Work and identity or what happens when we take a break?

When I was working all hours on building my company, I used to secretly look a but jealously at my mom friends, and sometimes wish I could also be a stay-at-home mom. How nice it must be to sleep when your kid sleeps, to push the stroller around in the sun, to chat with friends and coffee at the playground. When my kids would ask why I couldn't take them somewhere in the afternoon or make as nice cakes or lunchboxes as certain moms, I told them it's because I have a job that needs so much attention. Sometimes I found the questions annoying, sometimes i felt like they were right - I could do more for them! I wished I could.

When COVID hit and home schooling started, I had such great ambitions to be the best #workfromhome #homeschooling mom there was - I felt like I had been practicing this type of multitasking my whole life. I think I overestimated my energy and underestimated how long this would go on. After some months, this really took its toll, and I got close to a burn out. It was the moment to make a different choice. I wanted to turn COVID into something positive for me and my family, and took the decision to move to Canada.

Me and my husband had always said we would do this 'one day', when the time was right, when we could detangle ourselves from work commitments. It hit me one day talking to a friend in my garden, that this one day was now, and it was up to me to grab this moment. I had recently sold my company, and it was not unusual for founders to step away at this time. Moreover, working from home and homeschooling was not such a great combination after all, neither got done particularly well. My kids education would continue to be completely messed up as long as the government continues to shut down schools - why not let it get messed up by learning a new language, a new system?

This is not the story of that move, the sabbatical - if you are interested, you can read it here. This is story about how much of our identity is determined by our job titles, and what happens to our identity, when we stop working, for whatever reason - layoffs, sabbatical, maternity leave, care work, changing industries. It is my story about what was ok, and what was hard, and what I still struggle with.  

When it's easy

At the beginning, it was pretty easy to take that break from work. I needed a long break from work after the marathon of Makerist, and also really felt that I 'deserved' this break for myself. There were things I was also really happy to get away from. Add to this - I needed a lot of time to set up a new life over in Canada, new home, new school, health insurance, car insurance, bank accounts, immigration paperwork...

We made a clear set of family values - family, health, education, nature and adventure - and framed our decisions around whether they fit to them. This values-based approach is an amazing way to stay on track to create the life you want to live.

I called it a creative sabbatical and looked for other examples of folks who had also done. I went to the public library, took out bags of books at time, set myself learning goals, tried to see where my interests would take me. Still, I was often going at it with a lot of efficiency in mind - a lot of ideas about what I should have done by when, and what success looked like.

I suppose what also made it easy was being on the other side of the world from my professional life, and having this completely out of mind. At the beginning, it was easy.

When it's hard

Sometimes though, it was a real struggle. Each time I would meet someone new, they wanted to know what I did. I guess this is a shortcut for many people or classic smalltalk, but this question threw me for a loop. Uhh - what was I doing? I used to love being able to answer that question before with start up founder. Being a start up founder, a female founder, an outlier,  was a great identity for me. It made me feel safe in all my weirdness.  Now I was confronted with the question of who I was without my work?

Well, in fact, I had become that stay at home mom : that thing I had always wanted to experience when I was in the thick of working. Only, it didn't feel as good as I thought. Some days, when everything ran perfectly, when the kids were at school, and I was at home alone with my sabbatical day stretching endlessly in front of me, I was terrified of the free time. I was still recovering from my efficiency-disease, or using all my time Some days, the repetition of housework and cooking made me look down on myself, for not doing more, not creating something more, something that mattered.

Then there were the insecurities that hit me when I was trying to register for an online conference, and am being asked for my job title and industry - and I end up hitting other,  when I am trying to download a report and they won't accept my private email address. These were clear signals to me, that I didn't matter to the professional world, unless I was doing 'productive work'.

Stay-at-home mom: OTHER

This made me uncertain: what does this mean for me and my future? Will I fall behind, will I lose relevance, will I still be able to start again, when it’s time? What about savings, what about my fucking pension?

From sabbatical to care work

I gave myself one year as a timeline for the sabbatical, but I didn't stick to it. I started looking for new opportunities half a year. I was nervous - how long was it ok to stay outside the job market, I asked myself. What about for someone who struggles with self-esteem and imposter issues? So I got back into work in a big way again and for a time that was good. And yet again, I chose to step back from working to put our family first. We moved to another country, again. The kids started a new school again, paperwork, insurance - all that again. This time though, I felt stronger.

We had Covid - again and again. We've had weeks and weeks of quarantine this year - and I really don't understand how this should work with a full time job. No way. The novelty of helping my kids with their school work has certainly worn off. The novelty of home cooked meals, worn off. My kids have talked down to me, when I do volunteer work for climate or the Ukraine, and tell me I should just get a real job. Why are those not real jobs? I want to scream.

We need more female role models. But not just in business - we need role models of women, of people, putting themselves first and taking responsibility for their mental and physical health, for their happiness, for their vision of the future.
We need to see more people putting their families first, living in harmony with their environment, living in joy and gratitude, living and working in flow. Different ways of living, different values.

This can look a lot different than what we have been taught to see as successful. It can mean stepping back, stepping down, saying no. It can mean ‘being lazy’, sleeping in, wanting to pick up your own kids from school. In the end; i suppose what matters is what we are aspiring to - success or happiness?

My advice: wherever you are in your life : Look at your biases -  try to understand the other side. Care work is work, it's often boring, repetitive and undervalued. If you know someone in that spot - give them a high five and tell them, you see them. If you know a strong female business leader - ask her if she's struggling to fulfill all the expectations on herself.  Understand your values and what you want your life to look like when you look back on it. Own your story.

#linkedin#hr#career#personaldevelopment #breakthebias #iwd2022