When I spoke at Fusion, a women's group here in Boston, Rebecca Nielsen asked the question, "What happens when you have a dream (career), but then you make room for another dream (motherhood), making the prior dream an impossibility?
Good question, I thought, and asked her to guest blog.
Rebecca is the mother of eight-month-old twin girls, and was previously a Senior Director with UnitedHealth Group. She obtained her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2002, and an AB in History and Literature from Harvard College in 1998.
Below she shares her experience, and gamely answers my tough questions:
Years ago I set a goal to run the Red Cross. I then determined that attending business school and gaining management skills in the private sector were important steps to qualifying myself to lead a major NGO. When I called my college chemistry professor for a letter of recommendation to business school, he replied, "Rebecca – I don't envision you in business. I see you running the Red Cross."
I had to smile.
I shared that dream on my business school application and in my entrance interview. After each class I kept a journal of how my education in brand management, strategy, controls or finance would serve me in the non-for-profit arena – and I kept the dream tangible: someday I would run the American Red Cross. After business school I spent five years working in the healthcare industry developing general management skills.
Fast forward to the present: I am now a full-time mother of beautiful twin baby girls. Swept up in this dream – which is more purposeful and joyful than I expected – I think more about catching up on sleep than fundraising for disaster relief. However, I heed Langston Hughes' caution about dreams deferred, and welcome the chance to reflect on this goal. I've planted some stakes in the ground as I start this process of reassessing: I savor this time with my girls and I want to spend the bulk of my time with my children for years to come.
So, what about the dream?
Although I now have competing dreams that need to make room for each other, I am still enthusiastic about making strides in both – but not necessarily at the same time. Within days of receiving the invitation from Whitney to write this blog, I learned of the passing of my aunt. She enjoyed a rich family life and accomplished remarkable professional goals. She did it in stages. When her youngest child started kindergarten, she started writing. In the years that followed, she published twelve books. The fodder for some of her most notable works came from experiences with her children.
I anticipate that there will be a season in my life when I will chase my dream of running the Red Cross, and that my experiences as a mother will provide valuable fodder and perspective in championing humanitarian relief. My dream may need to be right-sized as I won't have a traditional management resume – but I am not disheartened. If I am not in a position to lead an established NGO, I will be able to serve on non-profit boards, volunteer in humanitarian relief on a local level, and follow my parents' example of devoting time to an extended humanitarian mission abroad. I may need to become a non-profit entrepreneur, and bootstrap my own effort to make a difference. Although my goal may change, its essence – to use my skills to champion humanitarian relief – is still within reach.
Q (Whitney): any questions you would pose to women after having written this?
A (Rebecca): Because of our life circumstances, some of our dreams may become less achievable. When is it right to let go, and when do we need to keep striving? Can the process of working towards a dream be enough of a reward in and of itself?
Q: How long would you say that it took you to right-size your dream? Has this been in the works since you graduated in 2002?
A: I've always wanted to have a family: when I formulated the goal to run the Red Cross, I just felt extremely bullish about finding a way to do both. I anticipated that after several years of mothering I would dust off my resume and charge into the non-profit world. However, exiting the business world with the birth of my children has prompted some reevaluation.
While I still feel the enthusiasm for making a contribution in humanitarian relief, I am more accepting of the fact that I may need to apply my skills in less conspicuous ways. As a career counselor told me once, the likelihood of my being the head of the Red Cross is weak at best, even if that were my only goal -- but the likelihood of my making a meaningful contribution in humanitarian relief is within my control.
Q. As you've ostensibly closed the door on one dream, what dream have you opened the door to since becoming a mother? What dream is now possible that wasn't before because of your business and mothering experience?
A: I feel that I am becoming a more complete person. I remember the relief I felt after coming home from the hospital with our girls, that at last, after 31 years, I could channel the bulk of my energies into something besides my own personal, academic and professional development. My life -- to large extent -- is these two little women, and I find that in letting them be my focus, I like myself better and trust myself more.
Q: You said you kept a journal on how you could prepare for the Red Cross... what if you were to keep a journal today -- for even just a month -- recording how your mothering experience can help you to continue to prepare to run the Red Cross. While I agree with you that it is more out-of-reach than it was, I'm not sure that it is entirely.... So would love for you to just imagine and explore a bit.
A: That's a great idea -- I'm up for it. I think I will recast the goal a bit, i.e. "how is what I am doing now preparing me to make a significant contribution in the realm of humanitarian relief?"
I'd be happy to report back at the end of August with my findings.
What dreams have you had that you needed to right size? How did you do it?
I was struck by Rebecca's comment that it was a relief to channel her energies into something other than herself. Psyche would certainly appreciate her sentiment. What are your thoughts?
Have you thought about keeping a journal that outlines how what you are doing in your life right now will help you achieve your dream? Before you say "nothing", think again.
How could Rebecca bring her girls along as she dreams?