I was 29, mother to an almost 4-year old, almost 1-year old and a full-time MBA student at Wharton. It was my first semester. I was struggling to juggle the needs of two young kids with the demands of an intense program populated with super-ambitious, supremely-driven, mostly-single 20-somethings. Before starting at Wharton, I had enjoyed a successful career at Sun Microsystems. Hard work and ambition had enabled me to rapidly rise from a junior engineer to project lead. Along the way, motherhood happened. I was determined to have it all - the perfect family and a thriving career - even if it meant resuming office full-time just 6 weeks after my son was born, logging back into my computer every single night after he was in bed, and bringing him along on work trips when needed. But now I found myself battling loneliness and self-doubt - had I finally bitten off more than I could chew? Perhaps I should have just stayed at home after my daughter was born.
It was a particularly difficult morning. I had been up all night with my daughter who was suffering from a stomach infection and barely made it on time for my 9 am Leadership and Teamwork class. My ears perked up when the guest speaker, a grandmother and the CEO of a large heavy machinery manufacturer, spoke about her experience of balancing graduate school with two young kids. Inspired, I sought her out after class. What she said to me has guided all my professional decisions since. “#1: Define your priorities clearly. #2: Think of your career in terms of a dimmer switch, not an on/off toggle switch. Don’t turn off the switch completely. Dim the intensity when your family needs to be prioritised, and increase it when you are ready to go full throttle”. It was as if a light bulb went off in my head. I would need to redefine what was the ‘all’ that I wanted to strive for.
Upon graduation, ‘having it all’ meant balancing my priorities by pursuing high impact yet flexible roles rather than taking the prestige pathway of my peers into investment banking or consulting. When we relocated to India, it morphed into part-time roles for a few years, so I could give myself and my family time to settle into a new environment. Gradually, as my children grew older, I started increasing the intensity of my dimmer switch. Now with my son headed to college and my daughter in high school, I am in the most rewarding and productive phase of my career.
Successful motherhood can happily co-exist with a successful career. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of having it all. We just need to create opportunities for every woman to define for herself what is the ‘all’ that she is aspiring for.