Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Can taking a step backward secure your career?

In sewing, there's a really important type of stitch called a back tack. It's created when you sew a seam forward on a sewing machine, then a little bit back on itself, and then forward again -- a step taken backward in order to keep an entire long line of work from falling apart.

We back tack in life, too. It's just harder to accept, because we can feel the backward step, but not necessarily the securing of the seam. And in our careers, especially as women, sometimes the backwards steps feel like defeat instead of reinforcement.

I'm no seamstress (my son has a homemade Snuggie that looks like I sewed it in the dark with a steak knife), but I was reminded of this little sewing trick recently while reading my friend Phe's blog, Mom on Reserve. After having requested a transfer, she wrote:
I don't know how I feel right now. The idea of not wearing a uniform for a period of years is foreign to me and it makes my skin crawl. Knowing that I can come back (and will) isn't exactly the consolation prize that I had hoped for. I do, after all, have 11 years of my life invested in this endeavor and part of me feels like I should have my boots in the sand right now - not my butt in a comfy chair.
When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I had to make a choice: Search for a position equivalent to the one I'd left behind when I went on leave, or take a lesser position that offered the schedule I needed in order to take care of my newly larger family.

That seems pretty black and white, typed out there like that. But of course it was way more complicated. The position I'd had before had been eliminated, that department dissolved. I was no longer "just" a working stepmother, juggling my job and part-time parenting duties during the summer months, winter vacations, and long weekends; I had an infant at home now, too. At that time, there were no women high up on the food chain who had small children except for two: One of them had a stay-at-home spouse, the other had her baby after she'd already reached the top of our company's professional ladder, and neither had more than two kids.

The position I was considering wasn't challenging -- in fact, the work was a less-complicated version of what I had done when I joined the company in 1994. But it offered something rare in the newspaper biz: Daytime hours, and the possibility of flexibility, since it was in a department without daily deadlines. So, my choice was clear, but I was really torn up about it, because accepting the position that worked best for my family felt like taking a big step backward in my career. In fact, it felt like failure.

The (childless) big boss told me, "Sometimes you have to zig in order to zag." I puzzled over that for a while, because aren't zigging and zagging both lateral moves, in a sense? What I really think she meant was that sometimes you have to step back in order to move forward. But what she didn't say -- possibly didn't know how to say -- was that the initial step back may be as important as all of the forward steps you've made up until that point.

Five years later, I see what I was securing. In September, that baby I had back in 2004 waved and smiled and happily walked into her kindergarten classroom. My youngest, who just turned 4, can barely wait for his turn to board the big bus. My three stepkids are really, really big now: two full-on teenagers who have busy lives of their own and no longer want or need to spend the entire summer and all of their school vacation time at our house, and a 12-year-old who is a sweet and strong role model to his younger siblings but raring and ready for his own adventures.

And my career? Turns out, I didn't backtrack as much as I just stood still for a while. And all signs point to the fact that it's time to move forward.

Have you backtracked -- or just back tacked?

1 comment:

Monique said...

Great post - really hits a cord. Life, family and the economy have created constraints and demands on me that require I rethink my approach to my profession. I have been self employed for 20 years and it HURTS to take a step back. I hear you though...I need to do is an imperative in order to solidify where I am going. Thank you for shouting this one out!