Months ahead of earning my undergraduate degree, I remember someone asking me about my post-graduation plans. When I hadn’t yet accepted a job, I was told not to worry, because I could fall back on my “Mrs. Degree.” Mind you I hadn’t even met my husband at that point, so I recall not knowing if I should be more offended or confused.
Flash forward 14 years. I’ve worked a year and a half as a middle school English teacher as planned, a newspaper columnist for three years, a blogger (which I still think my mom questions as an actual job) for 11 years, and a part-time, virtual freelance writer and editor for Defense Department contracts for about 11 years. I’ve volunteered a lot; I did the stay-at-home mom gig; I got a master’s degree. It’s not nothing, but it’s not exactly a “HAH — How you like me now?” to that Mrs. Degree comment. I was hungry to work — and it wasn’t just about proving something to someone 14 years ago. It was about proving something to myself, being a part of something, and contributing to society and to my family.
When we moved to the National Capitol Region in 2020, I knew this was my chance to officially “go back to work” in terms of in-office, full-time. Now in year two of this new work-life balance, I’ve hit some obvious snags, like COVID sending employees home as I was ready to get into an office, but there have also been some unexpected developments, 11 to be exact.
- My way is apparently not the only way we’re doing things now. I’ve lived under the false assumption that there is one way to fold a bath towel (hamburger, hamburger, thirds) my entire life. I know now that my husband does 50% of the laundry, and not only do hot dog-hamburger-hamburger folders exist, I live with one. The extra eye twitching at the linen closet (and not to pile on, but the incorrectly loaded dishwasher) has taken some getting used to.
- Redistributing responsibilities is epic, not a memo. Kind of thought I’d just make my “I’m a working woman” announcement and tasks relating to the house and kids would naturally separate. I was wrong. It took some intentional divvying. And then some gentle reminding (not nagging — there’s a difference, I’ve learned) until we finally have a habit on our hands. Without the constant nagging — err, I mean, reminding in my gentlest tone — responsibilities that were once all mine slide right back onto my plate. It’s frustrating as all get-out, but it’s not intentional on anyone’s part (the kid asking for help, the husband assuming it’ll magically get done like it always has, or me who is often halfway through a task before realizing I should’ve delegated).
- Less time with my kids equals more quality time. My mom heart was so hesitant to shift focus away from my kids — but she was also the me running fastest into something all her own. But, the most precious priority shift occurred. When I’m in mom mode, I’m more focused on them because I get a break from the “MOM! MOM! MOM!” cycle, and I can’t wait to put that mom hat back on when I’m tired of hearing my “real” name at work all day.
- School hours don’t match work hours. I miss the me who thought I could just drop my kids off in car line, zip over to work and pick them up on my way home. Coordinating before-school care and after care is a challenge (and an expense) I was not tracking. As an added bonus, the hybrid telework environment we’re in makes it hard to commit to a regular schedule. And, no one talks about how insanely difficult it is to motivate kids to get ready for school while it’s still dark outside, when you’re having trouble psyching yourself up to do it — knowing full well the sun will be setting by the time you head home. Is it summer yet? Speaking of summer — I’ll be locking in summer break child care and recovering from the sticker shock of camps or nannies for the first semester of the next school year.
- Mental exhaustion hits different. I thought “mom tired” was the pinnacle of exhaustion, but there’s a bonus level of exhaustion when you’ve been patient and professional all day, then come home to be mom all evening. To be sure, it’s still the same amount of work (even if you’ve divided responsibilities — see number two), there’s just less time and energy to do it.
- In-person work is overrated. It’s difficult for me to accurately describe how excited I was to be in the office after teleworking for so many years. Turns out I wasn’t missing much. In fairness — a lot of the extras, mandatory fun — is still COVID illegal, so it’s a lot of grind, extra child care coordination, and commuting to sit in a windowless office until it’s OK to leave. If given the vote, I’d now pick telework 90% of the time and in person when necessary to execute anything telework can’t support. Lesson learned.
- Suits are not a big deal. I bought three suits the semester I finished grad school because I was sure I would need them daily. After wearing one once in a year for a six-minute brief, I donated them all.
- Telework prepared me for a stellar work-life standard. Keeping home and work separate must be deliberate (COVID Telework 101). In shifting from part- to full-time employment, I thought home life would suffer, especially in the career-centric environment of the National Capitol Region. I surprised myself by sticking to my guns. No checking email “one more time” after dinner. Work will wait.
- Leave days are worth their weight in gold. Starting a new career with two kids and a wanderlust spirit was rough. It has taken extreme restraint not to take off every time the kids have a teacher workday to make a mini vacation out of a long weekend. Planning leave for travel or doctors’ appointments when you have minimal leave is the ultimate chess game.
- Management is much more hospitable to “real life” than anticipated. I prepped for full-time employment like I was entering a witness protection program. I have no kids, no fun, no obligations out of this office. If you need me to work (during work hours — number eight), I can do it. No problem. But that’s not how offices are run (good ones anyway). I’ve been encouraged to do what works best for my family when it comes to hours, telework days, etc. With nothing to compare it to, is this a COVID side effect, or have I just watched too many something-to-prove, woman-in-the-workplace dramas?
- There is a cavernous gap between a job and a vocation. The hardest lesson learned since beginning full-time employment is realizing that a job is not synonymous with a vocation. I do my job; I give it my best every day; I aim to leave it better than the way I found it. But it doesn’t take a lifetime in a job to realize it isn’t “the one.” My job might not be “the one,” but it’s getting me closer to where I want to be. My good news story, though, is that you can find your calling in many different places, not just a salaried, full-time job. You can find it in being a parent. You can find it volunteering for a squadron of Marines, volunteering anywhere. You can find it sitting at the top rung of that corporate ladder just as easily as someone else might find it at the bottom. The point is this — we’re all passionate about something. I hope that you’re doing what you love to do or that you’re on your way. Find a way to feed that fire that lights you up. Chase the thing you can’t stop thinking about.