Starting a non-profit to deliver water and AIDS services to more than 1 million people in Africa is the hardest thing I have ever done. But now, as a new mom of a four-month-old, I have this sneaking suspicion that motherhood is harder, especially in conjunction with my responsibilities as a leader outside of the home.
After several weeks of rushing out in the mornings and back again in the evenings, pumping between meetings and in taxi cabs and the back of airplanes, washing parts, storing milk, carrying coolers and ice packs, waking in the night every three hours to feed the baby, coordinating logistics and supplies with nannies and babysitters, negotiating calendars with my husband James’ equally demanding work schedule, canceling meetings when the baby gets sick — which he then generously shares with me, showing up in the office with fevers and chills and trying to act like everything is okay, I have been dumbfounded by how difficult it is to get it all done.
I knew it would be hard.
I didn’t know it would be this hard.
I was two months pregnant when I picked up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and I joined her battle cry for women to keep advancing in the workplace despite the real or perceived limitations of family responsibilities. I resonated with Sandberg’s caution against backing out of professional opportunities simply because of competing family responsibilities. I wanted her words to be as true for me as they were for her. But I have found that my attempt to lean into both motherhood and career feels a lot more like falling over.
The truth is, I am wrestling with the unwelcome reality that there are true limitations to my ambitions. The Lean In mantra may say that those limitations are perceived, but I can attest that these limitations are intense and real and have the potential to turn your world upside down. Just think about these three limitations:
Physical: I haven’t slept through the night in 140 days, and I’ve either nursed or pumped every four hours in those days, too. My baby app notes that I have breastfed/pumped for more than 242 hours since April. And let’s not even talk about the physical recovery required after pregnancy and birth.
Time: James and I are both out all day at work which means that the few hours at the end of the day are the only ones we get with our son. Some days, our baby is asleep before James returns from work. The free time that James and I used to spend enjoying each other or engaging with our community is no longer there. We are now fully caring for our baby, or, when he is asleep, we are washing bottles, doing laundry, coordinating sitter schedules and then working late to make up for the lost productivity of exhaustion or unplanned needs of the baby.
Relational: In having a baby and managing a demanding work schedule, I didn’t realize how much I would miss my husband. Our moments of intimacy are getting boxed out by other urgent demands.
I have no expert advice or proven “how-to” when it comes to mastering the demands of motherhood, marriage, career advancement and mission because I am simply in the middle of it, fumbling my way forward (some days, I’m not sure it’s forward). But I care deeply about the idea of vocation — of living out a calling that exists both in the richness of family life as well as out in the world — and I am simply trying to navigate my vocational path amidst this new normal.
Here is what I am learning:
+ Set & Protect Your Values
No one will set boundaries for you, as important as they are. James and I are currently revisiting our marriage vows/values and lining them up against our lifestyle. We are beginning to make vocational, relational, and financial adjustments to ensure that our values are dictating our days, and not the other way around.
+ Pace Yourself
Motherhood, marriage and mission are all long journeys that require more endurance than speed. Beware of the tyranny of the urgent. God did not ask us to live a life of hurry. Burnout will be inevitable. For us, it means that we are going to bed earlier, prioritizing practices like cooking meals together, and saying no more often (even when they are great opportunities).
+ Allow Room for Grief
Be honest with yourself about what you have lost — be it autonomy, rest and recreation or a sense of self. There is true grief in this transition, and it’s important to acknowledge it and give it the space it deserves.
+ Don’t Try to Have it All, Right Now.
I realize that at this moment, I can’t have it all. (Trust me, I have tried). I am learning that a life of true vocation is a holistic one that includes career, family, community, and mission. That life is filled with seasons of ebb and flow, which allows us to dive deeper into one part of our vocation, while another takes a backseat. I think that is okay.
+ Ask for Help
It’s liberating to admit that I don’t have it all together. It’s still hard to ask for help, but I can’t do it on my own. James and I can’t do it on our own. I’m beginning to see that a joyful and sustainable life is dependent on the kindness of a neighbor, the presence of a family member, and the consistency of community.
For all you mothers out there working both at home and in the marketplace, I salute you. It is not an easy task. I pray that we can each find a vocational rhythm that keeps us from feeling like martyrs and helps us live in the freedom of our limitations.