Monday, March 25, 2013

Breaking Out and Leaning In (my 500th blog post)

I haven't read Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, yet but over the last few weeks - I've read several articles in response to Lean In. I've read so many inspiring Lean In stories.  And it's made me reflect on my own life and this journey I've been on.

Nearly twenty years ago, I graduated high school, uncertain of what I wanted to do. So many of my friends seemed to have this plan. I didn't have a clue. 

I registered for classes at the local community college but after a year, I decided it wasn't for me. And I quit to work full-time in a department store. 

I floated from job to job over the next few years - often working two to three jobs at a time.

I returned to school because I was bored and needed something to fill the time. I struggled through most of my classes - especially math and science. I took classes in history, philosophy, business and psychology.  The only classes that interested me were courses in literature, creative writing or journalism.

After seven years working in retail and restaurants, I decided it was time to 'grow up' and get a regular 9-5 job in an office. I had no office experience. I had practically no computer skills. I hadn't taken a typing test since junior year with Mrs. Becker (and even then, I did horribly). And when I went to interview with recruiters - they were brutally honest. "You have no experience. No one will hire you." They all urged me to interview for retail positions.  

I was only twenty-five years old and I felt as if I were being shoved into this box of who I was to be. Even though, I was unemployed - I refused all retail interviews. I had never had any problems getting a job I wanted. I knew someone would eventually hire me.

I interviewed with a small private equity firm - I was in their office for almost four hours. I was certain, the job was mine. And I was shocked when they went with someone else. But I was lucky, that person didn't work out because a few weeks later - I was offered the receptionist position. 
I was going to school part-time at night and while my new job provided tuition reimbursement, they weren't very supportive of their receptionist going to school at night. Knowing I had another priority in my life was a threat. It meant I wanted something more than the cubicle I was sitting in. When I left a few years later, they were surprised it wasn't for another receptionist position.

My next corporate job was in the legal department of an investment firm. It was a true boys club - all the attorneys were white men, the one female attorney was ostracized and ridiculed. A secretary going to a city college was no threat - not to the attorneys anyway. The other secretaries - assumed my time with them was limited and so they didn't take me seriously either.

When I left that job, I was more hopeful than I had been in years. I took a job at a company where I thought I had real growth potential. I had just transferred to my fourth college and finally figured out what I wanted to do. 

I got married. Had a baby. And two weeks before I (finally) graduated with a BA in English, my son was diagnosed with autism.

Trying to find balance as a working mom going to school is hard enough - adding special needs to the mix adds a whole other layer of guilt.

It's been five years since my son was diagnosed with autism. And I've spent that time, being his advocate and his teacher. I've also been pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. I have been in the same company for almost a decade and I've been an admin for more. 

This spring I will graduate and while I wish I could say - that I my degree will advance me in some way but I know that it will not. I will not be given a promotion and not even a pay raise. 

I have been told time and time again that I am 'over-qualified' for my current admin position but under qualified to do anything else. The only way I can "lean in" is if I quit and start over completely, which is really scary considering that I need to work, I need my salary and my benefits. Having a young special needs child - leaning in seems like a luxury I cannot afford. Not right now, at least.

Not every woman in the workplace can Lean In - that's just a reality we have to face. But that doesn't mean we cannot lead.

Two years ago, I started this blog as a class assignment. And it's really changed the way I've thought about myself, my job and my writing. I've learned to own it. I've learned to make peace with myself. I've learned that I cannot allow myself to be defined by my job. I've learned to pursue my dream in my own time - even if it means, taking one class at a time.  

I've learned that sometimes you have to break out in order to lean in. And just because I can't Lean In at work, that doesn't mean I can't Lean In another direction. 


AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.