Is Your Motherhood Ladder Up The Wrong Tree?

 By: Amy Tiemann
Motherhood can give us a fresh perspective away from the "corporate ladder" model of life, but as I have examined my commitments and activities one "ladder" metaphor keeps coming to mind. I have found that the question "is my ladder up the wrong tree?" can provide a useful check-in.

Visually, you can picture yourself putting the time and effort into climbing a ladder to reach the fruit growing on a tree. Is that pear really what you want? Is it worth the work you'll have to put in to get it? Did you choose this tree for your own reasons, or to satisfy someone else's?

Family obligations have been a useful focusing tool for me. Back when I was in my 20s, I spent almost 6 years getting my Ph. D. in Neuroscience without really considering whether committing that much of my life to that field was the right choice to make. Looking back, I am very glad that I finished my degree, BUT if I had to live a second life I'd definitely do something else. It turns out that I am a generalist who was getting herself trapped in a specialist's field. I was out on a limb but I found the courage to climb down.

Now, as a busy working Mom, I try to strike a balance between exploration and commitment. Doing research is exploration; writing a book is commitment. I am fortunate to have a lot of people inviting me to join them on their projects or causes, but at the same time, if I am ever going to get my own work done, I need to protect my time. I've had to reevaluate a few long-standing commitments and decide to step away when a renewal point arrived.

Looking ahead toward 2008, I am exploring how best to use my time and talents to ensure that mothers have a powerful voice in the next election. By keeping a fresh eye on my commitments, I've been able to avoid becoming stuck up any given tree. In fact, at times I have swung, Jane-like, from one tree to another. This is how women's lives evolve. It's not just one career path, it is several. The paths fork, spiral, and go off-road.

How do you know if your ladder is up the wrong tree? When you review your obligations, consider the following questions:

- Is this activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary? Aim for two of these three criteria whenever possible.

- Does this activity make use of my specific talents and interests, or would it be better delegated to someone else? When you take on a new activity, agree to try it out for a specified amount of time, giving yourself a chance to review your decision after the trial period.

- Am I stuck on a track or living out someone else's dream? Even if you can't leave your rut behind right away, by quitting your job for instance, you can find a way to explore a new interest on your time.

- Am I saying "yes" to a request just to avoid saying "no"? This is a short-term avoidance tactic that can backfire and cause long-term problems. Make it a habit to ask to think things over before saying yes to any new request for your time. For ongoing obligations, take a periodic review. Survey your gut. If you dread or avoid an activity, it might be time to find a way to honorably wrap up your obligation and move on.

Slay the guilt dragon! As long as your family's well-being or your continued employment is not at stake, you don't have to feel guilty for saying no to an obligation that will overwhelm you, something you absolutely hate doing, or something that you won't be able to do well.

The first time I left the path was rather terrifying--I was sure I was letting somebody down, even though I knew what to do. Now I have left the ladder-based model of success behind and adopted an artist's model. I use every experience. Nothing is wasted, not even my neuroscience background. I look at the stack of books on my nightstand and think, "I bet no one's ever brought these ideas together before." Mojo Mom is evolving. I am not sure where I am headed next, but you can be sure I won't be stuck up someone else's ladder.
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