Here is my story. It is either a career woman's fantasy or worst nightmare. In all probability it's a little of both. But one day, after years of dedicated work, pleasure from what I did, and a rewarding record of achievement, I walked into my boss's office and quit. The decision wasn't sudden, even if the action was. It had been a long time in the making. I was tired, depressed, and no longer enjoying a job I had once loved. To stay in my position I had been paying an increasingly heavy price in pressure, politics, and stress. I was losing perspective about what was important to me. The quality of my life was lessening at the same time that quality was becoming more important. I needed a break and I wanted to rethink what my priorities were. For years I had gotten everything I needed from work and I felt puzzled, betrayed, and frightened that my career now seemed to be the problem, not the solution. I knew I had to make some changes but I didn't want to give anything up. Certainly not my career, which was sacred ground and synonymous with who I was. But there was less and less room for my "life"--whatever that was. If someone had told me then that giving up my professional identity would restore my love of work and then some, I would have asked them when they were released from the nuthouse. But that's what happened. It would take some time, though, before I discovered what enormous rewards were in store for me.
At least I wasn't alone in my dilemma.
Shortly after leaving work I picked up an issue of Fortune
magazine. In it the editors had conducted a survey aimed at fleshing out the trend they perceived of widespread dissatisfaction of dedicated and accomplished career women--women like me who had ground slowly to a halt on the road of their dreams and needed to make some changes. "The generation of women that blazed new trails into the corporate suites is evidently blazing its own trails out," concluded Fortune.
The Yankelovich Partners survey of female managers and executives ages thirty-five to forty-nine found that fully 87 percent of the women surveyed wanted to make a major change in their lives. Forty percent felt trapped, close to 60 percent were in therapy, and 46 percent of these women over forty knew someone who was taking antidepressants.
Self-confidence wasn't the problem: 81 percent of the women responded that they were better at their jobs than most men. The glass ceiling wasn't the reason either: between 65 percent and 78 percent of the women expected to make significant advances in the near future. As to suppositions that women were leaving the fast track for hearth and home, the survey revealed no significant difference in the way women with or without children felt about their lives. Put simply, work wasn't working anymore for this accomplished group of women. According to the accompanying article, it seemed that the qualities of courage and ability that brought women to the top were the very same ones that were enabling women to stop, reevaluate, and, if necessary, redirect their lives.
Crisis at mid-life, the article concluded. Perhaps. But lurking in the middle of the article was a statistic that seemed the lid to Pandora's box: Three quarters of the women said they were defined by what they did.
Here was a group of successful women who wanted desperately to change what they were doing or how they were doing it. But if they were defined by what they did, how were they ever going to change their relationship with the work that was making them so unhappy?
This turned out to be my question precisely. Of course I identified myself by what I did. What was wrong with that? My career had been the most important part of my life for a long time. I also loved what I did and liked the people I saw every day. Sure, the corporate climate had changed; it was now totally bottom-line focused, more competitive, less loyal. But that was life, I figured. I was a career girl, pure and simple. Working met my financial, emotional, intellectual, and self-esteem needs. There were other things in my life, but work came first. Or at least it had for a long time.
* * *
The struggle between the perfect rÚsumÚ and the balanced life is waged unconsciously as well. Inside most women lie buried expectations and edicts about what being a woman is supposed to look like. We all had mothers to live up to or get away from. We have had decades of television telling us what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. Women still judge themselves as companions and mothers by standards that are not too far evolved from those of our grandmothers. No matter what shape a career woman's life takes, each one of these values has to be exposed and wrestled with at some point. And often the battle of the value systems shows up as work dissatisfaction.
Whether women want to marry or not, whether they elect to have children or not, they still must face the fact that fertility isn't forever. It's not accidental that the crisis of career is often coincident with the mortality of fertility. For many this awareness begins in their mid-thirties and is the first omen that life in the fast track ultimately terminates. For many it's the first time they realize that they aren't going to live forever or do everything possible under the sun. Because the workplace hasn't found a balanced way of incorporating "female" choices, the fertility question often has a real black-or-white feeling about it, creating a subtle but intense pressure.
* * *
This is not a book about staying home with your kid. There are women in this book for whom that choice is hell. It would be absurd and beside the point to judge right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. That's the point. The issue here is the conflict itself, the tear between a life built around who we thought we should be as career women and who we have become in the process of our lives. Every woman interviewed in this book found herself at a point where the gap between what she was doing and who she was had gotten too wide to bridge anymore. Each had gone through a wrenching soul search about what was important to her and all had questioned whether they had the courage or the resources to make a change. Many had sacrificed material things in addition to job status. Others had risked stepping off the promotion path. Still others reveled in the freedom of movement and mind that had come from leaving a high-pressured corporate environment. The paths were as different as the women walking them. Some women found themselves recommitting to the work they were already doing. Others went into business for themselves. Some took time out or cut back on their hours, depending on what they could afford. Some, like me, switched careers and ended up pursuing lifelong dreams. And some had to stay in situations they didn't like for financial reasons, but they found a way to work with more peace once they changed their goals.
This is no small movement. Thousands of women with a great deal to lose are either planning on, dreaming of, or actually shedding old skins for new ones. Thousands have already gone through the process. These are women who love to work. These are women who have always worked. The women in these pages all pursued and continue to pursue careers. But most of them said that they had reached a point where they felt they were being asked to make a version of the choice I had to make--their careers or their peace of mind; their creative expression and independence or their lives. And since most of us have to work for economic reasons as well as psychological ones, this choice isn't really a choice at all but a sort of prolonged and somewhat hellish hypothetical.
Like me, the more than two hundred women interviewed and a thousand more surveyed for this book feel that there is a growing dissonance between their outer work lives and their inner values. This conflict is forcing an increasingly adversarial relationship between our work selves and personal selves. We don't want to be asked to choose between two parts of ourselves any more than we want to be asked to choose between outdated, old-fashioned, and gender-based lifestyles. The real tragedy in all this is that the very real love these women and I hold for our professions has become dwarfed by the maelstrom of bad behavior that results from increased corporate pressure, competition, and a punitive success and value system that is way too narrow to fit most of us comfortably.
When I left my job, I decided I wanted to write a book that tells the truth about what goes on in many women's working lives. This is not to say that there aren't many women for whom work is a sustaining joy. There are. And there are days when every woman in this book feels that way. But many of those women increasingly feel that they are working under compromising conditions. This is a book for women who feel that the way they work better fits a man with a wife at home to take care of life. This is a book for women who are struggling to rewrite their lives in mid-sentence so that the end of their stories involves balance and joy. Every woman I have talked to thirsts for the right mixture of stimulation and peace, of work and play, of time together and time apart. Most important, women strive for a harmony between who they are deep inside and how they live and spend their time.
Like most women I don't want to wait for my sixties and beyond to enjoy my life. Here, at the intersection of peak capabilities and confounding discontent, I want to make the choices that will give me the life that reflects who I am and what I believe in. I don't know what shape my tale will take, ultimately. But like the other women in this book, I now need to take some risks and go beyond the identity on my business card that sustained me for years. For I see now that identity has perversely narrowed my life and my options. I became so invested in "who I was" that I found it extremely hard to make room for "who I am."
In order to accept and enjoy my life I have had to better understand the forces at work within me and around me. I have had to honestly look at what I believe and what I value and what kept me working for so long without significant protest in an environment that is better designed for my father. Because it is my deepest hope and intention to work for the rest of my life, I have a lot invested in trying to see myself and the work world clearly. It's my only shot at a life of self-acceptance, wholeness, creativity, independence, and fulfillment. It's my only hope for meaningful change.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from When Work Doesn't Work Anymore by Elizabeth Perle McKenna. . Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.