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‘What if I can’t have a career and motherhood?’ Make a plan and then trust in the process

December 6, 2022, 6:44 PM UTC
Woman sits at computer while child plays in the background on a sofa
Balancing career highs with a desire to become a mom can be tricky.
RENIRA NAIDU FOR KARSEVA.

Raise the Bar is Fortune’s new advice column written by business strategist and resilience educator Komal Minhas. Are you grappling with a workplace issue that’s getting in the way of you achieving your career goals? Komal is here to help—and she’ll be tapping top experts for their best advice along the way. Submit your questions here.

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Dear Komal,

I’m in my late thirties, and I spent my twenties and thirties really focused on my career while looking for the person I want to partner in life with. In the last year, I’ve hit a new peak in my career and met the love of my life. We got married, and now we’re family planning. Starting a family is time-sensitive for me, but I also am navigating life with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and the implications that might have on conceiving. After working toward my dream career and family for so long, the highs have happened all at once and so fast.

I feel like I’m playing catch-up with emotions, realities, and the part of me that is so goal-oriented is looking at my fertility journey and seeing question marks everywhere—I can do everything “right” and still not get pregnant. On top of this, the reality of taking time at this point in my career to start our family and the stress and uncertainty of it all even being possible and actually having kids feels overwhelming in ways I didn’t anticipate. How can I enjoy my life with all of this pressure? I love my life, and I’m so happy for my recent accomplishments, but I’m also so scared that something is going to give. What if I can’t have it all? 

—Can’t Have It All

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Can’t Have It All,

Your question hits close to home. I’m also in my thirties with endometriosis, and navigating the question mark of my fertility journey has been an ongoing and unrelenting act in surrender and acceptance. Every month I get my period, I feel another pang of disappointment that I may never achieve my dream of being a mother.

I want to acknowledge that this is hard, it’s complicated, and it takes time to process and navigate. I’ve been with my partner for 14 years, actively talking about career and fertility, and we still revisit this conversation in new ways. How you feel is allowed to change on this journey, and you’re constantly going to be making sense of things as your life unfolds.

As you face all this uncertainty while surrounded by so much joy and love, I want to share some advice I received a few years ago: Trust in the process of your life unfolding.

When my mentor first shared this advice, I was navigating something complex and traumatic in my late twenties, and I scoffed at its simplicity. But as time passed, it became an anchor for me through the hard times.

Now, what does that “trust” mean tactically? There are steps you can take to support the part of you that wants to be in control, while enabling yourself to surrender to what you can’t. Ahead, I outline five steps you can take to help you on this journey.

I enlisted the help of women’s leadership expert Tiffany Dufu to help dive into what some of these steps look like. She is the author of Drop the Ball, a memoir and manifesto helping women cultivate the ability to let go and thrive, and founder of an online peer coaching community, The Cru. Tiffany is someone whose resilience is inspiring, and who understands how to make your next steps more approachable.

1. Make yourself job descriptions to clarify roles and expectations

“I was feeling her through this question because I’ve felt that pressure before,” says Dufu. “The only way I was able to really reconcile and resolve it was to go back to the beginning. To ask, where did I get my expectations about what it means to have it all, and who I am to begin with.”

There are multiple roles that we take on, or are assigned, throughout our lives. As a woman these can range from daughter, sister, friend, employee, boss, partner, mother, and more. Rarely do we question what the expectations of all these roles entail. 

Dufu offers an exercise to help anyone become more aware of the expectations they face. Make a list of the roles you currently hold in your life, and under each one make a list of the responsibilities you think—or have been conditioned to believe—it entails. Then create a list of what you actually want it to involve based on what’s most important to you. You can even ask for input from those you love.

What you’ll likely come to realize as you write it all out is that a lot of your expectations around being a so-called good employee, wife, and future mother are not entirely your own, but rather projections from the world around you. Through this process, you can reclaim the standard you’re holding yourself to. You can begin living life on your terms, with what’s most true for you at the forefront.

By doing this exercise, you may come to realize that you actually don’t want to be a mother. You may realize it’s something you really want, and you’re open to exploring options you hadn’t considered before in order to achieve it. You may realize that you’re okay with prioritizing having a baby above your career at this moment in your life, or you may realize there is more you’d like to do at work and in life before going all in on your motherhood journey. Wherever you land there will be some compromise but it is okay.

2. Slow down, and take in the view

As achievers, it’s in our nature to accomplish our goals and move on to the next. Enjoy the love and success that is right in front of you. It all has happened so fast, so let yourself take it in. We often forget that when we reach a certain peak in life, we can actually pitch a tent and take in the view for a while before continuing on.

I can imagine you’re rolling your eyes at this analogy just like I did when I first heard my mentor’s advice, and feeling the pressure of the biological time crunch you’re facing. You can still make progress on a plan while enjoying your life as it is now.

Consider the things you’d like to do with your partner that you haven’t made time for yet, and write them down. The trips you’d like to take, the dates you’d love to go on, the small moments you want to be present for. Enjoy the process of making your couple’s bucket list together. Come back to this list as you navigate challenging moments during your fertility journey and (try to) enjoy them.

As you process all the recent changes and wins in your life, continue to cultivate time and space for connection with the people you love. When we navigate difficult and celebratory seasons, research shows that leaning on and staying connected to our community is a powerful tool to maintain positive well-being. Keep calling your friends and family, keep making plans with your people, keep traveling. Share what’s in your heart, and try to be fully in this period of figuring things out. You might be surprised how many others around you are navigating similar challenges.

Hard times become lonely when we forget the love we are surrounded by. Soak it in, and let it help you through this season.

3. Prepare for the worst and expect the best

Candidly, this is something my partner and I are in the midst of doing ourselves as I navigate my own fertility journey. Although it seems clinical to approach motherhood with a specific timeline and strategy, doing so can also help you relax into the process because you took action with the things you can control.

Create a timeline that includes key triggers for making certain decisions and actions when it comes to parenthood. Do this with your partner, or on your own and then share with them. 

It is important to acknowledge that fertility journeys can be expensive and this can be a major barrier. With that in mind, take a close look at your available budget, what your insurance covers, and what works best for you. From there, work to find a doctor who will support you throughout your journey and connect you with the specialists you need. It’s a good idea to develop scripts for how to respond to prying, well-meaning, or ignorant questions from friends, families, and perfect strangers that will inevitably come up along the way.

Regret often stems from inaction, or wishing we had done something differently. Planning the logistics of becoming a mother is a helpful way to mitigate these feelings. 

In this process, also take note of your boundaries. Ask yourself: What are you willing to do on this journey, and what is a no for you. When will you make the call for your body and mind if trying to become a mother is taking too much from you? 

Once your motherhood plan is outlined, add to it from the list of things you want to do with your partner and accomplish at work. Know that you probably won’t get it all done, but that you’re allowed to try to grow your family and still live a present, full, connected, and happy life. The plan won’t ever be perfect, and it will likely have to shift and evolve in real time, but that is life.

4. Define your North Stars

When we’re in the midst of navigating difficult periods in life, it can be really hard to trust the process. It’s easy to get lost in the chaos of it all. This is when having clearly defined values and goals as a couple can be really useful. Dufu calls this defining your couple’s compass or your personal compass—I like to call them my North Stars. Whatever you call them, they can help guide you when you’re making major decisions.

If having children is one of your shared goals, there likely will be short term sacrifices you both have to make. Those sacrifices, however, don’t have to detract long term from the other goals you’ve defined for yourselves.

Take some time with your partner to be candid about your fears about having a baby and what it means for your career. Work together to define (or redefine) a North Star that includes both of your ambitions for your careers. Having this defined will help you ensure your career goals don’t get left behind even when prioritizing growing your family.

5. Give yourself the permission you’re seeking

Part of trusting in the process of your life unfolding includes trusting yourself. You got yourself here! You created a life that you’ve been dreaming of, from your career high, to now exploring starting a family. You created a life of joy, love, and impact.

You can certainly trust yourself in this next chapter ahead. Whether you end up having “it all” or taking what comes along and making it right for you, you are up to the challenge. Take care of yourself and your needs, plan what you can, then give yourself permission to surrender and be present with the rest.

You’ve got this.

Until next time,

– Komal

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