I am a Student Affairs professional.
It is a part of my identity that I fly like a flag because I’m proud to be one in a field of amazing people. For as long as I can remember, my goals in life have centered on creating positive change through my work and excelling in my career. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into personal goals like a house, family, or children. In fact, up until five years ago, I considered children as a potential barrier to my professional goals and wondered if they were going to fit into my life plan.
I remember having conversations with some close friends and family, and sharing my deepest worry that I wouldn’t be able to balance childbearing and a stellar career. Some told me it wouldn’t be a problem; that things would sort themselves out naturally, but most of those who had kids already told me that my priorities would shift drastically once I was a parent. I hated that idea. I love my life and I love my work. I didn’t like the sound of some “imposter-Lesley” stepping into my body and suddenly changing the route of my life. Couldn’t I be a mom who still cared a lot about her career?
Really, it all boiled down to one question: If choosing to become a parent meant that I had to stop caring about things that are important to me, would I be the same person?
I am a parent.
Now, having already made my choice and come back from a year of leave with my wonderful new baby boy, I am again grappling with all of the things that are now important in my life. I am still a Student Affairs professional. But I’m also a professional mom who has to leave on time to commute 1.5 hours home, make sure that my baby is picked up from daycare, and that he, my partner, and I all eat dinner in time for his 7:30pm bedtime. I’m exploring the untold rewards of a world of firsts: first teeth, first words, first steps. As an educator, it’s been an incredible and transformational experience that I can say, without a doubt, will make me better at my work. At the same time, I’ve never been more tired, more emotional, or more overwhelmed in my entire life.
On top of all this, I returned to work at the most challenging time of year. I manage orientation, events, and leadership programming and returned from a year’s leave at the beginning of August. Obviously, I didn’t have one of the smoothest transitions while getting back to work. There was also an incredible amount of organizational change in the year I was away, and it was tough not having been a part of that change. I left feeling woven into the fabric of our office culture—and returned at arms length. Colleagues had bonded over what they shared in the year I was away, and I had to work at reintroducing myself to them, while trying to navigate new and unfamiliar organizational structures.
People ask me all the time how my transition is going. I kind of hide behind my stock reply that it has been intense mainly due to the timing. But really, there is a whole new dimension to my life that I don’t feel totally comfortable sharing at work. I find I talk less and less about my home life and family as the weeks draw on. I just feel, perhaps incorrectly, that my work family and home family don’t really mesh. And maybe it’s because, within myself, I feel like they are in competition. Compartmentalizing has definitely become a coping strategy; I’m just not sure if it is a sustainable or healthy one.
The wonderful thing about working in Student Affairs is that my colleagues and supervisors have been very supportive of my new identity as a mom. I pale when I imagine having not had that positive energy as I tackle these unexpected challenges. And yet, I still feel anxiety when I think of the future of my career. We are chronically understaffed and underfunded as a field. Many of the staff that come to mind have more than 1 full-time portfolio built into his or her job description and, while we are having conversations about making expectations more realistic for our practitioners, I definitely felt rewards and recognition as a result of my over-commitment to my work. How will I continue to compete in this profession when I don’t have the flexibility to always stay late, volunteer extra hours, and reflect on work while I’m at home anymore?
In the years I’ve put into my job I think I have proven my passion and work ethic. I’m hopeful that while my career progression feels like it has ebbed, I continue to have the respect and support of my peers and management team. I want to continue to put forth high quality work, and, I want to be a great mother.
But what those parents told me five years ago was true, my priorities have shifted. I just can’t help feeling like I wasn’t given a fair choice in the matter. My biggest fear is that I really love two, seemingly opposed, parts of my life that demand more of my time than I can give and I hope that I don’t end up doing a mediocre job at both of them.