Welcome to A Cup of Ambition!
I'm so glad you're here.
Hi! I’m Jessica and I’d like to welcome you to the inaugural addition of “A Cup of Ambition”. This newsletter will cover topics relevant to professional working moms (and enlightened dads). You can expect essays, interviews, and links covering topics like finding meaning and success at work, how to raise happy and well-rounded kids, and relevant news and social trends.
The title of this newsletter comes, of course, from the song “9-to-5” by Dolly Parton. And though it’s meant to be cheeky and cute, the truth is that ambition is a loaded word…especially for women, and most especially for working mothers.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Let’s rewind to early 2015. I was 8 months pregnant with my son and sitting in my (then) boss’s office. I had spent the last several months conceptualizing a new program for the university at which I worked. Mental health issues among students were increasing in prevalence and acuity, and the university asked me to rethink how they identified and supported students of concern. I was a former therapist with a Ph.D. in social work who had experience in program development and management—I was also in a poorly defined role and thus eager to take on this project in the hopes that it would lead to a new and more fulfilling job.
My boss was pleased with my work. She agreed that I was the obvious choice to lead the new program, “but”, she noted, “you may not want it”. I looked at her like she had three heads—of course I wanted it! It was a major promotion, it played to my strengths, and I had spent months designing the program model myself; this was the professional opportunity I was looking for. She smiled kindly and, with genuine concern, said, “once the baby comes, you may find that you’re less interested in work. You might find that you’re less… ambitious”.
I assured her that I very much wanted the role, and she said it was mine. I called my husband—he was thrilled that the big promotion was finalized and wanted to celebrate. As I sat sipping a not-so-celebratory sparkling water at our favorite restaurant later that night, I couldn’t help but feel there was a dark cloud over the festivity. Lose my ambition? What kind of sexist bullshit was that? Ambition was in my blood. I’d show anyone who doubted me.
And I did. I built a well-respected program that made a real difference in students’ lives. I also settled nicely into motherhood. After a difficult pregnancy, I was one of those rare individuals who actually loved the newborn phase, finding sleep deprivation superior to near-constant vomiting. I had reliable childcare, a decently flexible schedule, and a sense of purpose. I hit my stride… and then I stumbled.
The wheels started falling off after a devastating and medically complex miscarriage. Shortly after, things started crumbling at work too. Senior leadership made a series of decisions that didn’t align with my values and I started feeling betrayed and burnt out. Infertility and additional pregnancy loss followed. It was a dark time, and the dissatisfaction at work and devastation in my personal life were mutually reinforcing.
After several rounds of fertility treatments, I was finally pregnant with my daughter. I was also on the job market. My husband was applying for a new job and we were in the midst of a national dual-career search. Interviewers asked me “if you could design any role for yourself, what would it be?” I didn’t have a good answer. Part of me wanted to continue up the academic leadership ladder and part of me wanted to step back into a part-time gig that would allow me to spend more time with my kids. My ambition had turned, unsettlingly, into ambivalence.
RETHINKING AMBITION AND EMBRACING DUALITIES
Fast forward to 2021. After years of working in the realms of developmental and organizational psychology, I opened my own executive coaching and organizational consulting firm focused on the unique needs of working parents. In this role, I speak to a lot of parents about both their ambitions and their ambivalence, and I wholeheartedly believe that both of these things can coexist.
When I was younger, I used to think of my career trajectory as a staircase, with each degree and job building upon the previous one. Maybe you’d skip a step or two, but you were constantly moving upwards, achieving more. Life, as it turns out, is rarely linear. Inspiration, dedication, and (yes) ambition ebb and flow. Circumstances change and support systems fluctuate. And that’s before you add a global pandemic to the equation…
This newsletter is for women who embrace dualities. Working moms who value professional success and being an involved parent. Whether, in this moment, your cup is overflowing with ambition or you identify more with the “yawn and stretch and try to come to life” part of the song. Though we’ll discuss topics that directly relate to the workplace, it’s my hope that ambitious moms not currently working outside the home will find something in here for them too. After all, if leadership is the process of influencing others towards a future vision, then parenthood is the ultimate leadership exercise.
Each week we’ll explore the complicated landscape of modern working motherhood. Life is infinitely more complex than a pretty Instagram checklist would have you believe. You won’t find simple solutions to complex problems here, but I hope we can build a supportive community that explores what it means to embrace ambition and live a life of meaning.
Cheers to what’s ahead!
READ – CONNECT – REFLECT
You’re busy, I get it. Each week I’ll provide a digest of important articles to read, new ways to connect with the people in your life, and a self-reflection question. Enjoy!
Setting career priorities when everything is uncertain (Harvard Business Review). The pandemic has caused most workers to reflect on their priorities (hence The Great Resignation). Although things remain uncertain, now may be an optimal time to consider what’s most important to you moving forward.
The agony of parents with kids under 5 (Slate). There’s an old parenting adage that says “you’re only as happy as your least happy child”. I would amend it for current era to read “you’re only as safe as your least vaccinated child”. I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year old, which means that we default to the strictest safety measures since my daughter isn’t yet eligible for the vaccine. This latest surge has been demoralizing, and I know so many other families with young kids feel the same way.
COVID-19 and burnout are straining the mental health of employed parents (McKinsey). I’m sure this headline will come as a surprise to precisely no one. This report summarizes findings from a recent national survey of parental stress and offers suggestions to companies for ways employers can better support working parents.
Annual reviews can be fraught for women. Here are tips to help you prep (The Lily). The new calendar year often means it’s performance review season, which can be a particular source of angst for women. This article provides thoughtful steps to help you prepare.
What it really takes to keep schools open during the omicron surge (NPR). From national substitute teacher and bus driver shortages to the dearth of available testing, there are a number of factors contributing to this recent round of school shutdowns.
I will fully admit that when the temperature drops, I become the quintessential “indoor mom”, but this sounds too fun to miss so I plan to join my kids and paint the snow after our next snowfall.
Chez Bob, a book about a hungry and enterprising alligator who ends up having a change of heart, has been getting lots of laughs in our house lately.
What kind of messages did you hear about working moms when you were a child? Who were your role models of working motherhood? How do these early messages impact the way you think about yourself as a working mom?
I want to cover what’s important to YOU. I welcome reader input in deciding what and who to write about. Email me at email@example.com and put “newsletter idea” in the subject.
I also offer executive coaching and organizational consulting focused on the unique needs of working parents. To learn more visit Jessica Wilen Coaching LLC