Thursday, December 16, 2010

Career Mom By Calling: Eliminating False Guilt

Every mom I have ever met feels guilty. Guilt for not being able to be with the kids because of her other duties.  Guilt for wanting to be doing other things when she is able to be with the kids.  Guilt for failing to match up to some impossible sitcom ideal like Mrs. Cleaver (with her immaculate home and perfectly timed dinners) or Claire Huxtable (with her great career, perfect hair, and unfailing energy).  The list could go on forever.

And it doesn't help that well-intentioned articles on the guilt mommies face trigger dialog that reinforces the idea that the "best" solution is one with mom at home but it's okay for mom to work "if she has to in order to feed the family."  

No matter what the situation, whether mom stays home, works because she has to, or works because she wants to, the loser is the mom who feels guilty.And that guilt traps us, keeping us from being the women we were made to be.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos
So what's the answer?
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)
God prepared our "good work" for us well in advance and we were created to fulfill it!  This tells me that my talents and personality and preferences were specially planned in a way that makes me able to do whatever work God has for me.

The Good Work for You is Not for Your Sister

My sister can bake circles around me and always keeps her hubby well-stocked with goodies. I order pizza and Chinese take-out or beg my husband to cook.  My mom is a seamstress.  I can barely sew on buttons.  My sister-in-law home schooled her 5 year old son last year.  I put my two-year old in day care.

It's EASY to feel guilty for not matching up.

But I have been able to enjoy a career that supports my family and provides a public service at the same time.  I have been able to build relationships with young women at the start of their careers who need encouragement and mentoring.  I have had the opportunity to talk about my faith with nonbelievers in the workplace. 

Some moms are called to a career.  Some are called to a job for a time.  Some are called to be at home.  But God's the one who has made the choice and given us the right skills and desires for the path He leads us on. When we are obedient to God's direction, guilt is unnecessary.

The Good Work for Now is Not for Tomorrow

My mom was never able to "not" work - she always had to have a part-time job whether at home or outside the home.  And then about 15 years ago she stopped working part-time and identified her career.  The time was right for a change.

At times mom homeschooled all five of us, put some of us in public school, or put some of us in private school, depending on what was the right choice for the family at the time.

It's natural to look upon our current situations as permanent.  For example, I tend to say "I am a career mom."  But only God knows if at some point I will be a stay-at-home or work-at-home mom. When we know that our current situation is transient, we do not need to "borrow" guilt from some unknown future lifestyle.

The Good Work Requires Lifelong Prayerful Consideration

If the work God has for me is different than what he has for my neighbor and if the work God has for me is for the moment, not five years into the future, then I can only know what that work is by consulting with Him regularly.  We have a tendency to pray "What is your will for me" with the expectation that we can get an answer once and for all, but I see no precedent in Scripture for that.

Instead, we need to seek daily for God's guidance regarding what Good Work he would have us do, and in faith believe that He is guiding us, whether it feels like it or not. It may be that today he is calling you to have a full-time career.  Or maybe today he is calling you to work that mundane job with a cheerful spirit.  Or maybe today he is calling you to help your little one learn fractions. 

Whatever it is, it is a Good Work He has planned and has prepared you for, and if you are seeking his guidance frequently and responding in obedience, you can serve with freedom from guilt.  We can leave the false guilt behind us and freely serve God doing today's Good Work.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Four tips for Helping Your Toddler Handle Business Trips

Being the mom of a two year old can make business trips difficult.  The little ones just don't understand why mommy has to be gone for so long and each day away makes them more stressed. There's no way to make a toddler totally okay with a parent being gone, but below are four tips that I have discovered help my little girl cope with my short-term absence.

Let Your Toddler Help You Pack

Two-year-olds just LOVE to help, don't they?  If you pack out in the open and invite them to help you fold the clothes, put them in the suitcase, find your shoes, etc, you can use the opportunity to talk to your child about your trip.  For two days in advance of my trips, I tell my little girl, "Mommy is going on a trip. I'll be at work next week while you are at school and I'll be home in four days."

This is really about telling the little ones in advance so they aren't surprised when you are gone.  I make a point of telling my daughter right before bed the night before, "Mommy's going on a trip tomorrow.  I'll see you in a few days."

Video Chat with Skype

I love Skype!  If you are connected to the Internet you can video chat for free using their software and free personal account. When I am away, I call my daughter every morning before school.  Her daddy helps out and sets up the computer so she and I can talk.  When she is able to see me and hear my voice it helps her know that I haven't just disappeared.  And on those calls I have our typical daily conversation:  "have you had a good day?  Were you good for your teacher yesterday?  Did you color in school?  etc."  I also reinforce to her that I will be back soon.

Practice Counting

My daughter doesn't understand "tomorrow" or "on Friday" very well yet.  But she gets her counting!  So in our Skype calls we talk about how many more nights until she will see me again.  "Mommy will be home in two more nights.  Can  you show me two fingers?  Good - let's count how many nights until Mommy comes home. Daddy will help you."  She gets very excited about counting, so this mixes fun with the sadness of mommy being gone.

Ask for Help from Family and Friends

Sometimes there is a close by family member or family friend that is very special to a toddler.  For my daughter, it's my sister.  She sometimes even still calls her "mommy"!  So when I knew I would be gone, I asked my sister to help out.  She drops of her daughter at our house in the morning before my husband takes the girls to day care, so she's been spending a few extra minutes cuddling my daughter in the mornings.  And when she picks up her daughter in the evenings she does the same thing, helping my little girl feel loved and special even though mommy isn't around.

There is no perfect solution - my daughter still misses me and toward the end of the trip she begins to get very impatient for me to be home.  But the tips above seem to help ease things somewhat, giving her the ability to cope with my absence.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Priorities, Careers and Kids - Being an IT Mom

Most of them time when I'm at work, I'm not very in-tune with the gender of the people I'm working with. They aren't men and women to me, they are coworkers. And that's a good thing because it means I see the individuals as themselves and not as a stereotype.

However, there are moments, like when I'm in a college course or on a business trip, when I am struck strongly with the fact that I am one of a decreasingly smaller number of women in technology.  In school I was usually the only female in my computer science courses, and at work I am one of only three technically inclined-women.  My mentors have all been men!  On business trips with outside software vendors I'm struck with the fact that NONE of the upper management in IT or the software developers are women - if there are women at all they are functional analysts or documentation writers or help-desk managers, and there aren't many even in those fields.

I'm not one to believe in the so-called glass-ceiling - I think it's simply that women aren't as interested in what it takes to be successful in technology.  When women really want a career in a field, they can make it happen.  But I am curious about WHY?

I think IT is a natural field for women: technology in business is about improving internal and external communication, organizing business processes to make them more efficient, making it easier for customers to find what they need, organizing information in a way that is useful for decision makers, etc.  Those are all stereotypically female activities(think about how many women are secretaries and good at it!  I was a secretary before I moved into IT.  The same "soft" skills are used in both fields.)

Perhaps it's the geeky stuff that scares women away - I was never interested in coding at all even though my dad and brother did it.  But that's because I didn't really know what they were doing.  Once I was introduced to programming via VBA in Microsoft Access, I fell in love with software and database development.  Coding is just like giving a "to do" list to the computer.  I get to organize and functionality needed, find ways to make it easier for people to use the program, make the screen "look pretty", etc.  (Maybe that's part of what attracts women to web design more than other aspects of IT.  The visual and artistic side of it is undeniable, even though the "geeky stuff" is still part of it.)

Then again, perhaps it's the travel.  I'm currently away on a (very rare for me) business trip.  I had to leave my daughter at home with her daddy for a whole week!  It breaks my heart to hear that she asks for me first thing in the morning.  Often travel is a big part of IT, and moms really don't want to have to leave their babies behind for that long (but admit it - a weekend in a hotel with no one tugging on your pants leg has its appeal!!).

Also, "crunch time" can call for some long, intense hours. Every business is different - for me it's elections, so my crunch-time happens on an expected, scheduled basis.   But that means I work 60 hour weeks during that season and my daughter sees me for only an hour or two each day.  That's tough for a mom to swallow, especially us Christian moms who believe it is our calling to teach our babies about our faith.

Despite the hype, most IT jobs are NOT easy to "do from home".  I've tried.  Trying to write software for school while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse just doesn't work for me!  My productivity drops significantly because of the constant interruptions, as I explain what that animal is, what is Mickey doing, "look, it's a purple flower!", etc.  Being a mom takes intense concentration, being a coder takes intense concentration.  Doing both at the same time means doing neither well.

Perhaps expectations need to change.  I'd like to see more women in IT (it can get lonely here!).  But perhaps we are going about it all wrong.

First, I think businesses need to find ways to make it easier for a women to be a mom and an IT professional.  Things like remote work locations so that commuter time is significantly decreased (commuting 40 minutes one way or more takes a huge chunk out of the day!), scheduling fewer business trips and doing more via teleconferencing (we are IT, after all!),  and working to even the load throughout the year so crunch time is less intense would all go far toward making moms more capable of staying in an IT career.

Second, I think women (and businesses!) need to give women more time to ease into IT. There is this PUSH toward become successful professionals on the same timelines as the men. Get into a good college, be great at your undergraduate degree, find a good job, work your way up, be in middle management by early 30s and upper management by early 40s.

Ummm - where's the room for being a mom?  Somewhere in there women will get married and have babies and between maternity leave and those foggy months of raising an infant, even full-time working women will fall behind at work.  And technology requires constant learning to keep up because the field changes so much so quickly.  This leads to feelings of disappointment on the part of IT managers and mentors who don't understand why this woman just can't keep up.  And it leads to feelings of failure on the part of the woman who wants to "do it all".

So change the timetable.  Sure, go to school, earn the degree, get the job, etc.  But marriage and family, if they happen, can and should take priority.  Some women may choose to stop working, if their husbands can support them.  Some, like myself, will stay in the workplace but slow down the pace.  I'm in a steady job that maintains my skills and gives me opportunities to improve, but it's not a pressure filled workplace with a push for advancement.

Then, start thinking about not getting into middle or upper management until the kids go to college.  If a women has her children early (like in her early to mid 20s), she'll have more free time in her late 30s, early 40s.  If a woman has kept in touch with the basics of her field through part-time work, hobbies, or a low-key full-time job, she will have catching up to do but not so much as if she quit paying attention all together. At that point, take some grad courses, do some volunteer work, start pushing to become the expert you couldn't be while your babies still needed you.

And by 55 (or so) you can be in management (if you want to be).

I think our culture has confused us.  By putting careers first in priority and first chronologically, women are falling behind in those careers that require intense attention.  We just need to flip-flop our thinking.  Just because you want to be a CIO some day doesn't mean it has to happen at 35 - why not 55 or 60?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Electric Lights, Stars, Pageants and the Slammer - Veggie Tales Christmas Lessons

Veggie Tales: The Star of Christmas
Veggie Tales: The Star of Christmas
In celebration of Advent (and so her daddy could take a nap), my daughter and I enjoyed the Veggie Tales video the Star of Christmas this afternoon, and I was struck again by the subtle "grown-up" messages the Veggie Tales video creators include in these children's videos.  Four points in particular struck me jumped out to me as important for moms to keep in mind.

One Person Can't Change the World (But God did)

In the Star of Christmas, Larry and Bob's characters (don't know how to spell them - not even going there. ) desperately want to "teach London to love".  They think that if they just can write the perfect story and get it before the right audience, that people will love as they should.  Their failure to do so up to this point filled Bob with feelings of failure.

But as they realized at the end, God had already told the perfect story and given the perfect gift.  The story of Christmas is the only one that can teach people to love. Bob and Larry had no need to feel responsible for the whole world - that's God's job. In fact, a little song diddly in the middle of VeggieTales - Moe & The Big Exit says much the same thing:  "Who lit the light in the dark?  God did!"  "Who drew the plans for an ark?  God did!"  (about minute 5 in the video below)
The point is, we driven, passionate, perfectionistic women also don't need to feel that responsibility. We can see the changes needed and then place those needs in the hand of our completely capable Heavenly Father, asking him to help us do the part he has planned for us to do.

Flashy Stuff Is More Than Distracting - It's Destructive

One of the funniest parts in the The Star of Christmas is when Bob keeps putting more electric lights on EVERYTHING - first the theater, then the props, then the costumes!  The idea is that if they can just find something "bigger than the star of Christmas" then more people will come to the show.

Of course, as the lights all get turned on, the stage becomes too bright to look at and distracts from the play.  And then everything catches on fire!  In the end, the alleged Star of Christmas, the central attraction in the play, is lost in the flames.

Sometimes a particular business venture, promotion, or award is a valuable goal - and sometimes it is just "flashy stuff."   Sometimes a new business suit or PDA really is necessary - and sometimes it's just glitter.

And the flashy stuff can damage what really matters to us.

Obsessiveness Can Lead to Desperate Behavior

Being goal-oriented and determined is admirable and it is what helps career women like myself support their families.  But sometimes when we have a goal we put on blinders - that goal matters above ALL else.

I remember a time in college when I told my mom "I'm going to marry him....and if I don't marry him, I'm never getting married."  I wasn't "in-love" and had never even thought I was. I was just obsessed. (and no, he's not the man God had for me.).  It wasn't pretty - and I missed a lot of good opportunities for learning, ministry, and early personal growth because I turned a hope into an obsession.

Similarly, Bob's goal in The Star of Christmas turned to obsessiveness - and it wasn't pretty.  The end result? The video below says it all.  The Bob below is the same one who at the beginning of the video wanted to "teach London to love!"  Obsessiveness became desperation, which led to Bob being sent to jail for theft!

Children Remind Us of the Right Priorities - If We Listen

While Bob and Larry were in jail, it wasn't the pastor who decided to come get them out - it was the pastor's young son.  He didn't want them to be alone on Christmas Eve.

When Bob was worried that the pageant would be ruined because the church didn't have the Star of Christmas, it was Junior who said "The real star of Christmas isn't something you can steal."  And it was Junior who directed Bob and Larry to a part they could perform for the pageant.

My daughter likes to come up to me if I haven't been paying attention to her and say, "Mommy?  Good day?"  That means she is prodding me to talk to her.  A young boy I used to babysit for would always ask me to sing "Because He Lives" before he would go to sleep (he is now an assistant pastor!).

Sometimes, it helps to have those little voices saying, "Mommy, Jesus?  Mommy, church?"  Sometimes, their tears can remind us to take a quick break and read a story or have some cuddle time.  And sometimes it is their voices that best remind us of the simplicity of the Christmas season and of family time.

And that's the best part of being a mom - listening to the little voices.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Contentment and Continued Personal Growth

Since I just blogged last night about Lessons in Happiness from Veggie Tales, I had to laugh a bit when I read Penelope Trunk's post today about why we should stop trying to be happy. It was as if that post was tailor-made to challenge my thoughts from yesterday! While I agree with Penelope that happiness is grounded in contentment, the idea that contentment is boring or intellectually dull simply does not ring true to me.

Challenging core beliefs can co-exist with contentment

Yes, some people choose to blindly accept whatever they are taught, be it faith, science, politics, or other, but many others such as myself choose to struggle with the big questions, convinced that the real answers are there if we just peel back the layers far enough.  Turmoil and doubt may occur as part of this process, but they are not essential. 

For example, my faith and politics are not carbon copies of my parents' - I questioned everything I had been taught throughout high school, college, and my early-to-mid twenties. Yet I found contentment in the very process of questioning. I was grateful for the opportunities to learn more about other theological and political viewpoints, thrilled to have friends and coworkers who could show me different the practical expression of those views, and satisfied (in that nerdy, secretary way) during the process of sorting through my personal perspectives on those issues.

I still question things on a regular basis. But I am content with where I am and with living a life seeking answers to those questions.

In essence, the process of questioning can be a source of contentment.

Ambition can co-exist with contentment

Just because I am content in my current job does not mean I am "coasting." I am drawn to constant improvement, drawn to be the best I can be, drawn to achieve more at work than I am now. I don't even expect to stay in this job long term. But while I am here, I am enjoying it.

The Apostle Paul was exceedingly ambitious, and yet he was the one who said he had "learned to be content in all circumstances." (Philippians 4:11) He said in Philippians 3:13 that he had the goal of obtaining the full righteousness of Christ and that he was "straining" on to obtain it. Very work intensive statement for one who said he was content!

Even more, in Romans 15:20 he said it was his ambition to preach the gospel only to those who had not heard it before, because he did not want to "build on someone else's foundation." He surely had ambition (some today might even say pride!).  It was a different kind  than those in lay careers, but it was still ambition.

In the end, the only limitation on ambition coexisting with contentment is that it cannot supersede those relationships which are of the utmost importance to us.  As long as priorities are kept in proper order, ambition will not detract from contentment.

Quiet Reflection can improve contentment

I like to get up when everyone is still asleep (I don't like mornings, but I desperately need that alone time. It's that, or stay up late, as I am doing tonight!) Quiet time lets me rejuvenate and think about things life simply doesn't allow. When life gets busy, one can go days without stopping to reflect or question - but that isn't necessarily contentment. In my case, the tension will bubble up in me until I just HAVE to get some alone time.

In my alone time I read blogs with posts that disturb my world-view and make me question (like the one I'm responding to right now!). I also read Scripture and ponder how it might apply in our current culture as well as how my life comes short of the goals within it. I ponder my personal goals and dreams and relationships, and sometimes that process can be painful as I dredge up places that challenge my comfort.

And working through that process increases my contentment, because I come through it refreshed and enlightened.

Turmoil and tension do not replace contentment

While turmoil is normal for a time, in the end contentment is the goal, even for those who don't recognize it. The inner struggle some have comes from a striving to find whatever that perfect thing is to be content about. When one is content, one can then move on to achieve goals more effectively, without the distractions of constant turmoil.

In summary, I still believe contentment is about gratefulness:

being thankful for the material things in one's life, being thankful for the relationships in one's life, and being thankful for the opportunities in one's life. But a person who is grateful can still take time to ponder life's important questions, pursue knowledge that challenges ones worldview, and seek to improve oneself, without being convinced that "the grass is always greener on the other side."