Reflection Pool: The Hardest Job I've Ever Done, Times Two
At a board staff retreat three years ago, one of my board members, who had recently become a mom and also is an Executive Director, reflected on her role in parenting while running an organization. “Two years ago, I never thought either of these things would happen, and I am so happy that they both did,” she said, and then paused. “But it is so...incredibly...hard.” At the time, I remember thinking, “I’m sure it’s hard, but you’re still here, your baby seems fine, so I guess you just figure it out.”
Shortly before that retreat, I had just become the Executive Director of NESAWG, the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group - NESAWG supports sustainable food systems movement building in the Northeast by convening food systems practitioners for co-learning, collaboration, and policy advocacy. To be honest, I never had Executive Director on my bucket list. Career-wise, I wanted to feel passionate about the issues I worked on, challenged (in a good way), and have autonomy and freedom to implement my ideas, but ED? That sounded like a lot more work than I was interested in taking on. Yet, when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself at the end of 2016, I surprised myself by jumping at the opportunity.
By the end of 2017, I could honestly say that it was the hardest job I had ever had at the time. While I had energy and vision, I had never fundraised, managed staff aside from interns, or oversaw a board. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how I was going to bring in enough funds to cover the following year’s budget gap, which candidate to choose for a job opening, how was I going to clear off the million tasks on my plate, and what the heck it even meant to be a leader, anyway?
Then, in early 2018, just as I was starting to feel like I kinda got this whole ED thing, I became pregnant with my daughter. I don’t really remember the details of the nine months that followed, but I do remember that I made a huge list of things I wanted to get done before I went on maternity leave, to tie things up in a tidy package for my staff and interim director. My daughter had other plans and came a week early, and that initial introduction into parenthood has been an important lesson about being a mom - you can’t do everything, so you better learn how to aggressively prioritize. (Spoiler alert, I’m still figuring out that one.)
I was lucky enough to have three blissful months of maternity leave with baby Iyla, but re-entry back into the working world was excruciating. I was sleep deprived, hormonal, still figuring out breastfeeding, scrambling to find childcare, and just really wanted to be with my baby all the time. I also now did not have the luxury or the wherewithal to work all the extra hours I did prior to having a baby - not only because when childcare left, I was done working until bedtime, but also because when Iyla went to bed, I was completely wiped out. Hence the aggressively prioritizing, as well as learning to let go of tasks, delegate, and quit my addiction to perfectionism (which I’m also still working on.) But it wasn’t just the practical matter of needing to take care of my baby or being too tired that has forced my hand on these skills. I care deeply about my work, but even more so, the most important job for me is to be a good parent to my daughter. I don’t want to ever look back at my life and feel like I chose my work over her. It feels scary to put those thoughts into words on a website that other people can read, especially as a female ED who wants to be taken seriously as a leader in this work. But I also think it’s something that parents shouldn’t have to hide, and it doesn’t mean that we’re bad at our jobs or don’t care about the issues we work on any more.
In fact, in many ways, working on these issues, has become even more important since I’ve had a child. We all know that the food system impacts so much more than what we eat every day - it affects environmental sustainability, economic livelihoods, and basic human rights. It touches all of the critical issues of our times: climate change, immigrant justice, land control, public health, cultural survival, and basic democracy. When I go to work every day, I am motivated to create a just and sustainable food system for her and all the other young people inheriting the world we leave them. And the fact that I get to lead some small part of this work as the ED of NESAWG is intimidating but also a tremendous privilege.
So now, three years later, I can deeply relate to my board member’s words. I am so happy to have the opportunity to lead NESAWG, and so grateful to be a parent, and it is so unbelievably hard. But also, I am still here, my baby’s doing fine, and I am figuring it out.