Thwarted Ambition


A few months ago, word hit the campus rumor mill that I might be up for a big promotion in the not so distant future.  Fellow middle managers started mentioning it to me in hushed tones, senior administrators began speaking to me in parables.  Little by little I began to feel that that I was not just playing the right games, but actually winning at them – I was picking battles in which I could be successful in a public way, learning how to delegate and how to juggle ever more priorities on ever less sleep, and most importantly, learning how to navigate the politics that will make or break a career in higher education.

And then my daughter got sick.  Not terribly sick, thankfully, but sick just enough to wreak several weeks of havoc on my work schedule and my life schedule, not to mention my emotional stability.  All of a sudden I was missing important meetings with important people, my juggling act was turning to slapstick, and I was too tired and too distracted to turn on my charm (let alone play politics) when I would bump into decision makers while walking across campus for more coffee.  My investment in this whole notion of career and ambition seemed frivolous when faced with the choice between my daughter’s best-in-town pediatrician or the after hours urgent care – all I wanted was for my daughter to feel better, and I didn’t care who saw me coming in late in the mornings, or what my staff thought about my work ethic when I cut out of the office early.

The impacts of my changed behavior didn’t really start to sink in for me until a couple of weeks ago when I was passed over for an opportunity to represent the university at a conference of education up-and-comers.  Until that rejection hit my desk, I had been under the assumption that I could operate with a free pass of sorts, thanks to how well I usually performed at work.  I told myself that I was doing an okay job even when I was feeling at my worst, and that at least I was keeping up with my work.  But keeping up is not the same thing as getting ahead.  Getting ahead requires the above and beyond that my child’s erratic healthcare schedule was making impossible.  Somehow, without realizing it, I had gone from envisioning what kind of college I might like to be president of in twenty years to just scraping by and counting the days until I’ll become eligible for sabbatical.  What had happened to me and to all my ambition?

If only it really were as simple as letting my ambition go gently into that good night.  My energy may have evaporated, but in the meantime I was drowning in all of my thwarted ambitions.  When I was at work I felt guilty and depressed from thinking about my daughter and knowing that she needed the comfort of her mother.  When I was with my daughter, though, I felt guilty and stressed about the work and the missed opportunities piling up back at my office.  No matter where I was my brain was somewhere else, and no matter where I was I felt like a failure – I was failing to give my daughter what she needed from me as a mother, and I was failing to meet the expectations of success at my job.

While I sometimes daydream about giving it all up and becoming a full-time mom, the more commonly recurring daydream I have is about giving it all up to become a lifelong middle manager.  I imagine I could just stop trying so hard, stop worrying about who I need to impress and stop telling myself that every day at work is a job interview for the next step up.  Just take the pressure off.  I could find a comfortable job in a little college town somewhere where I could live out my years with regular hours and zero rat race.

I would like to believe that I could be happy just staying put, but I know myself too well; within six months I would have identified all of the process redundancies, disciplined the lazy workers, found work to bring home with me on Saturdays, and figured out how to schedule lunch with all the major stakeholders.  My brain simply does not know how to function when not under duress; it must always find a challenge.

The problem I keep butting up against, of course, is that for all my ambition and all my drive, I love my daughter more than anything else on this planet – even more than I might love a chance at being president of a university someday.  I look around for female role models and I find that the most successful women are those who were willing to make sacrifices at home so as not to make compromises in the workplace.  I don’t know that I’m quite willing enough to make those sacrifices.

Feeling exhausted and a bit hungover from all of the challenges my brain has whipped up for me these days, I treated myself this afternoon to my six-mile sunset run along the edge of the arroyo near my house.  I have a six-day workweek ahead of me as we get ready for the start of spring semester, and I know that the long hours will be hard on my daughter, so I had planned to skip any “me activities” to try to saturate her with mom-time and hopefully make the week a little easier.  For the first couple miles of the run I took my guilt along with me as if on a leash, but then the clouds started to change color, I started to find my stride, and my brain quieted down enough for me to hear my feet striking against the hard-packed dirt.  I dropped the leash and the guilt along with it.  By the last hill of the very last mile my ambition was racing me to the top, but the challenge my brain was laying out for me was different from the usual friction between home and office – there’s got to be a way, and I’m going to find it.  I came home, showered, checked my calendar and laid out my power clothes for tomorrow.  Then I set myself to the real work of the night: being fully present for the joy of watching my daughter take her first wobbly steps.

All of the women I look at now as my career role models share one very important characteristic – they belong to that first wave of women who demanded the right to be ambitious, who demanded that women be allowed to choose for themselves whether career or children would be the priority.  These are the women who paved the way for me, who broke up the boys club and established the idea that women even had a place in roles traditionally held by men.  They had a lot more to prove than I do, and a lot more to fight against.

Maybe the task of my generation will be to pave the way of the middle road, one that doesn’t require part-time mothering or part-time work.  My ambition is telling me that I’m up for the challenge.


5 thoughts on “Thwarted Ambition

  1. I think our generation’s task is to find the middle road. Does this mean encouraging corporations/institutions to approach professionalism and parenting in a new way? Does it mean reevaluting gender and parenting roles yet again? I have been thinking about this a great deal as I prepare to reenter the work force. Good luck. You will rock it.


  2. I’m going to have to phrase it very carefully, and you’ll have to forgive me if I fail, but I find this quite sad. You see, I don’t believe the ‘boys’ club’ ever really existed, or exists. Or if it does, it takes the form of a devastated battle-field of unresolved individual skirmishes with one desperately maladjusted soul only nominally in charge. Success is such an ephemeral, conditional thing: Crowns are like Strad violins, they are never owned by the wearer.
    It is a world I happily pass on to women, if they really want it.
    I stepped off my personal ladder at around level five when I recognized the havoc my ambition was wreaking on my family. My neglect of the father’s role was bad enough: heaven knows what damage would have ensued if my wife had behaved as I did.
    This is where I have to be so, so careful. I’m not saying ambition necessarily makes a bad parent: no, I’m saying ambition makes some parents bad. The ones who perhaps fail to listen to an inner voice which is telling them their child is not dealing with their absence well, is needing something they are too time-challenged to give. Power, true power, is also the ability to alter course, to run with the wind for a while..
    I am proud to say I am no longer ambitious – only guilty that I ever was. And I am satisfied with my life. I’m fulfilled – I have a 160 IQ so I get bored easily, but I write, so I am never bored for long.
    Forgive me for being so blunt, it is only because I meet so many busted children, and, unhappily, I have one of my own.. .


    1. Frederick, thank you so much for your honesty. This is a very complex topic with many layers to it, and I know that many men struggle with similar questions. I appreciate that you’ve shared your own experience.
      I’ve heard this argument from both sides – women who are driven to succeed because they grew up with mothers who were miserable about not having their own careers, and women who wish that their mothers had been more available and because of this are purposefully choosing to forego demanding career paths. From what I’ve seen, we are only able to parent well when we are leading grounded, balanced lives, and that’s going to mean different things to different people.


  3. It’s easy to be torn between two worlds and then miss out on the benefits of both of them. Happens to me all the time and I have no career nor children so I can’t imagine how hard it must be for someone who has both. I think you found the right way in the end: focus on your work at work and your kid when you’re at home. Easier said than done.


  4. I think so. Our generation is, in many ways, caught between the aspirations of the 70’s feminists and the current (and sometimes oppressive) social conception of “ideal mother”. We are slowly learning that it is impossible to do both. We can’t be constantly on-call to both work and children. We can’t be in two places at the same time, either physically or consciously. I’m hopeful that we’ll see a re-emergence of committed career women who throttled back when their kids were small and then were able to successfully mash the pedal five years later. The middle road can be temporary, I hope.


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