- In this imaginary journey, you’ll see possible outcomes of several pivotal decisions.
- Approximately one-third of college graduates launch their careers immediately; two-thirds explore other options for five to ten years before embarking on a career.
- Seeking fulfillment, you chart a career course in the nonprofit sector.
- You take the bank job for financial stability and a clear path for advancement.
- Family planning is a misnomer as becoming pregnant often defies careful planning.
- Returning to work or staying home with your baby is a heart-wrenching decision with financial implications.
- Working, raising a family, and tending to a marriage stresses even the strongest relationships.
- The “sandwich generation” shoulders the double burden of caring for aging parents and young offspring.
- “Move forward with confidence, solidarity, and compassion, and blaze your own trail.”
In this imaginary journey, you’ll see possible outcomes of several pivotal decisions.
Imagine you are beginning your life journey as an adult. In the following scenarios, you are a white, heterosexual, college-educated female – advantages that mean your experience will differ from those without this head start. You will make choices about your career, your family, and where you will live, based on your values and priorities.
“Everyone’s path is different, and everyone is a result of both the social systems that surround them and their own actions.”
Along the way, you will experience some effects of these decisions and gain a deeper understanding of how, often, life deals you a different hand than the one you wanted or expected. Additionally, you will have a chance to see different perspectives and appreciate other women’s triumphs and travails.
Approximately one-third of college graduates launch careers immediately; two-thirds explore other options for five to ten years before embarking on a career.
You’ve just graduated from a respectable college with a dual major in math and communications, and the possibilities seem endless. Your best female friend Sam decides to travel for a while before settling down and invites you along. However, the idea of starting your career is enticing and reinforced by the burden of many student loans soon to come due.
If you choose the adventurous path, your journey continues like this: You travel to Costa Rica with Sam to teach at a local elementary school. Within months, your Spanish improves, you begin to feel at home and you love the children in your classroom. You start a romance with an Argentinian named Eddie, soon spending most of your free time with him. As the year-abroad program draws to an end, you must decide whether to stay with Eddie or return to the United States and begin your career.
“It’s nothing you ever expected, but it is perfect for you now.”
If you stay in Costa Rica, you find work at a zip-line adventure park to pay the bills. After several happy months, you grow discontented with the boring work and your relationship with Eddie hits an impasse. You join friends in Ecuador, work on a book about tropical plants and meet a fellow writer named Antonio. Your love for Central America grows along with your love for this new man. You marry Antonio, have three children, and spend the rest of your life traveling, writing, and enjoying your family.
Seeking fulfillment, you chart a career course in the nonprofit sector.
If you choose to focus on your career – either immediately upon graduating or after your year in Costa Rica – your journey continues like this: You didn’t expect the job hunt to be so difficult. You send out dozens of resumes, explore even the most tenuous connections, and stalk LinkedIn for anything remotely within your wheelhouse. You share an apartment with a busy graduate student named Macy and tend to bar in the evenings to pay the bills. Finally, you land an interview for a content editor position at a large bank. While waiting to hear if you will get the job, you follow a lead on a position as an office manager for a nonprofit for Seeing Eye dogs. Ultimately, you receive two job offers. The corporate world pays better but the nonprofit opportunity seems like it could be more fulfilling.
“To your surprise, this choice is actually more upsetting than liberating. It feels heavy in its significance.”
If you take the job at a nonprofit organization, you find your work varied, hectic, and rewarding. The executive director, Stacy, becomes your mentor, and you respect your co-workers and clients. You continue to struggle financially, however. Stacy suggests you pursue a master’s in public administration and build a career in the nonprofit sector.
If you take Stacy’s advice, you return to school full-time to earn a master’s degree. Participating in a school “social impact hackathon” inspires you to concentrate on using technology to address social issues such as homelessness. An unexpected pregnancy waylays your plans, however. Your relationship with the father, a fellow student named Silas, isn’t at a serious stage, but, surprisingly, Silas is excited by the news. He wants to get married, but you have reservations.
“Maybe you’re being too idealistic, but you always thought the man you married would be someone who moved you down to your soul.”
Do you join the 23% of American families headed by a single mom, or take the safe route and marry Silas, whom you’re not sure you love?
You take the bank job for financial stability and a clear path for advancement.
If you choose the bank job instead of the office manager position at the nonprofit, you suffer, initially, from “imposter syndrome” – joining the 70% of people who worry that they’re undeserving of their success. You don’t have difficulty doing the work but feel underqualified compared to your seemingly brilliant and confident co-workers. Additionally, your workmates often ignore your contributions in meetings and assertive colleagues co-opt your ideas. You’re not alone. Almost 65% of women experience these types of “microaggressions” in the workplace.
After months of failed dates, you meet Nathan in the checkout line at the local store. You immediately click and the chemistry is undeniable. Just when you hit your stride as a couple, Nathan receives an offer for his dream job. Unfortunately, it’s on the other side of the country in Portland, Oregon. He wants you to move with him, but you just received a promotion to senior content specialist and your future looks rosy. Do you attempt a long-distance relationship or take a leap of faith and go with Nathan to Portland?
“The feminist in you is cringing at the idea of uprooting your life and making a decision purely based on the job prospects of your boyfriend.”
If you decide to move to Portland, your journey continues like this: You love living with Nathan, enjoy the city, and land a copy-editing job. Everything is progressing smoothly until your manager, Robert, hits on you after a client meeting. You rebuff his advances, but he continues to send inappropriate texts and make sexual comments.
“Only an estimated six to 13% of people harassed at work actually report it, and of those who do, 75% face retaliation.”
You gather your courage and report him to HR, only to receive the advice, “…this will all blow over.” Now you must decide whether to leave the company or go public with your complaint.
Family planning is a misnomer as becoming pregnant often defies careful planning.
If you choose to leave Robert and the job behind, you quickly find a position as a writer for a green energy company. The awful experience of being sexually harassed brings you and Nathan closer together and you decide to get married. You spend your honeymoon in Barcelona. As you enjoy yet another perfect day, you see a young mother and child and realize that you have a strong yearning for a baby. You and Nathan have talked about traveling the world, but you’re nearing 30 and feel the pull to start a family.
You stop using birth control, but six months pass and unlike 85% of couples, you haven’t conceived. Your doctor finds nothing physically wrong and encourages you to keep trying.
If you decide to seek the help of a fertility specialist, you begin hormone therapy and go through four rounds of intrauterine insemination. The attempts at in vitro fertilization are also unsuccessful, with one pregnancy that ends in a miscarriage. During the following year, you mourn the loss of the baby that never was and slowly recuperate. You and Nathan begin to find joy in each other again, and you adopt a pug you name Maurice.
“The emotional rollercoaster of getting your hopes up and then being let down, month after month, is taking its toll on your happiness.”
Ironically, a year after giving up hope of having a child, you become pregnant. You name the healthy little boy Paxton. Your maternity leave passes quickly and leaving your sweet baby to return to work is gut-wrenching. Eventually, you adjust to the new reality, balancing home and work life, and begin to discuss having a second child.
Returning to work or staying home with your baby is a heart-wrenching decision with financial implications.
If you choose to marry Silas, the wedding is more beautiful than you ever imagined. Your parents were surprised and slightly dismayed to learn of your pregnancy, assuming you would finish grad school before starting a family but are now supportive. Silas’s parents encourage you to move into their neighborhood in the suburbs. They offer to co-sign a home loan and help with the down payment. It makes financial sense, but moving out of the city narrows your job opportunities. Still, like 55% of people in your age group, the idea of starting a family in a cute home of your own is tremendously appealing.
You are madly in love with your new baby and your new house, although exhausted by the unrelenting demands of motherhood. Living near Silas’s parents has its advantages as his mom helps watch baby Zoe as you finish her degree. Silas graduates with a master’s in public administration a few semesters ahead of you and quickly lands a job that he loves.
“As you near graduation, the choice becomes real: do you start job hunting or plan to stay home with Zoe?”
You are still committed to the idea of using technology to address social issues but realize that a starting salary in your chosen field will barely cover the costs of daycare. Moreover, the idea of leaving your baby to commute to a demanding job breaks your heart. The choice between going back to work or staying home is so gut-wrenching that 39% of mothers take a break in their careers to raise their children.
Working, raising a family, and tending to a marriage stresses even the strongest relationships.
If you decide to re-enter the workforce, your journey continues like this: You land a great job at a nonprofit organization that matches technical volunteers with nonprofit needs. Although you love the work, you feel guilty every morning when you drop Zoe at daycare. Between work and taking care of Zoe, you and Silas grow distant. You engage in a seemingly harmless office flirtation with Jonathan from accounting, until it becomes obvious that the flirtation is in danger of becoming something more serious. You put an end to the emotional affair despite the strong attraction.
Almost committing infidelity scares you into realizing how much you value your relationship with Silas. You and Silas attend couples counseling and learn to communicate productively. You rediscover your love for one another and build a foundation that remains strong through the unavoidable bumps, scrapes, and hard times life throws at you. It’s not a fairytale ending, but one that works for you and Silas.
The “sandwich generation” shoulders the double burden of caring for aging parents and young offspring.
Soon after you relocate to Oregon, your mother moves to nearby Eugene. She and Paxton form a strong bond and you love having her within a two-hour drive. During a visit, you notice that her house is messy, and your mother looks disheveled and seems confused. A doctor visit reveals that she is suffering from early-onset dementia and should not live alone. Your brother, who lives in Texas, can’t help with her day-to-day care, so you examine your options. Do you hire a caregiver to live with her, move her into an assisted living facility or renovate your basement, so she can live with you? Each option comes with a high price tag and strongly affects your lifestyle.
If you choose to have your mom live with you, your journey continues like this: Just before you move your mother into your remodeled basement, she falls and breaks her hip. She’s discharged from the hospital into your care, and you take two weeks off work to get her settled. You hire a daytime caregiver, but as your mom’s condition worsens her care becomes harder to manage. One day she pulls up all the flowers in your garden; the next she has a temper tantrum at the dinner table. Paxton grows nervous and wary, and the arrangement is exhausting your finances as well as your emotions. This is what being a member of the sandwich generation is like: You are torn between caring for your children and your aging parents.
“Of middle-aged Americans, 15% are providing financial support to both their parents and their children, and 38% are providing emotional support to both.”
Your mother comes down with pneumonia and doesn’t have the strength to fight the disease. In the weeks that follow her death, you feel overcome with grief, guilt, and self-doubt. Eventually, you understand that there was nothing you could have done to prevent her from succumbing to her illness, and the realization brings a modicum of peace.
“Move forward with confidence, solidarity, and compassion, and blaze your own trail.”
You’ll face many choices and opportunities as you navigate your life’s journey. The notion of a “happily ever after” is misleading. Life continues to evolve, reset and present new issues as you develop and learn. Continue to blaze your own trail, understanding that, at every turn in the road, you’ll encounter new challenges, as well as opportunities for growth and understanding.
About the AuthorRebekah Bastian has held leadership positions at Zillow and OwnTrail. She writes and speaks about workplace issues affecting women, including career planning and corporate diversity.
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