From the moment I started working, I dreamt of being at the top. It was a secret that I kept to myself for decades. In one of my first jobs at a local smoothie shop, the store manager was a senior in high school. Seeing her, still so young and in charge, made me believe that I could do that, too.
But I never told anyone I wanted such a job. I was ashamed of it. Subconsciously, I came to believe that leadership positions were a reward for those who got recognized for doing great work. Consequently, those who asked for recognition would be seen as arrogant and unworthy.
I Was Afraid to Ask (Okay… I still am)
This fear followed me for years. While fantasizing about running each of the organizations I worked for, I also kept these thoughts very very quiet. For instance, when I was exploring graduate school programs, my boss encouraged me to look into Social Work programs, like she had done. When I told her I found the program I wanted – Nonprofit Management – she looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “What would you do with that? Oh, do you want a job like mine?” I answered meekly, “Something like that.” But, what I was actually thinking was, “No. I want your boss’s boss’s job.”
Why was I afraid to say that? Why did I believe that wanting the top seat was a bad thing? I thought she’d look at me with some kind of revulsion, or worse, that she would laugh at me.
I Believed Mommies Weren’t Leaders
As I moved on in my career, my fear of my own ambition got conflated with another dream – to become a mother. I’ve dreamed of being a mother my whole life. Like many women, I had fantasies of sweet children that I would lovingly stroll down the neighborhood street. Somehow these fantasies never included slobbering, tantruming toddlers – but that’s a blog post for another time.
There was a more important missing element in these fantasies – my career. While I fantasized about being at the top, I also fantasized about being the perfect magazine mommy. But, I never brought these two images together in my head. To me, as it is for so many women, I saw them as completely distinct from one another.
Pushing Pause on Career
When I was getting ready to start a family, there were a number of women in my life who had returned to the workforce after taking a lengthy hiatus to care for their young children. By the time I met these women, they were rock stars in their work, but I absorbed the parts of their stories about taking a break. It seemed to be such a successful model for them that I began to believe it was the ideal model for balancing motherhood and career.
I tried it once. I spent a summer working only a few hours a week and caring for my daughter every day. It was the summer she turned one. The first four weeks were glorious. I basked in this gift of time to spend with her and went on walks with other mommies and did the laundry every day. The second month I started to get a little bored. And by the third month, I swear there were days when my daughter and I would wake up in the morning, look at each other and think, “Oh, you again?” It clearly wasn’t working. She needed friends and a structured environment that I was ill-prepared to offer her. I needed adult interactions and conversations that revolved around issues I cared deeply about. She started preschool that fall and I started working again.
There are so many ways to be a good working mom
It was around that time that I started looking around and seeing a vast rainbow of motherhood options. There were the full-time stay-at-home moms, the working dawn to midnight crowd, the part-time workers, the full-time nanny employers, and so many in between. There were leaders who were mothers. And oh by the way, there were plenty of leaders who were great fathers.
I Was Lucky as Hell
I wish I could say that the moral of my story is to ask for what you want and deserve. The truth is, I never got over my own fears of ambition. I still struggle to share my ambitions and I still worry that I will be disliked or laughed at. Once these secrets are revealed, I worry that everyone will know that I’m a failure if I don’t achieve these dreams.
I was lucky as hell in my career. While I worked very hard and strove for excellence, I also worked for people who saw my talent and didn’t wait for me to ask. They asked me. And by some kind of divine intervention, I was offered a big leadership position. It took a full year as an executive before I thought that just maybe I might actually deserve this role. Perhaps all the education and hard work and results I had delivered actually equated to this role. Some days – too many days – I still have to remind myself.
It’s Not For Everyone
Because I spent my entire working life hiding my ambition, beginning at 16 years old, I also came to believe that everyone else was doing that, too. I thought we all wanted the top seat and it was a fierce, silent race to the top. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I came to realize that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When I took on my executive role, I spent some time hiding from the staff. Not literally hiding. I was hiding many parts of myself: my dreams, my beliefs, my ambition. And what most great coaches and psychologists will tell you is that when you hide a part of yourself it affects the rest of your life. My hiding made me timid and weak, not great qualities in a leader. It lead to my habit of ruinous empathy.
Once I came to realize that everyone I worked with had their own set of hopes and dreams and most of them had nothing to do with climbing to the top, then I was able to embrace my own role and become more open about what I believed.
And that led to the final lesson:
I got better at my job when I embraced my own ambition.
There is a calling deep in my soul to lead. It’s something that’s been a part of me as long as I can remember, back to my elementary school days. It’s a part of my soul that I am only now starting to truly reveal and try to understand. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going on this journey just yet. But what I do know is that the more I embrace my true self — which includes a passionate ambition — I’m actually much better at my job.
If I could go back and meet my timid ambition-hiding self, I would firmly and kindly hold her hands and whisper, “Don’t be afraid of you. Ambition is not a bad word. Ambition is one of them many gifts you’ve been given. Hold onto it, embrace it, and go for it.”
Ordinary Days, Meaningful Life is a labor of love geared toward working moms ready to embrace the chaos and find meaning in it. If you found this post meaningful, please share it with someone you think would enjoy it too! I’d love to stay in touch with you! Leave a comment below, contact me, or sign up for the mailing list. I can’t wait to hear from you!