A co-worker asked me what I wanted next in my career, and I said, “Why do you ask?”
I said it kind of suspiciously because I’ve been hearing it a lot lately. I’m 34, and I’ve been working in the same position for about two years. I’ve been working for the same university for five years. And when I say I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, part of what I mean is that I’ve been asking it of myself too.
Most of my 20s was spent gathering degrees and skills. Everything was about moving on to the next step, the next thing, moving up, and moving on. I moved from the West, to the Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest, all in an effort to get to a good place, all of it with a wife and kids in tow. And now that my wife and I are both finished with school, and both working, it feels comfortable.
But for some reason it still feels like I need to be asking what’s next, and for the life of me, I’m not sure how to answer that question.
When my co-worker posed the question, we were in her office. She’d just started as an assistant director, and I could tell that she’d been asking herself the same thing. You hear it a lot, and it feels like if you’re not asking yourself what’s next in your career, then you are falling behind.
“I’m just curious,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it.”
We hadn’t, so I gave her a sparse rambling answer about how I didn’t see myself moving away from the area or leaving the university. I didn’t see myself moving up — blah, blah, blah. She nodded a lot, and by the time I was back in my office, I realized I didn’t give her a clear answer because I didn’t really have one. The only thing I could think of was this:
I just want to be a dad.
And while being a dad isn’t really a career choice, my kids are still young, and they are easily the best thing in my life right now. I’m in a position where I don’t make a lot of money, but I make okay money. I have benefits. I have vacation. I have stress, but not too much. I have most weekends off. My schedule is pretty predictable. I’m kind of in a good position to be a dad. But sometimes it feels like I have to choose between being a father and the next step in my development as a professional, and I’m not sure why that is.
I think a lot of working parents run into this. They are forced to navigate between moving up and staying where they are comfortable. There is almost a level of shame when it comes to being comfortable in a job — or at least I feel that way. Perhaps it’s a “guy” thing, something that I feel because of traditional social expectations for a man to be not only a good provider, but also an excellent provider with power, responsibility, and respect. But what is often left out of this equation is the time it takes to raise a family and sustain a marriage.
I have to assume that many working women feel this way too — perhaps more so. Just like how I’m expected to be a provider, they are often expected to be a nurturer, and moving up often means less time for mothering along with two handfuls of social shame for not being home 24/7 with their children.
I grappled with a lot of thoughts until my director came into my office to chat about a few things. I told her about my earlier conversation about the next step in my career. I told her about my family and how I want to be there for them, but I feel the need to move up because that’s the expectation of a working professional.
“Sounds to me like you want to be a dad,” she said in a very calm and matter-of-fact tone.
I couldn’t believe how astute her comment was. I didn’t say anything. I just let out a breath.
“It’s okay to want to be a parent,” she said. “It’s a good thing. I think a lot of people get caught up in trying to get ahead and forget about what really matters. Your little ones will only be little for a short time. I think you just want to enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I nodded with half a grin. It was the kind of face I often make when someone cuts through it all and helps me get to the core of what I’m struggling with. And to be honest, I don’t know if all this means I won’t, one day, try to move up. It doesn’t mean that I will turn down any opportunity that comes my way. What it means is that although parenthood isn’t seen as a career move, it still has value. It still has weight and importance. So much of every move I’ve made as an adult, from education to job choice, has been to provide a better life for my family. It has all been in their name. And now I kind of want to enjoy the benefits of all that hard work.
“You’re right,” I said. “Thank you.”
My director smiled. Then she slapped my knee and walked out.
Most of my professional life has come down to choosing between an evening reading stories with my kids and working late on a project, between taking my wife out for dinner and meeting with colleagues at a pub to chat about upcoming deadlines, between a Saturday dance recital and getting ahead at the office. I think a lot about the tug of war between family and work, and right now, I kind of want to keep the rope on my family’s side of the pull. And honestly, I don’t feel bad about that.