The Ultimatum I was Forced to Face: Career or Family?

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A number of years have passed, but I remember the details as though it were yesterday…

Late January 1999, I was working into the early evening prepping year-end statements as a Corporate Controller. At this point in time, I’d been with the company for eleven years and was working for a relatively new General Manager (compared to other tenured members of the management team). 

Unexpectedly, he entered my office, walked behind my desk, leaned against the window sill and said to me, “If Denise plans to be on my team – it is time for Denise to sacrifice her family for her career…” 

Blindsided. This comment was polar-opposite to the culture built by the company’s current ownership (a husband and wife team in early stages of succession planning).

So, what did I do? I asked him to leave my office (he did), fought back tears (until I got in the car), and packed my bag knowing my time at the company I had grown up in, come to love, and planned to have ownership in, was over. I was thirty-two years old, Paige was eight, and Joshua was five. There would be no sacrificing my family for my career: I would have to leave and start over – there was no turning back.  

In hindsight, there were a few slow but obvious (calculated) events leading to that day. For example, the morning I arrived to see an issue of “Time Magazine” placed on my desk, opened to a story of women making the decision to stay at home to raise a family instead of work in the corporate world. Another, a passive-aggressive comment by the GM on my “lack of flexibility” to come in the office before working hours (I drove my children to school for 8:30 am and arrived to work by 8:45 am), even though I frequently stayed past working hours and invested countless evening and weekend time into work. My job was always done and done well.  I earned the Controller role and had developed (as many had) a “family-like” relationship with the owners, who appreciated the work I did and always made sure I knew it. The culture had started to change. 

After six painful weeks of working out my notice (losing sleep and far too much weight from being upset), and with the support of my husband Michael, my sister-in-law, my best friend, and my own determination, I walked out of the company with my head held high and never looked back. 

I have never regretted my decision that day. Having reached the middle-aged stage of being a modern, professional woman, I know it was the right decision. While our definition of “balance” ebbs and flows as years (and life stages) pass, any career that forces you to sacrifice your biggest priorities is not one that respects your talent or your values. Yes, you can be successful, and you can be a great mother and parent, and you can have them coexist. You do not have to give up your family life – nor your voice to stand up for what’s right for you.

Whether making time and space for your family, for your health, or (heaven forbid) your own interests or wellness outside of work, defining boundaries is extremely important for women. Perhaps even more so, supporting and respecting the boundaries of our sisterhood (whether employees, friends, or family) is critical to shaping the path forward for all of us. Your voice matters, and the more you stand up, we stand up, and stand strong in a world where traditional thinking can still dominate our workspaces and the expectations of executive leadership roles.

I shared this story a few years back when I spoke at “SHE Day” in front of 600 women (all various ages and stages of careers), and also shared it with a University MBA class. My concluding message on both occasions was: stay true to who you are and what you believe in – the rest will fall into place.

Why? Because we owe it to ourselves, the countless other women in the workplace, to our daughters and to our sons. AND, because we can.

modern middle aged woman

Female speakers - D by deniseWomen speakers - She Day - D by deniseFemale speakers - D by denise - She DayFemale speakers - D by denise - She Daybrother and sisterFamily - d by denisePhotos: Leanne Lynn Photography , SHE Day archives and Denise’s personal photo album of memories…

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3 Comments on “The Ultimatum I was Forced to Face: Career or Family?”

  1. Bravo Denise! Thank you for sharing and for creating an opportunity to share and learn from others.

    Margaret

  2. I am thankful to be working at a company that values family and has always supported me and my role as Mom. Any guilt that I have felt about leaving early because of appointments, or working from home when a child was sick was self inflicted. I can’t imagine working in an environment in which I felt that I had to choose. I think that I would have made the same choice as you did.

  3. Hi Denise.

    Many thanks for sharing the sometime difficult choices that we are forced to make.

    As you looked back and all that you know now, those choices make you, who you were/are now a successful business women not scarifying being the most compassionate , caring and loving wife, mother, friend to all.

    Sharon.

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