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Ambition, Identity, Mommy Wars, and 'The Most Important Job in the World'

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Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp) and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the "real world" might have in store. The kids (umm -- ouch -- you know you're getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as "kids") had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls -- the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who'd actually jumped on the chance to attend a "networking event," something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren't exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the -- judging by body language alone -- shameful: I don't know what to do with my life! But I've done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams! Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But I told them what I've learned in my own life and what the research we did for the book proves: don't sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You'll play different roles. The parameters of your "family" will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you'd make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am -- as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning and that I'd rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else. And I'm cool with that.

But this ambition thing -- it's tricky. It's difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum's piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up over Hilary Rosen's words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans' seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we're obsessed with work -- with who's doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we're not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We're obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as "parenthood" has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign language-teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we've extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front -- or sometimes letting their children take charge -- have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn't it? Maybe it's just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we've often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey -- work's (relatively) new to us, and it's fun! And if what we do with our tim e-- our work -- is taking care of others, goddamnit, we're gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we're doing something well -- or even if we just have the title to imply that we are -- then we matter. We're worthwhile.

And that's all fine, to a certain extent: there's value in doing good work, and there's value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what's left, well, you're certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn't it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don't go as planned, to simply change course and see what's around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we've allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me that's a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn't work out, there's always grad school.