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You Just Might Face-Plant if You Try to Live Up to Other's Expectations

03/27/2013 01:56 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2013

The media landscape has been saturated with the perceived controversy, societal ills and limitations of women, specifically mothers, in the workplace. It is clearly a polarizing and subjective topic, and one that breeds frustration for me because I think we're missing an important part of the perpetual debate that is relevant to a majority of professional women. Sheryl Sandberg tells us to "lean in" if we want to find success. But what if we have leaned in so far we're about to face-plant? I don't disagree with the concept as a whole; it's how I started my career and found early success -- as I defined it then. What I didn't realize was that my notion of success would change significantly as I progressed through many different life stages.

Perhaps we have misdiagnosed the obstacle. Professionally-destined women don't generally lack ambition. We might not aspire to be a high-ranking CEO, in fact many of us don't, but we've found success and contentment in many other ways. Even if we started out on an executive career track, somewhere along that trajectory, we changed our mind and began a quest for more sustainable work life satisfaction. Aghast!

I take absolutely no issue with the notion of encouraging girls and young women to be ambitious and to focus on "getting rid of internal barriers." What many of us are left wanting, though, are the messages for experienced women professionals beginning to see life differently. Ideas like changing your mind is OK. Career and life realignment is OK. Not reaching the top office is OK. Not working outside the home is OK. It's actually better than OK, it's perfectly acceptable and natural.

In fact, most women are content to "lean in" only marginally, because they aren't living to work, rather they are working to live. We don't all have to fixate or strive to meet the same goals and ambitions. If you want to reach the C-suite, you will likely have to sacrifice family time. If you want to focus on family, you will likely not reach as high of a position professionally. But both of those options are truly commendable.

The solution -- and there is one -- is to be realistic and OK (there's that word again) in your own skin. There is no such thing as balance, at least as it is traditionally defined, and no set definition of "having it all." Allowing work to dictate your life doesn't buy you anything but stress. The answer to our work-life tug of war lies somewhere in the middle. Here are a couple thoughts ...

Know what you're getting into and know that you can get out. Some jobs are more intense and time-consuming. If that's what you want, go for it; if you change your mind along the way, that's fine too. Michael Winerip posits in his NYT article, He Hasn't Had It All Either, "The core problem isn't the workplace, it's work. Those jobs that refuse to be friendly are often the hardest, most time-consuming, most unpredictable, require the most personal sacrifice and, to me, deserve the best compensation and most corporate status. Which does not mean that these are the people whom I admire most or want to spend my time with"

Recognize when it's time to make a change. Whether you are thinking about changing to a more manageable career or work environment, taking time off to raise children or care for a loved one or are ready to ramp up that career again, be clear on your current priorities for any scenario. A life of satisfaction and fulfillment is an evolving objective that shifts as your family, work and pursuits change. By periodically examining what's important and making the necessary changes, you will remain on a sustainable course.

The middle road is the critical piece of the debate that is being under represented. It is off the mark to constrict the work/life discussion to one view or the other, or one idea, or one course of action. Or to think that once you've chosen your path, you can't alter it to meet new needs and desires. While these ideas may have validity in certain circumstances, times or conditions, any sweeping statements are amiss. We all have different priorities, circumstances and goals, so there are almost as many solutions as there are working adults. Find something that works for you and make adjustments along the way.

Allison O'Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national professional staffing firm with a focus on flexible work. Launched in 2005, Mom Corps has helped champion the view that flexibility is a benefit to not only professionals but to the companies that employ them. Follow us at @MomCorps and @AllisonOKelly.