I just came back from a two day alumni leadership conference at Harvard. I am the director for the Harvard Crimson Organization for LDS Alumni and once a year Harvard hosts a conference for alumni shared interest groups. Every time I am back at Harvard I am inspired by the ambition, drive, and thoughtfulness of the people I am around. Donna Hicks had people on the edge of their seats as she shared what it was like to mediate conflict in Columbia and meet Nelson Mandela. Her research and dedication to understanding dignity was powerful. Drew Gilpin Faust made an audience of 500 applaud, laugh, and think about how to plan for an unknown, but promising, future.
There were larger than life figures like Donna and Drew to be starry eyed about, but there were also others who were easier to personally connect with. Joanne* caught my attention right away. She watched the presenter with her whole body: head lowered and looking ahead, knees and shoulders squared to the front of the room, hands taking notes. I could almost hear her thinking. When the speaker opened up to questions Joanne’s hand was the first to go up. “I hear what you’re saying about the issue of engagement, and my group went through something similar. You have to provide more value to your members. What are the benefits you offer today?”
Time and time again over the two days Joanne asked probing, thoughtful questions and she was 110% percent engaged. I wanted to learn more about her. After one of the last seminars we were in the same small group. Her silver and black hair shook with natural volume as she emphatically asserted her viewpoint. Her bangs seemed to have their own body language, like an extra set of expressive hands. Her eyes looked alive and tired, as if she had been working into the wee hours of the night her whole life, driven by the need to find solutions.
When we were finally speaking one-on-one she told me she had been a management consultant, but now she was writing a book. I asked her about her family and she had two kids. She went on to tell me that her husband was a physician who worked 15-hour-days and while her kids were young she stayed home. Then she said something that shocked me and I’ve been thinking about it nonstop. “I did stay home. My career suffered, and I’m MAD about it.” Her bangs punctuated the point and she continued, “if I’d stayed in the workplace I would be leading a company. I don’t say that because I have some inflated ego, but I’m a builder and that’s what I would be doing.” She added as a solace that she enjoyed the time with her kids, believes in parent engagement, and thinks her kids turned into happy adults. Then Joanne re-emphasized that she didn’t realize how large the consequence of parenting would be to her career.
The words “I’m mad about it” echoed in my ears. It made my heart ache that this bright, capable woman had regret for leaving the workplace. At the same time I could relate. What I sensed from Joanne was frustration over unmet potential. I feel the same frustration, and I don’t want to fall short. Joanne didn’t stop being Joanne while she raised her kids. She volunteered, she founded two successful alumni groups, and probably did countless other things she didn’t have time to tell me about.
I wondered if there was more social recognition for raising kids and contributing to community if Joanne would have been happier. I wondered if Joanne would make different decisions if she had to do it again. Her elevator advice to me wasn’t to go back to work, it was to get involved with organizations in my field.
Thinking about Joanne, I am filled with caution. I don’t want to look back and be angry about the decisions I made. I want to own my choices. Joanne said she didn’t fully comprehend the negative consequence staying home would have on her career. I’m at the other end of child rearing, but meeting women like her help me understand the life-span of family life. Although it may seem pre-mature, I am planning for the day my kids don’t need me as much. From what I hear it comes quicker than anyone thinks. I am trying to shape a life that I can look back on and say, “I loved it, and I’m happy.”
How are you taking steps to make a life that you love and you are proud of?