Throughout life, there are countless new seasons and roles we transition through. For some, it’s graduating college and entering the workforce full-time. For others, it’s having a baby and navigating first-time parenting.
Rachel Downey, president and co-founder of Share Your Genius, found herself in a new, unexpected season when she delivered her first child three months early. At the time, she was in her second year of school at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. In the weeks that followed, she split her time between the classroom and hospital, navigating between being a law student and a new mom.
When we find ourselves in these new seasons, it can be easy to feel confined or even stuck, believing that a particular time, like sitting in a hospital room with a premature infant, won’t ever end.
“As you go through different seasons of your life, you are able to hopefully uplevel and grow with that season while recognizing where you’re at,” Downey says. “For example, when you first have a baby and you take that baby home. Your life as you know it is completely different. You can no longer think about yourself first.”
Downey shares her own personal experience of going through changing seasons in life and how we can stop confining ourselves in the roles we find ourselves in.
“You always have the right to change your mind,” she says. “You have to embrace the fact that forever isn’t a reality, it’s just a moment in time.”
Why we feel stuck
First, it’s important to understand why women can feel stuck or confined to one role. Personally, Downey believes it’s because women tend to overthink. According to a University of Michigan study, 57% of women overthink compared to 43% of men.
“Women want to be extremely prepared, generally speaking,” she says. “There are always exceptions. We like to have our plans in place. We like to have our options.”
Take transitioning into a new job, for example. From experience, Downey describes how men are more likely to jump at the opportunity to move up in their career without second-guessing it. On the flip side, a woman is more likely to be hesitant about career advancements and overthink the opportunity because of a fear of failing.
“Women will take the burden of, ‘Well, if I take this leap, if I make this change, how will it affect my ability to be XYZ for my kids, for my spouse, for my partner?’ Instead of just jumping at the opportunity for the change, we think too much about it and all of the scenarios that could play out.”
Another piece to the puzzle, as Downey points out, is believing that once you commit to something, there is no turning back. In most cases, once you commit to doing something, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. Although the circumstances might have changed, there’s no one else holding you to anything other than yourself.
“I think sometimes we’re fearful to give ourselves permission to change,” she says.
Understanding your identity
Downey points out that another reason why women can sometimes feel confined to one role is because they anchor their identity in the role they have, whether that be as a wife, career person, or mom—to name a few.
“In reality, that’s not their identity,” she says. “Those are roles they are playing. I think what happens is as a woman, you have a baby then all of a sudden, it’s like, do I become a stay-at-home-mom? Do I still work from home or do I go back to work? It’s these pockets of roles that then make us question who we are. And I think that’s where we get it twisted as a society.”
She adds that women often have to think about their roles in part of their identities because of the questions asked by others. For instance, a new mom might be asked by co-workers if she’s coming back to work after having a baby or becoming a stay-at-home mom.
“My point in saying all of that is that is not something that anyone ever says about a man,” she says. “He’s never a full-time dad. It’s not a question.”
Pew Research Center estimates that 27% of moms stay at home. Plus, data shows more women are working outside of the home. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 57.4% of the U.S. labor force, compared to 33.9% in 1950. Pew Research Center also confirmed that more dads are opting to stay-at-home. In 1989, 4% of dads stayed home while 7% were stay-at-home dads in 2016. In actuality, everyone is a full-time parent in addition to their work or businesses they run, such as Downey’s situation.
“That’s where I think there’s a fundamental shift that has to happen,” she says. “Just because I’m a mom doesn’t change the fact that I’m also an ambitious woman who’s excited about accomplishing XYZ in her life. I’m also a mom. But I will never describe myself as a mom first—never. I also don’t describe myself as a business owner first because those are just things that I am blessed to be but that doesn’t make up who I am from an identity standpoint.”
It’s not forever
While studying in the hospital day after day while her daughter was in the hospital, Downey recognized that those uncertainties weren’t permanent.
“Going into the notion around my daughter, I knew it wasn’t going to be forever,” she says. “Her being in the hospital wasn’t going to be my new life. It was just going to be for this period of time. I think what tends to happen for women, specifically women who are about to go through a very transformational event in their life, like a new baby, we tend to say, ‘Oh no, the way I’m feeling now is how I’m going to feel forever.’ The reality is that none of that is true.”
Feeding into that, Downey says it’s times like these where we tend to put a lot of unneeded pressure on ourselves. Take having a baby for example. It’s not uncommon for women to believe that they need to perform at their highest level, even as they transition through a new season of life with an added child.
“The reality is, you can’t be at your best in every area of your life all the time,” Downey says. “I do feel like women have a tendency to have those expectations instead of recognizing that in this season of my life, I have to prioritize my brand-new baby instead of prioritizing my brand new baby and my business and my career goals. It’s about embracing those transitions and knowing that’s just what they are. They’re just a transition into this next season of your life, next chapter, call it what you will, until you turn the page to whatever that next season or chapter is.”