Own your choices
June 14, 2012 by Deb Kemper
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
At an NGN Day event on June 4th, one of the women in our local group mentioned the importance of “owning your choices.” This was during a discussion between women who “stayed on track” after having kids and those who chose to take time off. Neither path is easy – as I talk to my peers everyone feels some level of guilt. Those who continue to work sometimes feel they don’t do enough with their kids, or may feel criticized by women who choose to stay home full-time. Those who choose to downshift often feel they have thrown away their education, training, or any future career prospects. None of these statements are true. The voices in our own heads tend to be the most critical.
We all make our own choices for different reasons. Life isn’t one size fits all. The demands of careers and family life ebb and flow. What works for one woman may or may not work for someone else. Some enjoy keeping both in high gear, others choose to shift their priorities for a while.
This brings me back to a TED speech given by Sheryl Sandberg in late 2010. She tells women to “stay at the table.” I was wracked with guilt when I first heard the speech. Had I failed as a professional woman because I had chosen to take time off? As a female with an MBA, I was supposed to help close that gap. Was I to blame for the small percentage of women in Corporate America? Since I had taken time off, was I permanently “off-track?” Was there no way to get back on?
While I understand Ms. Sandberg’s point, after much reflection, I don’t necessarily agree. Staying at the table may not work for everyone. If I had stayed at the table – my family would not have had some amazing experiences living overseas. If you choose to off-ramp, should you not be able to “on-ramp?” My experience says that you can on-ramp, and women who are doing so shouldn’t be discounted or overlooked.
As I have on-ramped over the past 2 years, long-time mentors, as well as some new ones, helped me see that I still have the skills I had when I first chose to downshift. They also showed me that I have cultivated new skills along the way. I am getting back on track with a wealth of diverse and unforeseen experiences that I might have missed out on if I had “stayed on track” all those years ago. I have gained amazing insights about Board governance via my involvement in multiple non-profit boards, as well as cross-cultural collaboration during our expatriate experiences in South America and Asia. In addition, I used my “downtime” to discover my strengths and passions, information I am using to chart a path forward that meets my personal needs and professional ambitions. (More on owning my ambitions in a future post).
However it took a fellow expat to articulate what was holding me back – I wasn’t owning my choices. I would make excuses or be apologetic about my work experience, or lack thereof, over the past few years. I would speak as if it was something that happened to me, versus it being a conscious choice that I had made. Granted the choices weren’t always easy – I wrestled with each downshift. Yet I know they were the right decisions even though I could not have predicted where each one would eventually lead me. In the end, I made the choices I did, at the time I did, for good reason.
NGN Day helped me change my perspective. Our small group had a great mixture of women: those who had stayed on track, some who had taken significant time off, and a bunch of hybrids in between. What was great was that we all took something away from the conversation. Some of the full-time people needed experienced managers to help in their companies on a contract basis. Others were inspired to put their hat in the ring for full or part-time opportunities, despite being the trailing spouse. As a group we identified a clear need for an active expatriate professional women’s network, and mapped out next steps. The best part – everyone was supportive and non-judgmental of the decisions each woman had made.
Back to Ms. Sandberg — while I do not feel guilty anymore when I hear her speech, I am still not convinced her advice applies to all women when they start a family. Sure, if you love your job, then find a way to stay in it. If you don’t love your job and want to keep working – find something else. If you want to focus on your family for a while, do it. Whatever you do, own your choices and know that you have valuable skills whatever you decide to do. I think Corporate America needs to realize there is a huge stable of talent that has taken some time off to raise their kids and is now looking to re-enter the workforce. Those who are able to attract this group of women – will have an incredible pool of talent on their hands.
As the days have passed, I have chosen to own the choices I’ve made over the past 13 years. Doing so has given me new confidence and clarity of purpose as I move forward. Many thanks to The New Agenda and NGN Day for providing a forum for me to meet a new mentor who so clearly articulated what I needed to hear.