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Can professional ambition & marriage work when you both "want it all"?

The pursuit of self-expression through marriage simultaneously makes achieving marital success harder and the value of doing so greater. Consequently, the average marriage has been getting worse over time, even as the best marriages have been getting better. — Eli J. Finkel, "The All-or-Nothing Marriage"

I was raised to strive to “have it all”, which I defined as a career, equal partnership/marriage, kids and include the abiity to enjoy my life too. That was the goal that my generation was gifted. The choice to create a big life. Not having to chose one thing over the other. Getting to do it all. Yet, the closer I got to this in life, the more I wondered, how realistic is this goal and should this still be "the goal"?

My girlfriends and I spent so many hours discussing the beginnings of romantic relationships and the beginnings of our careers. We examined at length how to find the right person for us, interview for the next company, discern who was a great guy but bad fit, figure out when it was time to move on to the next opportunity, build solid relationships, build solid careers and figure out if our partners or jobs were right for the long haul. But then comes the long road of marriage, babies, mortgages, careers and all the rest of the complications of life.

And as life goes on you realize the complexities are just getting started,

I started noticing that so many of the podcasts, books, articles and Netflix shows out today have been so focused on modern marriages, relationships and the idea of finding happiness in your relationships. There have always been a ton, but it seems to have kicked into overdrive. I think many people have been taking stock of not only the relationships they are in (including the one with themselves) but also examining the systems that have kept us in certain ways of life.

Society seems to have gone from needing good, solid marriages to create stability, to wanting a marriage based on love, to expecting someone that will also emotionally grow with you and finally to requiring the person you love and will grow with to also help you self-actualize into your best self.

And if we follow the current accepted theory that adults go through a metamorphosis about every 7-10 years that means who I was and what I prioritized 10 years ago may not mean as much now. In fact, I may have wildly different needs. So how do you deal with that when you are a couple?

Well we are supposed to grow together and keep helping our partner become their best self. Love this new person you are with too! It also means that priorities shift and what was a “nice to have” 10 years ago, is now extremely important to your “new” old person. I think we left complex long ago…

How my childhood shaped the desire to have it all…

For as long as I can remember I knew that I wanted to have a career. Something that was fun, challenging, meaningful and allowed me to support the way I wanted to live. It was something that was encouraged at a very young age and ingrained in me as something you need to strive for as a smart American woman.

This idea of work and taking care of oneself is a deep part of not only the American story but also the immigrant story. There was no other option for my parents or I. My parents families left their home country of Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers precisely so that te generations that followed would have the options that I have today.

This sentiment of “how dare I not take advantage of the incredible opportunities” permeated my childhood into adulthood. How dare I not use my brain, drive and talents when others would trade places in a moment to have the same options?

One memory that is seared into my childhood was when my Aunt Yanick, who was a business owner herself, impressed upon me the importance of having a career. She said that I should always be able to make my own money to take care of myself, but also ensure that I had choices when I and if I married. This was distinct in the fact that she saw the value and importance in creating her own way but also tied those options to her career.

Having the choice to decide my own future and path in this world was something I saw as a given as long as I was willing to do the work. I realize now how uniquely priveledged this concept is, as so many people around the world don’t have those same choices, especially women.

However to me, the idea of working was a deep part of my identity. Not just the work, but the concept of being able to take care of myself on my own terms.

When it came to chosing the right spouse…

When it came to choosing a partner, I chose someone that not only liked my ambitous side, but encouraged it at every turn, applauded my wins and was an equal support in the home so that I could take those trips, join the trainings/classes, get through the intense projects done and excel without the family suffering. I found a total gem of a person.

We were deliberate in planning our business trips so we weren’t both gone at the same time, had back-up care or family to handle all the kid activities, household chores & repairs. It wasn’t perfect and we were both still exhausted by the end of the day, but having that kind of give and take is not a given. We knew that and were both grateful for this kind of immense support.

…And he chose you

Remember this works both ways. You chose him because he was AWESOME, but also ambitious too, so game recognized and respected game. We wanted similiar things, were both willing to work hard to get the lifestyle we wanted for us and our children, even when that meant that we had to sacrifice dinners together, lazy weekends or certain purchases (cough, prada, cough, dior, cough cough)

Despite the sacrifies, he knew that he had a partner in me that would encourage and support his ambitions, as he supported mine. Anyone who has to go through life without that knows just how acutely important that can be to helping you continue to grow.

When one person’s ambition comes at the cost of the other?

So we had successfully navigated this tricky balancing act of a 2 career household, through early marriage, the baby stages with our kids, leading up to promotions, the work that comes with new roles, home schooling and this mother forkin pandemic. Making it work didn’t always look pretty, but we figured it out, tried to make up for a sacrafices and celebrate the wins often. And I think that each of us having something of our own in which we excelled outside of the family, helped make up for the cost of doing so much.

Yet things aren’t always so fair and balanced. We had somehow kept ourselves in a pretty steady place for 9 years, almost as a way to counterbalance the major upheaval of having babies. It was such a long period, that you start to think this is how things will always be, yet it’s not realistic if you both want to continue to grow. And growth isn’t pleasant when it’s happening. Challenging yourself can be wildy uncomfortable so you better buckle up buttercup.

After we took a long deep breath, we made the decision to move to Asia for a great opportunity for my husband. This was big, he was ready for it, but it also threw all of our “plans” into disaray and my career would most likely take a pause, perhaps for longer than I was comfortable with.

The cost weighed heavier on me than I thought it would, not becuase I didn’t think I could eventually start something new but the in between was boring AF, filled with impossible governmental red tape and unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

I kept thinking of my life in this very linear way. All of these preparations, schooling, promotions, opportunities, in the past all led to the next goal, the next job, the next “prize” and now I have to construct something new.

We are like two flowers in one pot. It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers. So it’s either heaven or hell. —Noriko Shinohara

What the “adulting” manual left out…

When you look back long enough over a long relationship you can see the huge changes that happen when go from just dating, to living together, to home ownership to marriage to kids. Each of these steps alters the status quo and yet they seem to happen gradually until you turn around and are like “wait wasn’t I just single a minute ago??!” Suddenly you’re a parent, homeowner and not as young as you feel.

All of these life changes drastically change your idea of life, your focus and your priorities. So much of it you had longed for, but some of it isn’t as advertised. People don’t tell you how hard it will be, how many hours you’ll have to put in to come up even halfway decent let alone to excel and there isn’t nearly enough hands to get what you still need done. So much of that feels like a trick. Like the rest of the world knows these details but have conveniently decided to throw this all into the legal terms and conditions which no one reads (even the lawyers.. come on fess up, some of you don’t read those either!)

How ambition can effect the family:

The problem with trying to have it all is that it’s not possible to do it all at the same time. Something takes priority, another thing has to move aside. That’s why you can’t stop hearing about work/life balance, why there is such a battle for flexibility at work and and an ever growing need to meditate. We’re all trying to get more done than there are hours in the day. You start to steal from one area to pay for another or dip into your health, friends, marriage to hold up the family and professional areas. Something has to give, something must step back for something else to take priority and in this case I redoubled my efforts for our family to make this move work.

Now, I’ve always been someone that really valued my time with my children, husband and family at large. But I found myself ping ponging from one extreme to the next with this move. I went from spending most of my time at work and the left over time with my family. Now that equation has flipped. And I’m not so sure how good I am at being a full-time mom. Most times I just feel like I’m winging it and praying for the best. Maybe it’s because of this that I feel the struggles of this move so acutely. My natural state has always been in this "go-mode" and not necessarily support role. It's not an easy transition.

I keep telling myself that this shouldn’t feel so hard, however we can’t escape the fact that our family equation has changed. We can’t keep using the same strategies to solve our problems. We have to change with it to make it all work and understand that change comes with challenges. I think we both accept the logic of this but I can’t help but feel annoyed about it.

What I have come to appreciate is that as my children have grown, I’ve become better equipped to parent them and deal with the emotional struggles that come with childhood and guide them as we navigate this big change. My hope is that this contribution to their lives will end up paying in dividends.

The other huge silver lining for the changes that have unfolded is how much my husband and I are great partners in the exact ways that I think we each were hoping for, even if the challenges look different and can at times feel very different.

How ambition can effect your health:

Like many mothers I know, I found myself sacrificing peices of my physical and mental health to keep up the demands of trying to do it all. Don’t have time to get in that work out as often if I’m trying to do an early drop off and make it to the office. My penchant for doom scrolling or revenge binge watching TV at night to feel just a bit like I had time for me, but all that came at a cost to my sleep and overall mental health. I just assumed that everyone was doing the same thing and this was just the price of being a working parent.

Because you are supposed to want all of this and while you do, you can’t help but wonder, who designed this way of life? It feels like you’re living in a 7 story house with way too much running up and down to be functional, but you just keep running and hoping that you make it work.

I didn’t question the design enough before this move as I was too afraid of what the alternative would mean...

This year I am turning all of these assumptions and roles on their side and inspecting each one. I’m putting more focus into caring for not just my family and husband but also myself and my community of friends.

I’m having so many deep conversations with very accomplished women and men that have all chosen a different path, whether for a short while or as their life plan. I’m speaking to so many women from this international community who have very different expectations thrust upon them, but expectations nonetheless. The interesting part is not seeing one path as the “right way” but just realizing that there are actually many ways that might be right for one person. Accepting that can be scary but also really liberating.

To all of my fellow ambitious ladies & gents!

One of the best ways to make space for all of the upheaval that we all inevitably go through as a professional, a spouse and a parent, is to share with one another how you’ve navigated your path. Embrace the mess! Take refuge in the fact that you are not alone in this and find the beauty in these new stages.

I’d love to hear from you how this has translated in your life. As we all try to “live our best lives” how have you been able to find the right mix or remix your expectations when a change occurs? Please share!

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Thank you for being so real and sharing personal truths that many of us can relate to. I connect a lot to your idea of "when something takes priority, another thing has to move aside". Everything in life and nature ebbs and flows, and human priorities do as well. And because we put something "aside" doesn't mean it wont shift back into priority in another season. Jason and I try to acknowledge this out loud, especially when one of us is in more of an exciting/busier work stride. If we name it, there's less self-shame or faux competition that bubbles up. It helps to say, "You're really killing it at work right now, so I'm going to take a lead…


Thanks for reading and so happy that my experiences are resonating with you. I agree that life is a series of ebbs and flows, it helps to remember that. And I love the practice of being vocal both in your acknowledgement of where you are and appreciation for each other. That helps us tremendously! Big thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

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