When I left Corporate America in late 2016, it wasn’t a flawless exit. I was “packaged out”. Like that term, packaged out? A lot of inference, a lot of ambiguity, right? It was what I wanted, but like a lot of things we want, I didn’t fully appreciate or know all that it would mean.
Think about having kids for example, maybe you’ve thought or said, “I want kids”. When you say “I want kids” maybe you mean “I want to become a mother” or “I can see my future as part of a family” or “parenthood seems like the obvious next step for our relationship.” What you probably don’t mean is “I want sleepless nights” or “I want to be exhausted and have to learn new skills while I’m exhausted” or “I want children who will make my heart burst with big emotions every single day”.
It’s not that you’re making the decision without thinking it through, it’s just that you don’t know everything it is to become a mother until you become one. And even then, the process of becoming unfolds at its own pace, during the pregnancy, infancy, childhood, and over a lifetime.
I was at my last company for 13 years and I was in my last role for five years. For ten of those years, it was a thrilling ride. I was traveling to and from great cities, staying in lovely hotels, meeting with important clients, enjoying smart colleagues, leading a team, achieving goals, deeply engaged, developing myself, and on a trajectory that felt right.
And then, I started the process of becoming a mother. My husband and I traveled to Paris and London at the end of 2011 to officially mark the close of our first stage of marriage. We loved our first few years as “just the two of us”. We traveled, we played, we bought a house together. We checked off a lot of boxes on our lists and we enjoyed each other. We celebrated Bonne Annee 2012 at the Eiffel Tower and were pregnant with twins within a month. Twins.
After the maximum allowable time for maternity leave, I reunited with my team for the first time in San Francisco, wearing a skirt that was the same size as my pre-pregnancy size, because for some reason I thought that was important. I left my babies home with my husband and dove enthusiastically into what I used to do. My team was initially tentative but it took no time at all for us to get our groove back.
I had a bit of alone time with my boss in New York City a couple of weeks later and she said, “You’re incredible. You picked up right where you left off without skipping a beat.” And then she said something that changed everything, “No one would ever guess that you just gave birth to twins”.
She meant it as a compliment, but it broke my heart. Carrying those babies, delivering those babies, becoming a mother was the most important thing I had ever done. It changed the very essence of who I was and shifted my purpose with an undeniable clarity and ferocity.
For my boss and mentor to dismiss the profoundness of my experience hurt deeply, even though I knew she didn’t mean anything by it, and even though I knew she couldn’t understand. I wanted to be there too, I wanted it to work, but I wanted to work because I used to love it, because it was such a large part of my previous identity. I wasn’t sure about now. I wasn’t being pulled that direction anymore, was I?
I was constantly torn. I was working but it wasn’t working. I wanted to breathe in my babies’ tiny smells every moment of every day, I wanted to hear their tiny baby sounds, and comfort every cry. Literally, the only thing that allowed me to get on every flight, to attend every meeting, to pump in locked conference rooms and in airports, was my amazing husband’s gracious decision to put his career on hold to care for our twins that first year. I couldn’t have gone back if it meant daycare.
I worked from home when I wasn’t traveling, but I was traveling a lot and it was challenging. Even the most productive business meetings, the most exciting events, the most luxurious resorts, and the best opportunities were tinged with “wouldn’t this be better if I was whole?”. What was missing was my babies.
A year went by in a blink and when the twins turned two, I was pregnant with baby #3. I look back at that time and wonder how in the world we did it. I’m filled with awe for my resilience, my commitment, my husband’s dedication, his selflessness, our naïveté. We both showed up for each other and our growing family in extraordinary ways that expanded our marriage.
When baby three came early and with a congenital heart defect, it stopped me in my tracks. With the twins, I took two weeks off before induction to get in the right mindset, to ensure our home was prepared, and to build the most peaceful experience possible for their arrival. I delivered them naturally and healed naturally. For the baby, I went into labor 17 days early on Super Bowl Sunday, had an emergency c-section, and took months and months to heal. None of it happened naturally. I thought I was pulling it off, powering through the crazy pace, and I was, but there were consequences. Aren’t there always consequences?
I surrendered. This time on maternity leave, instead of keeping one eye occasionally on work email, I literally deleted my work account from my devices and completely detached. I savored my baby and my twins. I ate them up every day, I studied them, I indulged in them, we got to know each other, we built trust, we fell in love. We fell in love.
I responded to every motherly instinct in my body and I let the rest go and to say it was glorious is an understatement. It was so much more than everything I’d ever hoped for.
And just before my maternity leave was up, my boss called to tell me I was being passed up for a promotion, a promotion that I deserved, that I desperately wanted, and it stung like crazy. But, if I’m honest with myself, I knew I was too changed to stay on that path, promotion or not. Maybe she knew it too. I also knew that I was in an emotional place with fluctuating hormones and three children under three and my job was the only source of income and benefits for our family. I wanted to simply hang up the phone and never look back, but what could I do?
Instead, I swallowed my pride, found my composure, spent that day and the rest of my maternity leave focusing on my family, and I went back…again. But this time, I knew I needed an exit strategy. It was only a matter of time.
So I asked for a package, without fully appreciating or knowing all that it would mean…