One afternoon four years ago, I was preparing to leave the house for a client meeting. Sensing my 3-year-old’s growing separation anxiety, I asked my nanny to take her to the park, thinking she’d be distracted. As I walked down my Chicago street to catch a bus, Melia stood on the doorstep, shrieking, “Mommy! MOMMY!” I worried that people on the top floor of the Hancock Building might need earplugs. And I had to keep walking as I listened to her pleading.
My stomach twinges whenever I recall this. Yet the experience is not unique. All working moms have dealt with their children wailing as they leave for work. The pressure only intensifies when you question whether you’re making enough money to justify the time away. Is your net-worth from work worth it? Your decision can in turn lead you to question your self-worth as a mother. When Melia was 5, she asked me, “Mommy, are we keeping you from your ‘werk’?” My heart ached with guilt.
I was raised with the notion of delaying everything—career, interests, showers (so many showers!)—for my kids. A mother’s core worth was tied to being a constant presence for her children. However, despite my upbringing, I scrapped this notion completely.
My crash course in Motherhood 101 was brought upon me by the timing of my first child, Alina, who was born the summer between years one and two of my full-time MBA program at Northwestern University. Should I quit? Postpone my studies? Suck it up and drink coffee by the bucketful to compensate for parenthood’s sleepless nights? The questions were further complicated by the fact that while in business school, my net-worth was in the negatives!
I forged on with my studies throughout my pregnancy. I kept my head down even as I was losing Alina’s twin sister in utero. My laptop’s keyboard eventually jammed because of my involuntary bouts of tears. I could quit, of course. But then, what would I later tell Alina when asked about my abandoned studies? That I couldn’t handle the stress? No, I wanted to be able to tell her that when times are tough, you keep going, even if you have to bring 10 pounds of chocolate with you!
For a time, I actually tried being a full-time mom after graduation. I was miserable. Life felt like solitary confinement. I was unpleasant to be around. Work brought life back to me. Deadlines, adrenaline, the jittery feeling that comes from questioning whether I could meet the challenge. I’d never imagined missing mundane office activities like forced birthday parties in the break room, yet without going to work, I felt like I’d lost myself.
So, what about the kids?
My husband, Bernhard, once made an observation so astute it’s saved me from constant guilt: “You’re not a bad mom. You just turned out to be a different mother than how you’d imagined yourself.”
I’d thought that as a mother, my kitchen would be a scene from Real Simple. Oprah would knock on my kitchen window, wanting to know how I managed to make such ornate birthday cakes while also supervising my kids’ Etsy-worthy art projects and simultaneously launching my own business.
It turns out, my kids are quite capable of creating art on their own. And Bernhard takes over our products’ procurement because, well, he enjoys it. I am not the mother who runs the house. Instead, I’ve become a role model for my kids, particularly in these two ways.
They see me creating something of my own. When I started Leadership Story Lab, few people knew what storytelling in business meant. “Wait, like telling stories on stage with a banjo?” No, I’d explain, more like classical storytelling techniques applied to modern business scenarios. Developing a whole new field means not only have I witnessed how my clients use stories to land new business, increase their bottom-line, and improve work relationships with colleagues, I get to bring home real world case studies to share with my daughters.
They learn from my example. Over the years, my children have heard stories about the mountain of rejections as I built up my consulting practice and put together my book proposal. They’ve learned nothing will get handed to them. Success requires courage, hard work, an army of working moms to dismantle the patriarchy, and about a billion follow-up emails. Eventually my daughters will enter the workforce. From pharmaceuticals to manufacturing, from media to finance, I have accumulated a great deal of knowledge from a vast range of industries. As my daughters’ trusted advisor, I am that much more equipped to guide them. How do I put a value on that?
Esther Choy is the author of the book Let the Story Do the Work and the CEO of Leadership Story Lab. She teaches classical storytelling to modern leaders through her own practice, as well as at Kellogg School of Management and University of Zurich in Switzerland.