack.
I would say that people frequently come to me when they're looking for clarity on an issue (e.g., "what do I really want to do with my life?" or facing a transition (promotion, career change, new baby, divorce, relocation, etc.) Not surprisingly, I’m seeing a lot of clients really grappling with the fallout from COVID. We keep hearing about the Great Resignation, but I’ve heard it better described as the Great Re-Alignment. Several of my clients are grappling with what it is they want professionally and then making a plan to put that into action.
Not surprisingly, I’m hearing a lot about burnout and the ambivalence that we’ve already talked about. At the same time, I have clients who are looking to ramp back up. I’m also thinking about some of the physician moms I work with who are eager to take on leadership roles and bring a more emotionally intelligent lens to healthcare administration. I also work with people around cultivating better relationships at work, shifting from being reactive to more proactive, imposter syndrome, and a desire to feel more present in their life.
Do you hear from anyone who feels weird about the pull between between there for the kids right now and feeling like, “I'm betraying my professional self by giving more to my maternal self; I'm not showing the kids what a working mom truly is, or an independent wife”?
The short answer is yes. And I also see the other side of it—women who feel they are betraying their maternal side by committing to their career and not being more involved in the PTA or whatever.
I think it can feel particularly uncomfortable for women who hold a strong value around ambition, success, or autonomy AND a strong value around caregiving (by the way, I’m one of these women!) I think it’s important to try to shift away from thinking about these two values as competing and instead think about how they build on each other. I say it repeatedly—being a mom made me a better employee, and my professional experience makes me a better mom.
You talk to clients who deal with tension and their relationship, because they're both working parents. How you navigated that in your relationship and what seems to be helpful?
I know that this comes from a place of privilege, but outsourcing when possible. My husband does all of the cooking, but when he’s on call, we order delivery meal kits. Trust me, nobody wants to eat what I cook. But I’ve become quite good at following directions from a Home Chef box, plus I don’t have to go to the grocery store.
Also, I don't know if you've read Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. She has a whole system for redistributing household labor, but the idea I found most helpful is that when one member of a couple takes responsibility for a task, they are responsible for the entire task from conception to execution. In short, the designated partner has to carry the entire mental load for that task.
For example, if my husband is responsible for picking up a birthday gift for one of my kids to take to a party, he has to 1. Remember when the party is, 2. Go to the store. 3. Decide what toy to buy, 4. Wrap it, and 5. Make sure our kid takes it to the party. It used to be that he was going step 2 only—now it’s his responsibility to figure it all out. (Sorry in advance to any of my kid’s friends who may end up with shitty gifts! If it gives you any solace, know that my mental load is a little bit lighter now.)
Thanks for reading Evil Witches, a newsletter for people who happen to be mothers. If you’ve found anything has soothed your mind or helped you find ways to better use the time you used to use worrying or washing off groceries, please let me know. Since I began ruminating on all this I put more focus on a.) meeting up with people IRL and b.) putting it out there—to friends, to old clients, that I’m looking for new projects and opportunities. The joke is that I got two assignments on very depressing topics (book banning and climate change denial) but at least I’m learning and working.
Anyway, feel free to forward this issue to someone who might feel this. If you haven’t yet, I hope you consider becoming a paid subscriber which gets you bonus content and threads!
If you have any questions, feedback, or suggestions for the newsletter you can reply to this email or talk to other witches on Twitter. An intelligent person might bookmark this thread on things moms bought themselves on Mothers Day to revisit in early May 2023.