Like many women, I was raised around the idea that if you put your head down and work hard, your work will speak for itself and you will (eventually) be acknowledged. Spoiler alert, that’s not how the world works (especially in male dominated industries).
I started out like many people do in NY — working a full time job by day, and waitressing and babysitting nights and weekends to make ends meet until I found a home in the advertising world. In the beginning years of my career, I found myself in roles that weren’t challenging, seething from the frustration of feeling underutilized, and like I wasn’t getting opportunities to learn in the same way my male counter-parts were.
During much of my 20s, I tied my identity solely to my career
No matter where I was working or what I was doing, I would come in feeling like I needed to earn the job that I already had, much less garner a promotion or a larger stake in a company. I created a fantasy of the model employee that never breaks from work, dots her I’s and crosses her t’s effortlessly. Every day, I’d come into the office with this self-imposed set of unrealistic standards for anyone — let alone myself.
Whether it’s from external influences or an internal notion, I think a lot of women feel that we have something to prove more so than our male counterparts. Despite my subconscious, undermining internal dialogue, I still reached the goal I was aiming for: I became Managing Partner at an innovative agency in New York. But even that couldn’t prevent me from feeling like I couldn’t take a break and focus on life outside the office.
Anxious and overworked on my way up the ladder
As a Managing Partner, I’d go home and work some more as if I could get fired tomorrow. If I got a message on Slack after hours, I’d answer it immediately. If a coworker called with a client emergency at 9 p.m., I’d always pick up the phone. I’d give it my all, but somehow it never quite felt like enough. Sometimes, I’d even lie awake at night thinking about work that I hadn’t started or finished.
Looking back there’s no rationale for why I felt this way. I was newly wed to a supportive partner, with supportive friends, working with a team that recognized my worth. Isn’t that what people strive for- a loving partner, great friends and powerful title?
Eventually, being “on” all the time like gave way to anxiety, which I learned can quickly lead to burnout. It was clearly unhealthy, but I never wanted to draw a line because in my field — in this city — I felt like everyone works this hard. And I never wanted to give anyone an excuse to take me off of a project because my work was all I was.
And then I got pregnant
Even though I work for an incredibly progressive, forward-thinking company that places immense value on having a full life outside the office, I was still worried that this major life decision could have long-term repercussions for my career.
My anxiety controlled me so much that I worked through most of my pregnancy. Day in and day out I would grind, wanting to make sure that everything was in order before I went on maternity leave.
And because I viewed my career as my identity, I was honestly scared that I wouldn’t know who I was after I had a baby — especially since many people told me I wouldn’t want to go back to work once I became a mother.
As I would learn, my fears were entirely misplaced
Having a child forced me to prioritize — and gave me a completely new perspective that displaced all of my anxiety. It made me more efficient during my nine-to-six, because, at the end of they day, I have to disconnect from email and Slack to head home and spend time with my family.
And to my surprise, my work has only improved. There’s a huge difference between physical exhaustion and the “state of vital exhaustion” that characterizes burnout. Physically, I may be more tired now than I’ve ever been, but I am no longer burned out on work. Since the arrival of my son, I have a lot more headspace now that I don’t think about my job every hour of the day.
If anything, having my son solidified my identity. It made me a better worker, better boss, and gave me a healthier outlook about what a true work-life balance is.