Monday, August 27, 2012

Having it all, but what is "all"?

Back in July I mentioned that I had been to a job interview and had spent a good deal of time thinking about what I wanted from my career.  Since I've had some blissfully uneventful days lately, I'd like to go back and talk a little bit about that experience.

For those that don't know about my employment history, I worked at a publishing company in Minnesota before I married Zac and moved to Hawaii.  I did the kind of work that lends itself very well to telecommuting, i.e. sitting in front of a computer all day, editing.  When it came time for me to leave, I was completely surprised when my supervisor offered to make my position mobile so that I could keep my job once I moved.  This was surprising because this option hadn't been offered to anyone I knew.  I jumped at the chance to keep my source of income and I spent the three years in Hawaii continuing to work as an editor from the comfort of my living room.

I did apply for jobs while I was in Hawaii.  I had no interest in taking the Hawaii Bar exam, so practicing jobs were out.  (Not that I would have been considered for those jobs anyway - I have zero experience practicing in Minnesota, where I do have my license.)  Every now and again I applied for some federal jobs or regular jobs, both law-related and not.  I didn't look too hard, however.  My telecommuting job was perfect for me in terms of flexibility.  As long as I was producing the quantity and quality of work that my employer wanted, I was free to work when I wanted.  This was incredibly helpful for hosting family and friends who visited, and also allowed me to volunteer with different organizations that frequently needed my time during normal M-F working hours.  

The flexible part-time schedule was also invaluable to me as a military spouse, as I was able to take time off on short notice and had (relatively) no limits on how much "leave" I wanted to take.  If I didn't work, I didn't get paid, but I also wasn't drawing against a hard two-week supply of vacation time.  I will be honest, my work isn't exciting.  It's obscenely detail oriented and often repetitive.  I'd say that I'm bored with it about 85% of the time.  But while I was living in Hawaii, I was willing to be bored with it as I had a husband, friends, volunteering and a beautiful island to entertain me when I wasn't on my computer.

When we got to California I told Zac that I was going to spend some time and energy seriously looking for a "real" job.  Whenever I would talk to someone about job-hunting, I was always quick to say how I was looking for a "real" job.  Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't consider my editing a real job.  It probably has to do with the fact that it is part-time and can be done in pajamas.  "Real" jobs require business casual attire, and are located outside the home.  "Real" jobs have co-workers you can get coffee with, not two dogs who bark incessantly that they want to go outside.

For the first few months I was in California, I was looking for jobs.  I went to an employment symposium for military spouses.  I signed up with a couple of employment programs.  I started looking for legal volunteering opportunities in San Diego.  I started attending a bi-monthly happy hour social gathering for spouses of service members that are attorneys.  (It's really nice having other people who understand the complexities of being an attorney moving about the globe, and who have spouses that leave for months on end.)  I felt good that I was at least starting to make some progress towards getting a "real" job.

Then, lo and behold, I got a call for an interview for one of the jobs I applied for.  I was stunned.  Usually I electronically file my resume with a online job posting, only to never hear from anyone ever again.  Initially I was ecstatic that I was being considered for the job.  I threw myself into prepping for the interview, which I was told would include a five minute presentation on one of four topics.  (I got to pick which topic.)

The job sounded awesome.  It involved working with Navy sailors and their families.  The job had a number of responsibilities, including teaching classes and, on occasion, being flown out to ships that were on the way back from deployment so I could teach some classes to sailors about reintegration and such.  Even now I get jazzed up thinking about the job.  Can you imagine getting to go teach on a Navy ship for a week???  How awesome does that sound?  It sounded perfect for me.  I love speaking in front of people, I love the teaching element of it, I love helping military families -- it all fit.  I really, really wanted this job.

I went in to the interview, trying to calm my nerves while letting my enthusiasm shine.  I rocked the interview.  I really did.  I got up to start my presentation to the interviewing panel and after about 90 seconds the hiring manager stopped me, saying, "It's clear you're excellent at this.  You don't have to do the whole five minutes."  He explained to me that they were interviewing four candidates, I was the third they had seen, and that they would be getting back to me either the next day (Friday) or the following Monday at the latest.  He praised my interview, said that I was exactly what they were looking for.  He mentioned to me that one of the four interviewees was an internal candidate who had been with the company for 18 months.  He told me that if for some reason I was not offered the job this time, that this type of position opens up regularly and he would hope I would apply again as soon as possible.  (This type of position is often filled by military spouses.  We tend to move on a lot, so there is regular turnover.)  I took his words of caution as an indication that the internal candidate had a pretty good shot of getting the job, but I was on cloud nine that I had impressed the panel and that they had indicated that I would be a great fit.

As I drove home from the interview, my glow started to fade.  Quickly.  The job was salary, 40 hours a week or so.  There would be evenings and weekends I would have to work.  I would get two weeks of vacation, one week of sick time, and the federal holidays.  And the salary (which is non-negotiable because it governed by an existing government contract) was about what I make working part-time right now.  So I'd have less flexibility, less time off, work more hours, work weekends and evenings and get paid the same.  Also, this job had nothing to do with my legal education.

By the time I got home, I was utterly confused.  This was a "real" job.  This is what I claimed I wanted to anyone who would listen.  Why was I suddenly feeling like I was suffocating?  I had been the one to tell Zac many times that "Once I get a 'real' job, it's not going to be like this - I'm not going to be available as much as I am now."  Zac could tell that something was amiss when he asked me how the interview went.  I had been so excited that morning when he had left, and now I was quietly stewing over things.  I listened carefully when I told him that I wasn't sure if I'd accept the job if they offered it to me.  When I explained my thinking to him, he told me that he'd support whatever decision I made.

I was a bundle of nerves on Friday, waiting to hear from the company.  I didn't know what to do.  If they called me and offered me the job and I accepted it, my life would radically change.  I would have a job that invigorated and excited me, but I'd see less of my husband, my friends, and I wouldn't be able to volunteer with COMPASS anymore.  If they called me, offered me the job and I declined it, I'm sure they would not look favorably on me as a candidate down the road, in case I did decide to apply for the job again, say maybe when Zac deploys and I don't care about being home.  I waited all day Friday, wondering what to do.

They didn't call on Friday.  They didn't call on Monday.  I took that to mean that I wasn't selected.  But I continued to think about what I wanted, what I really wanted, in a job or a career.  I had a lot of emotions.  I was embarrassed that I didn't want a "real" job after all.  I felt like I was letting myself down, that I was throwing away all that time and energy I had poured into my legal education and license.  If I didn't want to have a "real" job now, when it is just me and Zac, what if we have kids?  Then I will probably want the rigidity of a real job even less.  And what did it mean that the first job posting that I had been excited about in YEARS had nothing to do with my legal training?

Around this time I stumbled across an article in the Atlantic, titled Why Women Still Can't Have it All.  I read through it, fairly despondent, realizing that I knew where the author was coming from.  I wanted to have it all. I wanted to have a thriving career, a family, but especially as a military spouse, I saw the thriving career part slipping further and further from my grasp.  I shared the article with people on Facebook, and my Dad sent it back to me with comments that he had made.  He disagreed with a couple of the author's points, but one thing that my Dad said that struck me the most is, "How do you define 'all'?"  Dad's premise is that there is not one, definitive, correct definition of 'all', and that maybe there is harm in thinking that there is only one all.  Maybe, instead, we should all want "enough".  It hadn't occurred to me that maybe there are different kinds of "all" or that maybe there's something that's fulfilling that's simply "enough".  I just assumed that "all" meant a full-time job in the career of your choice, where you move laterally because of merit and achievement.  "All" meant having a spouse, kids, a home and being able to spend time as you wanted.  It was interesting to consider that I could determine what "all" meant.

As much as I love my father, I still have reservations about what he was saying.  After all, he's a man.  He worked 40 hours a week for large employers for most of my life.  (Well, at least the first 25 years.)  Though he worked a full-time job, he was home for dinner, played softball Tuesday nights in the summer, worked on the house, attended our softball games, coached my sister's volleyball team, helped with homework, helped us with our pitching in the backyard, went on motorcycle rides, watched baseball, built a cabin, re-built a cabin, volunteered at church and made alone time for him and mom.  And all this while he was respected professionally by his peers and coworkers.  He had it all.  He certainly seemed to have enough.

I had told my mom about the job interview and I knew she was anxious to hear how it went.  I dreaded calling her.  I didn't know how to tell her, "Hey, Mom.  Guess what?  Turns out I have no career ambition after all and I don't want to have a real job!"  (That's how I felt like it was going to come across anyway.)  Not only is my mom my, er, mom, but she's also a career counselor.  You can see why this phone call was causing me stress.

When I spoke to mom, I gave her a play of play of everything that had been going through my head.  I used my best lawyering skills to justify why I didn't want the job, why I felt that I wanted, no, needed to have the flexibility of my current job.  I rattled off reason after reason, fearing that instead it was sounding like excuse after excuse, in that stream-of-concious-non-stop-talking way that I have.  I was worried that if I stopped to let her interject that I'd hear disappointment in her voice.  Finally, as I ran out of breath, I expressed that even though I don't have kids I wanted to be available to my family, like she had been for us growing up.

"Kate," she said, "why do you think I've had the same job for the last 25 years?  It's so I could be available too."  She went on to explain why, despite her master's degree, she had been self-employed and working part-time for 25 years.  (Though self-employed, she has been working for the same company for those 25 years.)  She said how she wanted to be able to get us off to school in the mornings and be there when we got home.  She said how she felt it was important to eat dinner together as a family.  She wanted to be able to volunteer in our classrooms and go to our softball games.  She enjoyed volunteering at church and having time with her friends.  She said that yes, she had made sacrifices in her career by not accepting other jobs.  She could have made more money elsewhere, but that wasn't what she wanted.  She wanted what she had: a fulfilling career, time for my dad, for her daughters, for her family, her friends and her hobbies.  

As strange as it sounds, I never really thought about it like that until she laid it out there in black and white for me.  I never would have said that my mom works part-time, though she does.  In my mind, she just worked.  She was respected by her coworkers and peers.  I always thought of her as a professional woman.  Putting on her business clothes, grabbing her briefcase and heading in to the office.  I remember the first day of Worker's Compensation class in law school.  When the professor was going through the roll, he came across my last name and asked if my mother was so-and-so.  I said that, yes, she was.  He nodded, and told me that she was an excellent expert witness at trial.  She was a tough witness to throw off her game, and her work was always thorough and accurate. (He had worked on a couple of cases where mom was retained for the other side.)  He commented that he wished that his expert witnesses were that good.  I burst with pride that day.  My mom was known in the legal community for being great at her job.  How cool is that?  And she had accomplished all that working part time, mostly on her terms.

My mom stressed to me that it was okay to not work full time.  That it was okay to have multiple priorities instead of just singularly career success.  That is was okay to be picky for now, to keep looking for a different job than the one I interviewed for.  And coming from her, that meant everything because I want to be like my mom when I grow up.  I want to have that balance that she seemed to figure out.  Because as I was growing up, I looked at her and thought, "She has it all."  And she does.  She has enough of everything she wants.  So I'm going to try to make life decisions going forward based on what makes sense for me, based on my values and priorities.  And for now, as a military spouse, my priority is flexibility.  

So I've decided to continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, keeping an eye out for jobs and volunteer opportunities to bolster the legal part of my resume but only as they fit into my life.  And all the while I'll be grateful that I'm in a position to make these kinds of choices.  

No comments: