Lisa Duggan is co-founder and publisher of The Parent du Jour, an online documentary exploring contemporary families, one day, and one parent at a time. Follow her progress on Twitter @theparentdujour.
“Every time I scaled back on my career, to focus on my family and kids, I worried that I was letting down my young, ambitious self.” —Joanne Wilson, WE Festival, January 2011
In January of this year I was one of 150 lucky attendees at the first Women Entrepreneurs Festival, hosted by the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
I’m sincere when I use the word lucky here: over 500 women had applied for a spot at this conference dedicated to, “sowing the seeds for a community of women entrepreneurs in NYC”. It certainly felt like luck, or some larger force, delivering me back to NYU, where I had begun my academic career twenty-five years earlier. Entrepreneurs at all stages of development were invited to participate. Opening keynotes included New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Joanne Wilson, one of three chairwomen for the event.
Joanne spoke about her eclectic career path, from entrepreneur to angel investor, which included years of in-and-out, stay-at-home motherhood. She spoke of the lack of women in technology and her efforts to help change the ratio. But when she evoked the ghost of her “young, ambitious self”, hot tears sprung to my eyes. I had come to the Festival for many reasons, chief among them the need to fulfill a promise made to my own young, ambitious self.
In 1983 I was an NYU freshman full of hope, eager to pursue a career in psychiatry. Unfortunately, that was the same year my parents’ marriage ended and a series of extraordinary health problems for my mother began. The upheaval in our family made it impossible for me to concentrate on school. I finished my first year poorly and didn’t return after the break.
My summer job turned into a lucrative spot in IT, as a technical writer, and eventually I enrolled at The School of Visual Arts to study communications and graphic design. I found a job in newspaper production and worked my way up to manager. During that time I also met my (second) husband and fell in love. We married and started a family.
I was successful by many measures and happy, but never entirely satisfied. My life did not feel like a series of choices, but rather a series of obligations. While I was glad to have been there for my family during a crisis, I continued to carry a deep resentment for having lost my own way in the process. My anger was holding me back from creating a truly satisfying life but I never realized it—until I met my younger self again, in the strong-willed, clear-blue eyes of my daughter.
I had willingly quit work to be with her but suddenly stay-at-home motherhood felt like another obligation imposed on me, rather than a choice I freely made. It relit the fire of my old resentment, the inner conflict between familial duty and following my own passion. How could I teach Alice that she could be anything, do anything she wanted to do when I had not pursued my own dreams? How could I preach personal responsibility when I had lived a life of blaming others for my own lack of trying?
Yes, my early plans had been disrupted, there’s no denying that. But it was my choice to remain defeated by the obstacles life put in my way, rather than be determined to get around them. Insecurity, blame, shouting “It’s not fair,”—these are the luxurious emotions of childhood.
The day you realize that you’ve always had, like Dorothy's ruby slippers, the power to get where you want to be is sobering. It’s the day you grow up. You finally understand that the quality of your life, good and bad, has been in your hands all along. Now you have to make the choice to perceive that reality as a burden, or a gift.
I chose, I choose, to see it as a gift. This new perception has re-connected me to the passionate twenty-year old I was, who cared deeply about people in all their complexity, and together we proudly took our seat at the Festival. As I work to bring my vision to reality, riding a wave among a sea of newly charged and powerful female entrepreneurs, I know there will be new obstacles in the way. But I made a promise to my young self, and to my daughter, that come what may, I will keep rowing ahead.
I love this — “you have to make the choice to perceive your reality as a burden or a gift.” Is there a reality that you are looking to reframe?
Are you rowing ahead?