What Career Decisions feel like as a Single "Mennonite" Girl
A few Sundays ago a conversation about white privilege evolved temporarily into a conversation about the glass ceiling and the wage gap, and I remembered an epiphany from not long ago.
I dream really small in my professional life.
THE GLASS CEILING FOR AN EX-MENNONITE GIRL
Some of the factors that go into this make sense: I grew up in a sub-culture of Mennonites where girls are only expected to work from about age 16-20, get married, and let their husband take care of finances while they take care of babies and the house.
Not a bad setup, but it doesn't work that way for everyone and I never particularly wanted that - for awhile anyway. I started out with what seemed like lofty goals: become a freelance writer, travel, go on picnics as much as possible, and then get married.
Throughout my 20s that all worked pretty well, but when I turned 29 something flipped and I realized that the whole babies and house lifestyle might not work out for me. This turned into a whole mess of reassessing where I find value and purpose, and feeling the weight of career decisions.
OMG. This is totally up to me - cue flipping out a bit.
- I couldn't wait to start ministry work until I had a husband - it would be wasting perfectly good time. The time was now.
- If I want to buy a house sometime, it's my baby.
- Pay negotiations will have to be learned.
- How do I learn about IRAs and investments again?
The worst of it was getting past the notion that if I step up to these responsibilities it would basically be marriage suicide. Who will want to marry an independent, kick-ass career woman? I'm not saying this to be crude, but simply that this was (ok IS) my impression. Guys go after girls who are young, untested, sweet, mother material, not someone who works in leadership in a ministry, thinks marketing funnels are fascinating, or takes business courses.
To me, making these decisions to step up to the plate and grow a life was tantamount to giving up a dream I thought of as incompatible with ambition: marriage. It's why I put off making those decisions as long as I did. How could I sacrifice one of those for the other? I didn't know how, so the decisions that should've been made were not.
When I mentioned how this feels to a few guy friends they were surprised, which surprise, surprised me <insert grin>. But really, past the jocularity, this topic hurts. It feels like being called to give up your mind for the sake of love.
Girls in my circles don't generally read leadership and entrepreneurial materials and voraciously lap up books on logic and human behaviors. They don't really exhibit world-wise strength and objectivity as skills, or if they do it's usually untested in a wider arena of business and life. If they choose higher education most often a boy comes along and they didn't finish it anyway (please don't take this as a judgement if this was you). I just saw it as a pattern, and subsequently wanted to make sure to be able to start something I could finish. So I never started.
But when 30 looms and marriage hasn't happened it forces some decisions upon you. Time is moving on, and it would be a major regret to get to the end of my life and say, "I didn't do that because I thought I might get married."
Even as I write it all feels ridiculous, but to be fair it's not if you've grown up in an atmosphere like this where women hardly ever have careers and aren't expected to challenge the intellectual or business world. For me even my normal expectation was challenged when since my teens people have told me "you can't just marry anyone. It will take someone unique for you."
Gee thanks. What does that mean again? Do I have a third nostril or something?
Despite that it's taken awhile to wake up to the fact that I won't have anything close to the normal life of most of my peers: the 25-year-old at the park with two kids just ain't ever gonna to be me. As a person who prizes connections, friendships and community, finding a different normal is just plain weird.
So far making a different way from 90% of the people I know hasn't been any kind of easy. However, by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do was not take a different route from my peers, but to begin to shatter my own expectations.
I WAS MY OWN GLASS CEILING
When it comes down to it, there are at least two major players kicking around our future: cultural expectation and whether or not we've accepted that as our guide. There are other things at play, of course, but if we don't sort out what is expected of us, how that factors into what we want to do, and how we're going to respond to it the rest of it doesn't really matter. If you're the kid of a prominent intellectual family certain things are expected of you by your parents: probably to attend an Ivy League school, gain a doctorate in something, and live a certain lifestyle. But what if you're excited about growing corn or peaches and you want to spend your days close to the dirt? Most high-brows simply won't get that - didn't they work all their lives to give you a "better" life?
You're always going to get sales pitches for a better life, the trick is identifying them and deciding if you want to buy it.
If I believed that marriage and kids is my better life right now, it would wreck my contentment and current purpose, so I'm not buying it. Neither am I the type of person who finds all her fulfillment in career so I'm also not buying into the whole "career woman with no room for anything else plan." The whole raising-kids-and-making-dinner as a tag team idea appeals to me.
I'm telling you this because we often polarize women's abilities with their nature, i.e. you can't be ambitious or have a killer instinct in business and be a nurturer. We confuse who we are with what we do. Another version of this is moms who feel they aren't "allowed" creative interests and intellectual pursuits outside of their kids (i.e. their kids should be their whole world with no room to work on your mind, body, or soul). It's incredibly limiting, and false, and frankly just plain dangerous. There's little oxygen in a life that focuses so completely on one thing, and one thing only.
We get this idea that we must sell out to only one thing in life, and with the exception of God, I disagree. Life calls us to balance many responsibilities and adventures and dreams and it's up to us to decide which ones and in what order of priority.
When ambition calls and le boy hasn't (all right God, I finally get that you have other stuff you want me to do too) one begins the climb past the idea that it is only possible to pursue life-work ambitions, or "only" be a wife and mom. The two aren't mutually exclusive. It's hard to do this, make no mistake, because it takes nerve that I haven't got and it'll take a ton of hard work... and this is only the beginning of the road.
But this is my frontier; to stick my toes one by one into the untested waters of my fears and find the courage to say:
"I can dream two dreams, with space to grow."
How this looks for everyone will be different. I don't necessarily expect to be the next Sheryl Sandburg or to have a fairy tale wedding tomorrow, but to begin making the decisions in front of me with the confidence that my life holds value; whether in my current corner or in a larger sphere. Whether in marriage or career. Whether both. Our identity as humans often hinges on several facets of life, built on the understanding of our intrinsic worth.
I don't have to find my worth in career, or being a wife and mom. It's completely separate from that, in the person I was created to be and my relationship with the Creator. Everything else builds from that.
At some point we all have to recognize that the only life completely wasted is the life separated from the glory of God, and from that standpoint we build lives and careers either with purpose and meaning, or as something that will disappear as a mirage at the end of our lives.
It's much easier to find worth from what we do, but I submit to you we must first find it in who we are. On this basis we have the confidence that no matter if life ends up differently than we thought it is not wasted, and decisions can be made with a confidence of intrinsic value.
This is never to say we get a free pass from doing and being excellent, or from using our talents. A skill of mine is the ability to write, and it would be wrong to ignore the chance I have to do some good through it. It isn't how my value is counted but one of the places in which I find fulfillment. There's the difference: we don't withdraw value from what we do, but find purpose and meaning within it.
Find your identity and then find your work. We have to have both, but the second won't work out very well if we haven't paid attention to the first.
WHAT IS THE GLASS CEILING FOR YOU?
Shocker, this is not only for a single, sort-of Mennonite girl. Everyone has been fed lines about what identifies us: guys are expected to take the safe route and hold down a steady job - to create a certain life for his girl and their kids. For moms often there's a big amount of judgment if your kids don't consume your entire world, with no room for creativity, intellectual pursuits or self-care.
What dreams are slowly fading out for you? I'm not suggesting that all dreams come to fruition, but that we limit ourselves greatly according to the expectations of the culture around us, and what we think is possible for ourselves.
Like me, you could be the person standing in between you and living life bravely and wholeheartedly. We all get put in boxes (cultural expectations) that tie our whole identity to what we do and it really stifles the ability to grow and experiment and learn. Sure, what we do identifies us to the world, but our careers will never hold lasting value until we do.
What are you thinking?
With love as always,
P.S. A disclaimer: from my point of view I don't call having kids "a career" for any parent. It has the potential to polarize a couple right when they most need to be one: traditionally it makes him the money machine, investing into his wife's business of "her" kids. Seems fishy. That's a decision a man and a woman make with responsibility (and joy) and it takes up significant time, but I think it's a mistake to put it in the same category as something for which one or the other receives "financial compensation." It's a family. The roles of the dad and mom do take a complementary stance, however you split the difference, but they're in this together. Being a stay-at-home mom or dad is perfectly valid, as long as the choice is united and both parents are fully present as parents. Having kids is not a business. -L.E.