Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Career Conundrum

Picture this. Here is a professional woman who is confident in the fact that she has found what she is reasonably good at doing and actually enjoys doing it. She has always been committed to carving out a meaningful career so she works hard, thrives on the challenge, and is extremely passionate, dedicated and highly engaged. This woman is me. Or at least it was me. Lately this picture is looking more like this: still in a field that plays to my strengths and still enjoy the work, but there is a question mark hanging over the rest.

When MOH (My Other Half) injured himself and had to spend two months recuperating at home, I ended up taking time off to care for him. While he was still on the road to recovery I worked mostly from home and on a ‘casual’ basis. My daily routine looked like this: settle MOH, do some morning exercise, pick up coffee, make breakfast and do some work. During this time, I found my interest and motivation for my work dropping by the wayside (perhaps not surprising given the circumstances). 

One morning I was buying our coffees at our local cafe after a particularly relaxing swim and took a good look around for what felt like the first time. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping and there were people sitting around reading the paper or enjoying a leisurely breakfast. I realised that I was completely and utterly content. Over the last few months, I had unlimited and uninterrupted time with MOH. I was able to devote myself to beloved family and friends, and have a tremendous amount of fun. I was able to look after my health and fitness. I actually developed other interests and hobbies <insert gasp>. In short, I could nurture all the other dimensions in life that make it meaningful. I thought “I could get used to this”. Used to days where all I did was see MOH off to work, go for a swim, have coffee and write to my heart's content. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got at the prospect. Armed with coffee, I marched off home with absolute confidence. Why can’t I do something like this? Of course I can do something like this! We (MOH and I) can do something like this! 

By the time I got home and downed my coffee, I had sobered up. Cue in the reality check. No I can’t, we can’t, do something like this. The reality is MOH and I have gotten used to a certain lifestyle, and being an unpaid and unsuccessful writer is not going to cut it. Besides I couldn't really give up work. It's not just about financial security, it’s also about the obligations and commitments that I have made that need to be fulfilled for a little while longer. Not to mention the fact that work has been a part of me for such a long time. 

A little bit of panic began to set in. When did work become 'just work'? I used to care so much more. Don't get me wrong. I don't aspire to have a life built around watching 'Dr.Phil' and 'The Bold and The Beautiful' all day, every day. A week or two of indulging in daytime TV, lying on the lounge eating Lindt balls and getting my hair done would be fantastic but any longer than that would drive me mad. I know that I would have to do something, and that something would need to be meaningful and give me a sense of purpose. I used to believe that something was my job. 

What would happen if I just cut out ‘professional’ and ‘career’ from my life? What would I do? Who would I be? Surely the world would cave in as I've disturbed the natural order of things. So if I couldn't (or really wouldn't) give up work, is feeling like this just a passing phase? Could it be that I have lost my 'edge' and my ‘hunger’ for it? What if I never get these back? And why do I feel so incredibly guilty and ashamed about even thinking this way? Stepping off this well worn path, even just considering doing it, feels like I've betrayed myself and others. As ridiculous as this sounds, I worry about failing to live up to expectations - my family's, my friends', my colleagues', but mostly my own impossibly high ones. 

I know other people have gone through this type of thing but it's never happened to me till now. One can argue it's because I've been 'offline' for a good period of time so it's clouded my thinking and dulled my senses so to speak. But deep down, I can't help wondering if there is substance to these feelings and I am daunted by that thought.

Work and my career. They’ve always been such an integral part of who I am and how I've defined myself. They’ve given me enormous professional and personal satisfaction (and still do in many ways). They’ve brought so many opportunities and opened so many doors I never thought possible. They’ve been my safety net and meant financial security. I can't give all that up on what might be just a whim. I'm not the type nor am I ready. The test will be when I return to work on a full-time basis and am thrown right back into the thick of things. Time will tell if I swim with the tide or against it. I'm actually not sure which way I'm rooting for. For someone who likes to plan and be well-organised, that's most disconcerting.

For now, I've opted to make like an ostrich i.e. stick my head in the sand and only poke it out if/when I really have to. It may not be the wisest and most prudent thing to do, but it's all I can manage without my head imploding from analysing the situation to the nth degree (something I can do quite well).  As we approach 2012, perhaps one of my new year’s resolutions should be to confront difficult situations head on (no pun intended). But the new year is months away, and I don’t have to commit to anything....yet.

Who else has come face-to-face with this conundrum (there's comfort in the notion of 'safety in numbers')? If you have, what happened? What do you do when you wake up one morning entertaining the idea of suddenly 'changing horses in mid-stream'? And realise that there is a definite possibility that you could happily never work (in the traditional, corporate, 'nine-to-five' type job) ever again? Not because you're having a bad day/week/month, but because you simply do not want to anymore.

Acknowledgments: My thanks to V, one of my Precious Gems*, for her feedback on this piece, and for her repeated assurances that going through this kind of conundrum is completely and utterly normal!

* See "What's in a Friend?" located in Blog Archive / 2011 / September.


  1. I have been feeling this way since time immemorial!!!! What's helped me is a very supportive husband (which you have too!) and making lists of pros and cons for perspective. It took me a while to find a balance bet something I love and trying to work in taking better care of myself physically. (still getting there- I believe- cue Ms. Universe music here hahaha!- that we have yet to discover our biggest potential even If it may not always be what we had originally envisioned for ourselves. :) big hug!!! You are not alone!

  2. Ahhh, so much to say on this one. I'm a Mum of 3. And right now, that's all I am. And strangely (to me), I'm content with that. As a teen/early twenties I never really decided what I would DO, I just chose my paths, and followed them. I ended up in a government job that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was the type of job that defines you, and not just at work. I never really thought about exactly where I would end up, I was open minded and aware that the possibilities were endless.

    Cue the first born. I had always known my career would take a back seat while the kids were young, but I was able to work part time and shift work meant child care was easy to manage between just my husband and I. Cue the second born. The arrangement was the same, but things were shifting. I was happy at work, and at home, but work was work - the "career" idea was fading. I no longer saw myself going anywhere in the organisation, I was happy to show up, get paid, go home. It could be argued that as the primary carer of my children, that's how it should be. Cue the third born. I didn't have time to work anymore! I took some leave without pay for the first time, and after that, I resigned (4 months ago - still fresh). It was a very, very tough decision. My job defined me, even though I hadn't shown up for some time!!! It's not like being a teacher, or a nurse, where once you leave you are still qualified in that field. I ceased to be my job. I am now wholly defined by my role as a mother to my children.

    Have a made the right decision? Time will tell. Financially we prepared for this and it is expected that I will need to go back to work in the future, but in the meantime, I was freed by actually MAKING my decision to resign. Leave without pay was stalling my decision, and once I threw caution to the wind I was released from the worry of what I should do. When the time comes for me to go back to work, I may choose to return to my previous profession, or I may choose something else. That's a whole other conundrum!! But you know what? I'm not sure that I'll ever be looking for a career again, even when my children are all grown up - maybe I'll always be happy with a job?

  3. So often think like this. You are not alone M!
    Kathy Z