For Christmas my boss gave me a copy of the book he’s been reading, “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.” I feel it both ironic and mildly amusing that the book now sits on my nightstand next to one I’ve been reading, “When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity.”
Work and identity—for me an almost impossible puzzle to figure out. You see, I started working at age 14 and my job soon became a place of refuge. At my job, I could be a superstar. I was noticed. I was valuable. While flipping burgers, I could ignore that my family was disintegrating. When my parents told me they were getting divorced (in the end, they didn’t), I didn’t need to deal with it because I had to go to work—those biscuits weren’t going to bake themselves.
My high school fast food job turned into three jobs and a full course load in college followed by a career with new responsibilities and promotions. The needy overachiever in me flourished—until she cracked.
Two years ago, I spent New Year’s Day in a panic, sobbing over the thought of returning to work after a week’s vacation. I was burned out, I hated my job, I had lost my passion and I felt trapped as our family’s breadwinner while my husband finished his last year of grad school.
The year that started out bad got worse, but then it got better. A new CEO was hired, my boss left and my hope returned upon having multiple conversations with the CEO about what my role in the organization should be. He was offering me the opportunity to change things. I just needed the courage to do so. So last December, for the first time in my life, I not only identified what I wanted but I asked for it, too. It was terrifying and liberating—and it worked.
I began this year no longer running a department and no longer running around like a miserable chicken with its head cut off. It should have been awesome except for one thing.
Suddenly, I wasn’t the one in charge. My former employees weren’t turning to me for answers. I wasn’t consulted on important decisions. I didn’t feel valuable. I had to face the harsh reality that how I valued myself was completely defined by my job and how many rings I could juggle in my personal circus.
Is it any wonder I developed a mild addiction to the online game Castleville? Complete a quest, win prizes, instant validation as a human being! My virtual imaginary world offered endless possibilities to shine! After six months (I'm a slow learner sometimes), I finally had to quit the game cold turkey and just deal with my emotions instead.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about work and identity. I’ve analyzed why work became my identity. I’ve considered what I truly want out of work. I’ve dealt with conflicting feelings as I tried to create more balance in my life. It is an understatement to say that the process has been uncomfortable—it’s been more like an emotionally lobotomy. Yet it's also been enlightening.
I know a number of career-driven women who having reached their mid-30s are re-evaluating their relationships with work. I also know women like my mother who will soon be 60 who are also re-evaluating.
When we are just starting out, we take what we can get. At this stage of life, though, we question whether what we were handed is what we actually wanted, and if what we once wanted is what we still want or need. Like any good partnership, our relationships with work must change as we grow and evolve.
I plan to read both books sitting on my nightstand. I have decades more to work and a lot more to sort through. What I’ve learned so far, though, is that the power dynamic in our relationship had to change. Work will always be a part of who I am, but it no longer controls all of me.