There it was.  That phrase.  “…since you’ve been a stay at home mom.”  An  acquaintance used it in conversation with me over the weekend.  It always stops me in my tracks.  I get a physical reaction.  The hair stands up on the back of my neck.  Let me be clear.  There is nothing wrong with the phrase – nor the choice that it represents.  Many women and men make the choice to stay home.   If it is your choice, I applaud it.  My problem?  It isn’t my choice.  So, when I hear it, I immediately conclude that the speaker can’t or won’t see the value in what I’ve chosen.    That’s where the disconnect comes in for me.  I can’t help but wonder where the problem is?  Is it them or me?

Spring path

I can’t help but think that the me stems from the voice I give to what I’ve chosen.  How often do I share with others the context required to understand me?  Because I’ve chosen non-traditional roles the voice requirements are larger than usual.  I can’t in an instant convey a muckety-muck title.  It takes a paragraph – or at least a sentence or two.   Most listen.  Fewer understand.

The other side of the equation – the them – seems swayed by society’s notion of what we should or could do.  I wasn’t so aware of this before my transition.  Now, I realize that it is everywhere.

One day an acquaintance helped me understand this at the core.  I should tell you that for a long time I believed that I had somehow skirted above or around societal expectations of what we could or should do.  I lived the mantra, “you can be anything you want to be.”   That phrase was present in my home growing up as much as it was throughout my education and my work life.

One day I called a HBS classmate of mine with whom I hadn’t talked in years. I called him to get his perspective on an issue.  I was investigating the topic on behalf of an entrepreneurial start-up that I was working with.   He happened to work in the start-up’s target industry.

Since we hadn’t talked in a long time he started off by telling me what he was up to. Then it was my turn.

I spent a few minutes bringing him up to speed on the exciting portfolio of projects that I had underway.   These included working with female-led start-ups, serving on the Board of Directors of a $1.5 billion healthcare company, and authoring a blog for which I had just started some additional research. I was thrilled to be talking coherently about this portfolio. It had taken years to take shape and get underway.

He listened. Or so I thought.

As soon as I stopped talking he said, “So you’re a stay at home mom?”   I was speechless.   And angry.

Time has allowed me to think differently about that call.

Even though I thought I knew what it meant to be anything you want to be, it wasn’t until I was faced the statement’s undoing that I really really understood it.

My friend taught me that no one — other than myself — might understand the value of what I choose to do.   I have to be ok with that.  That is the first hurdle.

On top of all this them or me business – it isn’t really all that easy to define a path that holds meaning just for you.  Only you.  Angela, an administrator for at a well-known academic institution, shared with me, “It’s kind of hard to forge a path on your own. For a long time I couldn’t say ‘I want to be like this.’ I didn’t know what the answer was going to be for me. It is so much easier to follow the path that everyone follows.  It’s really hard to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’”

Transition requires us to define value on our own terms – regardless of the unnerving statements of friends or acquaintances.   The one thing that these folks may never see – is that pursuing this type of value yields immeasurable gifts.  Energy, engagement, happiness.   Overtime these become an impermeable shield that neutralizes the impact of other’s reactions.

How do I know?  In spite of my funny physical reaction this weekend, I knew in an instant that her words didn’t matter.

Is it time to start exploring value on your own terms?

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