Before I had kids, the path I was taking to fulfill my ambition seemed obvious. I was working in my chosen field, and I was aiming to continue to advance in that field, hoping perhaps to achieve some level of visibility in the field at large. I didn't want to be world famous, but locally famous in my chosen field sounded nice.
Now, I find that my ambition has changed. I do not know whether or not this is a direct consequence of having kids. I find that I often need to remind myself that my life would have changed with time even if I hadn't had kids. It is not my kids' fault that I am getting old, so perhaps they are also not to blame for my more cynical outlook on my current field and my general weariness with the counter-productive rules by which most of the corporate world operates.
Whatever the cause, my ambition in my current field has shrunk. I no longer feel any urgency to advance to the next level- perhaps because that would just be the next rung up in middle management, and I have seen enough of middle management to know that it is a largely thankless role. Essential, but thankless. My current specialization does not lend itself to becoming a CEO of a biotech company, and while I am not sure I'd want to run a biotech, I am increasingly convinced that I'd like to run something.
Yes, I want to run a company- something that never crossed my mind ten years ago. So my ambition has also grown. I am no longer particularly interested in telling other people in my little field anything about that field, but I find that there are things I want to tell a much wider audience, and things I want to prove to the world at large. And there are still problems I see that I would like to help solve, they are just in different areas. I am, however, still ambivalent about the idea of general fame, perhaps because the world seems so ready to tear down women who succeed at anything other than being beautiful. In particular, the world seems to want to dissect successful women's mothering, and the thought of that just makes my heart hurt, for myself and for my children.
So motherhood is, in that sense, holding back my ambition. But in another sense, it is informing it, because if I examine my motivation for much of what I want to do, I find that one of my strongest motivating factors is that I want to make the world a better place for my children, and if I can't solve the problems in time for them, then maybe I can at least make some progress in time for their children. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the only way to shut up the petty jerks who snipe at mothers who try to achieve things outside the home is to just get out there and prove them wrong, and it sure would be nice if my daughters didn't have to think about this at all when they are contemplating what to do with their lives.
Besides, the fact that the world includes some petty jerks doesn't seem like a very good reason to stifle my ambition, so I continue to feel my way towards acting on it. I've had similar thoughts for awhile- I think this is part of what motivated the "life reorg" I undertook a while ago, although I fell victim to a real reorg before I could complete it. But I haven't really figured out what to do with my ambition, and how to make it fit with my desire to keep making enough money to enable our comfortable lifestyle. I guess in that sense, my attachment to our house and the occasional nice vacation is holding back my ambition, too.
I have the beginnings of a five year plan forming in my head, but it is not yet concrete enough to write down, and I'm certainly not ready to commit to it. However, I suspect it might do me some good to write down those of my various ambitions that motivate me most strongly, without trying to reconcile them with each other or the rest of my goals for my life. So here they are:
- Convince more people (a lot more people) that long hours at work do not equal productivity. Basically, I want to spread the message about how people have a work limit, and lure more people away from the false promise of spending stupidly long hours working. As I continue managing projects in yet another company, I am more convinced than ever that pushing people past their work limits just extends project timelines, as productivity plummets. I think that the idea that you will get more done by simply work longer hours is a myth, and one that causes a lot of misery.
- Prove that you can build a successful company that makes useful and/or cool products without sacrificing your life to it, or forcing your employees to sacrifice theirs. This is closely intertwined with my desire to be the boss of a company. It may, in fact, be the root cause of that desire. I haven't fully analyzed that. I do realize that this is not a particularly sound foundation for a company. I have some ideas about things my company could do, but since I am adamant about the idea that no one should have to sacrifice the other aspects of their life in the pursuit of those ideas, I would not pursue venture funding for them even if I were well-connected enough to be able to easily go about that. Venture capitalists have drunk the "if you work longer hours, you will produce more things" kool-aid, and I want none of that. I very explicitly want to prove that there is another way. (Incidentally, I am not the only one who thinks this- look at this post from the guys at 37signals, who are also apparently building their company around this idea.)
- Work to ensure that every child gets the chance to fulfill his or her full potential. This is an absolutely huge goal, with many, many facets, and I am in no way egotistical enough to think I can achieve all of it. Or even a tiny part of it, really. But I would like to make a noticeable contribution in this area. Which is completely unrelated to anything else I've ever done. I'm still thinking about how I might achieve this. So far, all I do is donate money to people I think are doing good work in the area. I would like to do more, at some point.
And I pace myself. My kids are still young enough to rightfully draw huge amounts of time and energy from me. I do not reliably sleep through the night yet, because Petunia does not. Both kids can still have an almost physical need for me and my attention that I do not think should be denied- rationed, maybe, but not denied. None of this detracts from my ambition, but it does impact the timing. I take a long view on my career. I am turning 40 this year. Even if I retire at the "usual" age, I have twenty-five more years to work. It has not yet been twenty-five years since I graduated from college, let alone graduate school. None of us really knows how much time we have to accomplish our goals, but I have no reason to think that I do not have plenty.
So I can afford to take it slow. Perhaps, if I did not have kids, I would accomplish in two or three years what I am currently hoping to accomplish in five. But so what? It seems unlikely that someone else is going to come along and accomplish the things on my list ahead of me- and if they did, I should rightfully cheer, because the world would be a better place for it, and I could find different problems to tackle.
Perhaps a purist would argue that I am sacrificing my ambition to my kids, but it does not seem that way to me. It would be easy to blame them for the fact that I am squeezing work on my nascent five year plan in around the edges of my life, but that would be unfair. If I wanted to do so, I could arrange my life such that I could pursue my ambitions with at least 40 hours per week right now. But that would require drastic changes to my life, which I do not want to take. Right now, the biggest impediment to my ambitions is money- I like having it. The only part of that I can lay at my children's feet is the fact that their day care is one of our major expenses. But in some countries, it wouldn't be. In some countries, preschool is a collective expense. So is the fact that so much of our income needs to go to day care an impediment to my ambition thrown up by motherhood, or by the society in which I happen to live?
Back in November, I wrote a post about being a feminist mother, which included some lines that really resonated with a lot of people:
"Somehow, the space in my life expanded to accommodate the demands of motherhood without crowding out the essence of me. I cannot explain it. During my first year of motherhood, I was sure it was not possible, that I was in fact being subsumed into this new mommy person. But I came out the other side wanting both to devote myself to my kids and to pursue my own goals with full vigor.
Perhaps that is the essence of what it is to be a feminist mother- the realization that your own goals can coexist with your love and absolute devotion to your children. Motherhood can grow your life rather than contracting it."
Those words are still very much true for me. In the comments, feMOMhist asked how I made the space in my life expand to accommodate motherhood without crowding out "me." I didn't know the answer then, and this post was my attempt to explore that a bit.
Unfortunately, I still don't really know the answer.
Perhaps the key is the fact that my ambition has always stemmed from a desire to leave the world a little better than I found it. Having kids has provided a few extra challenges, but also given me extra motivation in that regard.
Or perhaps the key is that my particular ambitions do not feel time limited, so I can absorb a slightly slower pace while my children are young.
And perhaps it is just something about me. Living any way other than the way I'm living right now would not feel like I was being true to myself. I do not need my career to go faster, and but I do not want it to go slower. I do not want less time with my kids, but I also don't feel the need to have more. My life can be chaotic and frustrating at times, but it is just right for me.
I suspect that it is a combination of those things, which makes my answer deeply unhelpful to other women, looking for the answer in their own lives. Or maybe it doesn't, because another way to look at my answer is this: listen to your wants and desires- all of them. Be realistic about what the alternative options really are. And then shuffle everything you want around like puzzle pieces until you find the arrangement that makes a pretty picture. It might not be the picture you thought you were creating ten years ago, but it is probably the only one that you can make with the pieces you have right now.
Don't worry about the fact that other people's puzzles look different from yours. They have different pieces. And stop worrying whether or not you have the right picture. If you've used all your pieces, chances are, you do.
What about you? Are you ambitious? Has your ambition changed with time and/or life circumstances? What do you want to tell (or show) the world?