“I wish I had that luxury”, she said. There was judgement in that statement. Judgement of herself, judgement of me and my choices. And assumptions about the choices I had made with very little information about how I could make those very choices work for myself in ways that she, at least ten years younger than me, had not figured out yet.
She was one of the brightest in the country, a leader, an intellectual, a mum of a toddler, and someone whose hard work and output I had come to respect. She had walked a tough path that I had abandoned many decades ago after much thought. After all, I was the generation that would declare and debate whether we could have it all. These young women, they came after us. And each of them came with their own stories, abilities, ambitions and indeed insecurities. I know that because I had been there too along with many others. And I had made choices, well aware of the rewards and consequences. I had made these choices work for me. Then why did it bother when she responded to my offhand comment at a conference, “Oh, I’ve taken the year off.”
My year off and her year on meant that both of us were here at the same conference, at the same table. We had the same office hours. Except I chose mine, and chose to be less public, focusing only on what was important to my work, ignoring all else that makes it big in the eyes of others. I worked a fraction of what I could, over the years I had learnt to work smart and make each minute count. She worked a multiple of what she could – and that was just her phase of life. Then, why did it still sting?
Did it sting because it was true, or because it was not? Did it hurt because she cast herself in a superior role, the consummate professional, always on the move, always projecting her aura? Or did it stay with me because I thought she thought less of me, not knowing that even in my years off work, I do more work than most. Why should she know, she is not my keeper. A lesson learnt that day (again) was that it does not help to share vulnerability with younger women. They do not want to learn the lessons of calmly having it all. They often want to fight their own battles. Not the most clever way for them, but of course, it is their choice if they want a tougher life.
It is not because I am a woman that I chose to take a few years off work. (i only stopped taking on work that needs travel). It is because I could design my work to allow for a change of pace. I could do intensive field research in a few bursts and allocate months to steadily analysing it, parsing it. I live in the capital city, my house is ten minutes away from every major event and most meetings. I have worked hard to earn this location. I have the luxury of being in two places at the same time – in ten minutes. This is not an accident, this is how we design our lives to ensure we can have it all.
There are many studies that ask why women opt out of senior leadership positions. No, we don’t. We are leaders in whatever we do. Often we opt out of toxic corporate cultures, we may opt out of organisational overheads. But most of us trained in leadership continue to lead in different contexts. At our pace. We have not stepped off the ladder, we have acknowledged the possibility of a wider portfolio, often with a deeper impact and we have chosen to devote our energies to it. I may chose to devote 150% of my effort to my project, or I may chose a project that takes 10% of my energies. That is my choice. I may engage with a meaningful project now, or later, depending upon my bandwidth. I may chose to spend time with family, with a personal project, with a cause or with a corporation. Or some of my time and skills with each. The point is that when I claim to have it all – what I really have is choice.
This is why it hurt. When the young, intelligent, acknowledged expert in her field regressed to denying her own choices, it hurt.
Yes young woman, you do have that luxury. You are under no pressure to do things the ‘corporate’ way if you do not want to continue that way. Trust yourself a bit more, be a bit less insecure. The ever ascending ladder is designed to make you afraid of slipping. They tell you that you will not be able to manage the ascent again. Really? You trust them, those who feed your fears? When did we become those high school teenagers again, remind me.
As professional women we can have it all only when we learn to trust our skills, our abilities and our capacities to be leaders and change-makers even if we chose to refocus for a few years in between. Doing less in one arena is not failure if you manage it well. Even great generals have let a few battles alone, retreated sometimes, and still won great wars. We take our hits strategically, and yet we can win. Yes, we can, and it is not a luxury. It is a sign of knowing one’s strengths.
And for the little nagging feeling that still seeks external validation, I thank my friends who have seen the strength in the choices that are not conventional. The less trodden path is often more beautiful, but it does get rough and lonely sometimes. Tougher still is to meet the fast road once in a while, zoom along with the best, and then step away for a while. We are both the travellers of the chosen path and racers of the track. We are the ones who lean in and out to have it all. To those of us who hurtle towards our own goals, stopping to smell the flowers along the way, I raise a toast!