Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I Am Not So Special

I recently came across an article about the impact of commute times on the number of women in the workforce. (@Geknitics tweeted it out.) The article discusses how long commutes are often more stressful for women, who are more likely to have the job of keeping the family's schedule on track.

That is certainly true in our household- I have always been the person who makes our weeknight dinners, so if my commute is delayed there can be ripple effects that disrupt our entire evening. This is less traumatic now that my kids are older, but when Pumpkin was little a screwed up evening routine often translated into even more disrupted sleep than usual. She really liked routine as a baby and toddler. As I sat in a traffic jam, I could predict the ripple effects through the rest of our evening, leading to me getting only a few hours of sleep that night. It made me want to cry. Of course, I was so sleep deprived in those days that a somewhat stirring television commercial could make me want to cry, but you get the idea.

So, I shifted my schedule to make sure that traffic jams were a very rare occurrence, and that our nighttime routines stayed intact. If Mr. Snarky was late, we just ate without him, and kept the routine on schedule. Things rolled merrily along... until they didn't.

It is no secret that one of the things that contributed to the timing of my decision to quit my job and start my own company was the fact that my company relocated and made my commute more difficult. The small amount of slack I'd managed to squeeze into our schedule was gone, consumed by the longer commute. Dinners were late a lot and although that no longer translated directly into crappy sleep it still had an impact on our evenings, and we all felt it. I had planned to work at my last job for at least two more years before quitting and starting my own business, but a variety of things combined to make the pressure grow and grow... until last April, I couldn't take it anymore and just quit. The commute was definitely one of the forces applying pressure.

There were other forces, too, of course. I am still not ready to write about them in detail. This is partly because I still don't think I really understand what, exactly, happened and partly because there are bridges I'd rather not burn.

But you can probably guess some of the reasons, and I'm able to write about things that impacted me over the course of my career. I often felt like I had to work harder than my male colleagues to be taken seriously. I found myself assigned less technical roles, and then I found people (even people I considered supporters) surprised to learn that I could do hands-on technical work. I couldn't see a path for advancement. I felt blocked.

All of this is pretty standard stuff, as cited in the report about midcareer women leaving IT jobs that I've shared before.

So, while there were positive things pulling me to quit, there were a bunch of negative things pushing me to quit, too, and those negative things are depressingly common.

Sometimes, I feel empowered to learn that the challenges I face are general, not personal. Not this time. I could certainly put a positive spin on things, but I have a rule that if I'm going to write about something here, I will be honest in what I write. I definitely don't write about everything, but if I write about it, I have to be honest. Otherwise, what's the point?

And to be honest, realizing just how in line with common trends my experiences have been makes me feel defeated, not empowered.  It is like I came up against a well-mapped mountain range and got lost in it, anyway.

Rationally, I know that I am being unfairly harsh to myself. But the negative voice of self-doubt in my head is not particularly rational, and in these early days of this my new endeavor, solid signs that it is going to be a success are rare, which only emboldens that snotty little voice.

Even with a map, that's not an easy climb.

I am fighting this the only way I know how: by focusing on the positive things that pulled me in my new direction, and reminding myself that it is too early to know how this story ends. My new company is going to grow slowly by design, because that is how I want to build it. My efforts can look a bit scattered right now, but they are in fact proceeding pretty much according to the plan I laid out when I decided to do this. There is enough money coming in to pay the bills. I need to find more contracts, but that is normal and I have only just started looking seriously, since I gave myself a lot of time last year to decompress. I love that I can write about whatever I want now, without having to ask anyone for permission. I love that I can define for myself what things are worth my time. I love being in charge, even if it is only of myself.

In short, there is a lot of good on this new path, and it is quite likely I would have chosen to follow it even if the old path had been nothing but flowers and butterflies.

Could I have stayed on my original career path if I'd just tried harder, and maybe found a better map? Maybe. But this new path suits me well, too.

Will I be a success story, or a cautionary tale? Only time will tell.


  1. Anonymous11:13 PM

    This is a really interesting post. I have just been through the **same** thing, but I will go out and say that what caused me to leave my job was harassment, pure and simple.

    I hear what you say about the "well-mapped mountain range." I feel the same way. I had been warned about this type of harassment but didn't heed the warnings. I felt like such an idiot.

    In the months since leaving I have done a lot of soul-searching.

    I've come to the conclusion that the only way the system will change is if men and women alike leave the system when they are treated poorly and speak out about doing so. If enough of us in the younger generation can be strong and take a stand, the system will collapse.

    What gives me hope (and is the only thing keeping me sane at the moment) is the knowledge that the Big Fancy Highly Desirable Job I left has interviewed a half-dozen people to replace me and ALL of them have declined the position.

    The wheels of justice grind slowly but I think they do grind forward.

    1. I do think things are getting better- even over the course of my career, I've seen some improvement. But it is hard to feel good about that when you're picking yourself up after being flattened! It sounds like you are doing well now. That is great. Good luck on whatever you do next!

  2. Anonymous4:20 AM

    You already are a success story.

    1. Thanks! You are right. I guess I'm worried that I'll *stop* being a success story.

      Also, now I think maybe I should make a t-shirt that says "SUCCESS STORY." But I'd never have the courage to wear such a thing!

    2. Anonymous2:29 PM

      What if it has bunnies?

    3. Alexicographer5:06 PM

      I had pretty much the same thought as N&M but beyond (simply) what they write, that if a man had done what you did (leave your job and move into self-directed consulting in his field) we would all be reading about what a success he is, how wonderful it is that he has his priorities straight and has the confidence to realize that he doesn't have to be beholden to "the firm," etc. etc. Just sayin'.

  3. "And to be honest, realizing just how in line with common trends my experiences have been makes me feel defeated, not empowered. It is like I came up against a well-mapped mountain range and got lost in it, anyway."

    Maybe the mountain range is well-mapped, but it's in code, and not all of us have the cypher.

    I had a long Facebook debate with a relative about Patricia Arquette's speech at the Oscars. He was insisting that she was wrong, that based on his experience, the wage gap is a myth.

    I am so tired of being told that we are the ones who are wrong. That we are doing it wrong, have the wrong priorities, take the wrong approach.

    I don't accept that. Nothing is that one-sided.

    1. You are right, of course- knowing where the obstacles are is not the same as having a good, clear map for how to avoid them!

  4. I really loved reading this one. I had been very miserable at my job - I lived in LA, and my 9 mile commute could take over an hour on a bad day, even though I had adjusted my schedule. My boss was not understanding of my needs as a mom, and even mentioned he had worried about hiring me due to having an infant when I interviewed (I was brutally honest during my interview because I already had an okay job but was looking for something better as a working mom). Shortly after baby #2, I moved out of state and started working remotely. Wow, that changed everything for me! No more commute! No more side-eyes from the boss! No more side-eyes from anyone, in fact. The only thing they had to judge me on was my output. Suddenly, I was much better respected, and even got a 20% raise after a year of being a remote worker (my first raise in 3 years). It is funny how being out of sight can actually help a career sometimes - particularly for workers who might need alternative arrangements.

    I work in a different field than you, though - accounting - and in my field the numbers are changing which will be interesting. More than 50% of graduates are women now, and you can really see that in the young workforce. As we all get older, the landscape will surely change. I look forward to aging with my career, and being a part of that change in a positive way. Maybe that will mean going out on my own, but for now, I have a pretty great arrangement for myself.

    There are drawbacks of course - number one is that I have given up any possibility of true advancement. That is a price I have to pay to put my young kids first. I think once they are both a bit older - school age - I will have to re-evaluate if this is the best situation for me. But for now I am blessed to have many pressures you mentioned removed from my life. I no longer have to start dinner at 5:30 - hurray! And no longer have only 1 hour with my kids at night, either.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    1. I think the impact of our increasingly crappy commutes is something that doesn't get enough discussion in general. Even in my old company's original location, the commute was touch and go, because that area of town is a traffic nightmare. I see the city trying to make things better, but it is so slow, and seems to be such a low priority. My husband (who won't switch his schedule) is now saying that once our younger daughter is out of day care he might start looking for a position in a different part of town. That would make us 2 for 2 on people changing jobs in part because of crappy commutes!

  5. Zenmoo7:16 PM

    We live where we live in a significant part because it optimises on both commutes (mine is 15-20min, his is 10 to 30min, depending on where he's working). It's walking distance to a high school for the girls (although the junior school is a 10min drive) and all round minimises driving as much as I can.

    I will admit to telling my husband that when I start working again, I'd rather he keep working 4 days with 2 half days (ie 8.30 to 2.30) so he can share the sweet joy of coming home with tired, grumpy kids and then having to cook dinner...

  6. When I lived in NYC, I saw a number of couples deal with the predictable fall-out of the commute. They start out living in Manhattan, and have kids. This makes them decide to move to NJ or Westchester to have more space, better schools, etc. Once there, though, mom can't stomach the commute, and winds up leaving her high-paying NYC job. In some cases she finds something local, and in some cases she does not. But in general, the families that managed to maintain both their careers elected to stay in NYC. Yes, it's more expensive, but so is going from 2 incomes to 1.

  7. Renee7:42 PM

    I think the type of commute makes a huge difference. When we bought our house almost 8 years ago now (wow, time flies!), one of the things that I was quite worried about it that it was farther away - in raw distance from both of our jobs downtown. However, there is a suburban (semi-) express train that gets me to work in 38-40 minutes. Door to door (including driving to the station uptown and walking to my desk from the downtown station) is less than an hour. So that might seem like a lot - a whole hour to get to work! But I actually really make great use of those almost 40 minutes each way - it's my uninterrupted either working, reading or lately mindfulness time. I'd rather commute downtown on the train than drive to a job where I'm in traffic 30 minutes each way, even though it's actually shorter.

    Also, in a similar vein to Laura's comment above, I view one of the "costs" of my career as the fact that I cannot and will not be the one to prepare dinners during the week. We've had a nanny since my oldest was 6 months old (10 years now), and my husband and I come home to a prepared dinner. While this adds expense, it's overall cheaper for me than to quit my job...

    So, in short, I'd say (a) the type of commute matters; and (b) don't cook dinners ;-)

    All of the above is not in any way to second-guess your decision. I'm sure you had a lot of great reasons and hope you are really successful in your new venture! Just a different way to think about commuting...

    1. Anonymous5:10 AM

      We thought nothing of an hour commute in Boston (or a 30 min walk to work which counted as exercise), but bought a house so our commutes to work would be less than 20min even in traffic. Public transportation on a train where you can do other things makes a huge difference.

      Lack of public transportation is a government failure.

    2. There are areas of San Diego to which I could commute by public transit (mostly by bus, but I don't mind buses), but the company did not move to one of those. It essentially moved to a suburb. So my choices were to drive or... to drive. I found podcasts that made it feel less like wasted time, but that was the best I could do.

      I was looking into hiring a mother's helper to pick up Pumpkin and get dinner started, but then I decided I didn't like the job enough to do that!

    3. Irisevelyn12:52 PM

      I also had a 38 min one-way commute by train (plus some biking on either end), it was even through a beautiful landscape and I mostly liked it. Some people did the same commute with a car and I never understood this, given that it took about as long and was actually more expensive. I would have hated to commute this long by car. To each their own, I guess.
      Now I have 20 minute bike commute, which is not quite as nice in some ways since I can't read or work on my laptop, but this way I get exercise, which wouldn't happen as reliably without the commute.
      So yes, I also think the type of commute makes a huge difference.

  8. As a SAHM currently, I find myself wondering: has anyone studied how a spouse's commute affects, well, not staying in the workforce, but some other measures of stress? Unpredictabilities probably aren't a huge deal, as one can just not eat together occasionally, and anything else can be worked around and planned for, but...

    Well, I'm wondering in particular because last year I was laid off, and then after my husband found a new and better job and we moved from the LA area to the Portland area, we decided I wouldn't search, but would continue to stay home, as I said. There were any number of things making that whole time very stressful. I had had a... complicated miscarriage. But one stressful thing I didn't think to account for, for the longest time, was that not only had I suddenly become a SAHM, not only did I suddenly (well, less so, but still kind of sudden) have much less help with my toddler from other local family members, but now I was alone with my kid for much longer stretches of time due to my husband's longer commute. He had increased responsibilities too, and would often stay late, for a stretch there. But that's not nearly as non-negotiable as the commute. And *he* can decompress on the train, which might help improve the quality of his time at home? But the biggest apparent effect for me, in comparison with our old situation, was simply lost time. A bigger shift in my role, as the one suddenly always taking care of our daughter. (Not as big of a shift as the shift of becoming a parent in the first place, but still!)

    With all the expected stress of miscarriage and hormones and moving, it's amazing what unexpected stress can do. I mean, as far as I can tell. It can be hard to sort it all out, of course.

    I wouldn't normally comment this much later, but, well. Yes, this touched a nerve, despite not currently being in the workforce.


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