While it was a relief to have tedious responsibilities off my plate, I wanted the challenging ones back. But I knew the chances were slim given that I still had one parent who was terminally ill. Simply put, my colleagues saw me as a ticking time bomb. All hell would break loose when my father died. On top of a funeral to organize, there’d be a house to empty and sell, and an estate to close out, all of which would take far more than two weeks.
I did my best to deal with the shock of my irrelevancy, to reinvent myself within the company and redefine my role as COO. At every possible chance I threw myself at our New York office and its range of opportunities, pairing visits I’d arranged there with trips to check on my dad. But just as my new role started to slowly take shape, the bomb went off: just a year after my mom’s death, my dad passed away. The long stint of necessary time off kicked in.
It was much harder this time to stay connected. Not only did I need to fully grieve my parents, I was totally burned out. What’s more, the experience of losing my parents, and the way in which it happened, changed me. I became a kinder, gentler, softer woman. My appreciation for life’s brevity and the value of time with friends and family had grown intensely. Upon returning to the office I found that my responsibilities had once more been redistributed. This time, though, I had no energy to reinvent myself again—at least not under the watch of my long-time colleagues. It was clear. I needed to move on.
Two years later, by 2011, my carefully planned exit strategy from the company I had co-founded was underway. When my business partner and I met to develop the plan, he reflected, "You must know you’ve never been the same since your parents died.” At first the words stung, but I realized he was right. I’m not the same person. Initially I felt like a failure. Could I have prevented burning out and becoming irrelevant? Intriguingly—and maddeningly—my brother’s colleagues saw him as a hero. "What a great guy,” they said. “He’s so good to his parents." His support of Mom and Dad endeared him to both his female and male counterparts. Not so in my case. Although close friends respected and admired me, to the majority of my colleagues I was the once-ambitious, child-free, kick-ass executive leader who had gone soft.
This, I thought, is what a woman who returns from maternity leave goes through—coming back to a job that had shifted, and to perceptions that motherhood had changed her in ways that made her a less valuable member of the team. But change is not a less-than equation.
While most women plan to some extent for how they’ll juggle work and motherhood, and have the benefit of some sort of leave, few, if any, lay the groundwork at home or in the workplace for aging parent care.