ASK ALISON: MANAGING YOUR LIFE AND CAREER
Singing the Why Can’t I Have It all Blues
“I got a Master’s degree in drama therapy. After graduation, I worked in drama therapy, but I didn’t like it because it wasn’t interesting enough. So I went back to school full-time for a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, hoping to work with terminally ill patients. Before I finished the program I decided that it wasn’t going to be lucrative and exciting enough– and then discovered that I was pregnant. After a 3-month maternity leave I went back to work but couldn’t handle being called for client emergencies all the time so I quit, intending to stay home with my baby for a while and then find a better job. Now my son is almost three. I don’t want to work with patients because the level of responsibility and stress is incompatible with my ideal of parenthood. I want to be 100% available to my son. Any employer I work for must understand that my son comes before anything else. Recently, I took a job as a writer for a very troubled nonprofit. At first I was just happy to have a job, but the stress here is also high (I recently was forced to come in on the weekend to finish a project) and I want to leave. How am I going to explain all my career changes, and why someone with a Ph.D. would sink to the level of a writing or editing job? I know that stressing my commitment to my child too strongly in interviews will be a turnoff, but employers have to know where I stand. Can you help?”
Sign me: Susan I’m Stuck
Susan: First of all, I’m a writer and an editor and you’re contacting me for advice, so telling me that you’ve “sunk to the level of a writing or editing job” isn’t the best way to get my help (although it got my attention). But you seem confused so I’ll try to shed some light on your issues.
You have a classic case of the
Why Can’t I Have It All?” Blues.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if everything amazed and interested you and you got paid a heap of cash for it? And if you didn’t have to work hard, or could just work when you wanted, that would be nice too? And, if you had bosses that coddled you and let you out to get lattes whenever…
Oh! Dream ON, Susan!
You are clear in your mind that your child must come first. Ok. that’s fine. But then you can’t consider jobs where the hours, the stress, a highly competitive work culture will stress you out and aggravate your boss and co-workers. Understand that when you are a dedicated parent, other things (like feeding your ego while accepting fascinating, lucrative work in a traditional setting where you are expected to be “on call” and working all the time) may not, at this stage in your life and that of your child’s life, be compatible with your vision.
Despite what you read in magazines now and then about people who make it big while doing it “their way,” when an employer hires someone, they want that person to be available and to be committed to the job (before family and friends, even if that seems “cold.”). Those “amazing entrepreneurs” you read about who seemingly have it all often turn out to have a lot of help with a fat bankroll from another job where they worked their “a…s” off and saved their money, or from someone else who bankrolled their success. If that’s your situation, perhaps you too, can start a cottage industry in your kitchen like Diane Keaton did in the movie “Baby Boom” (she leaves her high profile job –she has enough money in the bank to buy a country spread in Vermont for herself and baby Elizabeth–when the money runs low, she starts a gourmet baby-food company that is worth millions within a few months–happy ending for all).
Let’s be realistic. In your letter (which I edited for privacy) you felt “forced” to work on a weekend and say you are unhappy that you are not finding a career or job satisfaction. You tell me that you feel that you’ve been demeaned by doing editing and writing work ( this is my job, but we won’t go there) and need to fix issues in your work life. I Well, you have acknowledged that you have problems, and that’s a start. But If you want something fulfilling that has low stress, few obligations, non- demanding clients, and a super-understanding boss who really doesn’t mind when you make it clear that you intend to always put your parenting responsibilities before your job responsibilities you are probably living in a fantasy land. Others may disagree (and I’d love to hear from you) but for most people, job success and satisfaction means making compromises and concessions and working hard. Employers are parents too, and they understand what how important being a “mom” is, but they aren’t going to put their own jobs and companies at risk for you. They are going to hire people who won’t sneer or sigh at the job, or the duties.
I commend you for wanting to be a responsible parent, but while your child is young, you can’t consider jobs where you are required to do a lot of overnight travel, respond to emergency situations on a regular basis, do heavy networking and socializing after hours, or where you’d be censured or ostracized if you let work to tend to your child more than for just an occasional emergency. Alas, a lot of those jobs are also quite interesting. So look honestly at which of your skills would help you find work that would allow you to handle your parenting responsibilities while enjoying some kind of professional satisfaction. If your goal is to work with terminally ill patients, you can’t tell someone who is in crisis or dying to “wait” while your child has a cold, or you promised to take the kids to the park. So the clinical work might be out of the question right now. But there are tons of organizations that work around these issues. Consider another non profit perhaps? The non-profit world is full of people who are very dedicated to their causes but they may offer less salary while allowing you to be flexible with hours or work environment, or perhaps even set up a job share. Any troubled organization is a pressure-cooker, but there are many non-profits that are not in trouble who might value your multi-faceted background. There are other, private-sector companies that offer on-site day care, job share, telecommuting options, and so forth. And if none of the traditional jobs seem interesting enough for you, perhaps starting an at-home business would be an option.
Whatever you do, think about it carefully, as you will want to be sure that what you do next helps you plot the path to success in your career. You might creatively edit your resume to minimize the job switches and gaps by emphasizing how each move was a positive step in your career, and gave you the opportunity to add important skills to your background. You don’t have to explain why you aren’t using your Ph.D. (a degree is not “trade school”).
And one more thing Susan: You might be very surprised to find that many of your colleagues who write and edit are not idiots after all *check out my background on LinkedIn.
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