top of page

Am I Chief Mom or a New Chief Executive?

As a sustainability professional I have to admit; my professional life is not sustainable.

For nearly two decades, I was addicted to my job. An executive at my former organization referred to me as General Jena. It wasn’t a compliment. Years later as we sat together at a board dinner, he said I was once a rising star at the organization until I’d “moved to California to have babies and then pshhhhh.” He made a plane crashing gesture with his hand.

What a cruel joke. In 2019, I traveled for 30 out of 52 weeks. It was my 13th year on the road and my 17th year working for a leading environmental nonprofit. By then, I’d missed every open house at my son’s school because of work travel.

Before my son was born, I waited five months to tell my supervisors or colleagues I was pregnant. When my former CEO called to say I’d been selected for an inaugural cohort of emerging leaders, I cried. I admitted I was pregnant, and fretted I’d be out on leave for a big portion of the training. To his credit, he assured me he hadn’t chosen me because I wasn’t pregnant. I was nominated because the organization believed in me. In my ability to build a stronger, more impactful team. To get good stuff done.

A few months later, I lied to a national airline attendant about my due date as I traveled cross-country to our board meeting and training sessions, against the guidance of my OBGYN. I waddled in heels through the hotel lobby, shaking the jet lag and pregnancy brain from my mind.

While I was on parental leave, a friend at work sent me a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I turned to my husband, dismayed. How am I supposed to read this with a new baby? There’s only so far I can lean in before I fall over!

Once, faced with a big pitch and no child care, I lugged my infant son to Austin, begging my best friend to help me check him into her daycare for two days so I could pitch Dell on an expansion of its commitment to forests. What baby?

I begrudgingly pumped breast milk on the dirty floor of the airport bathroom and argued with TSA when my ice pack melted on a 13-hour in-and-out trip to Phoenix. Never in my life had I felt like I was failing so hard.

Thankfully, the world has changed.

Dell has since made bold commitments around inclusion in the workforce, starting with a goal to ensure 50 percent of its workforce and 40 percent of its leaders will identify as women.

This week, Danone North America announced its employees can now access up to 18 weeks of paid parental leave regardless of their gender, status as primary or secondary caregiver, or title within the company.

Yet, it would be six more years before U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth’s baby was the first child welcomed on the Senate floor. Women are still breaking and redefining the mold by asking for what we need to show up as our best selves at work.

I admired these women, but I wasn’t about to take the lead when my baby was little. I was too afraid of the consequences I assumed would have limited my career.

After so many years on the road, I was worn out. When I quit my job at the end of last year, I spent three months doing whatever I wanted. I'd painstakingly saved enough money to allow myself about six months with no new income. I worked out. I read. I volunteered, guest lectured, and geeked out at a plants and carbon symposium. I told my husband I felt light, like a beach ball. Content, happy, and refreshed.

When Covid-19 hit, it became clear that the most pressing job I had was at home with my son. But by May, I’d become restless and increasingly resentful of my new role as Chief Mom. I was hungry for work. It was a finger-drumming, caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine kind of craving that wouldn't dissipate. I researched company names and filed with the IRS and state agencies to start my own business. I held up the completed paperwork for my husband and son and danced around the house with it. I’m a CEO! I’m a founder!

I did one thing right. My first executive decision as CEO was to give myself some time and space to think. My son and I picked a spot as far north on the map as we could legally go with Covid-19 restrictions, and packed up our SUV. We gave a giant hug to his dad, and our pup, and headed up the Pacific Coast on a five-week camping and hiking adventure. We sung as we drove. We told stories as we hiked. And we laughed as we figured stuff out together. His curiosity, resilience, patience, and optimism were infectious. On the road, I wasn’t the boss. General Jena was gone. Instead, we were partners.

On K’s first day of school this fall, we took an early walk and tried to list one thing we were excited about and one that made us uncertain. I shared with K that I was excited I’d have extra hours to "really work" again, but I was nervous too, because I felt a lot of pressure to have things figured out.

I’m still nervous. This week, California’s Governor Newsom warned another lock down is likely imminent. The routine I’ve clawed out to juggle hours between family, work, and wellness once again seems fragile. Almost futile.

What’s surprising to me, is that as CEO, there’s a new muscle I’m flexing that’s much more protective of my time and energy than before. There is tremendous power and freedom in thoughtfully and graciously saying no. In having my own point of view, and the courage to express it. But it’s exhausting to sustain.

I’m not the only one grappling with this imbalance.

A recent report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org reveals one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to Covid-19.

Can I balance this hybrid role of CEO and stay-at-home mom without pining for all I’ve given up? I'm still not ready to embrace Sandberg’s model of leaning in. I won't enjoy the fall. Instead, I'll shoot for acceptance, compassion, and a wildly new definition of sustainability.

Jena is an environmental leader and storyteller committed to making the world a better place for wildlife and people. Follow her adventures camping and hiking along the Pacific Coast with her 8-year-old son during the Covid-19 pandemic.


bottom of page