The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Jennifer Todden.
I became a parent – quite by surprise – in the spring of my first year of my professional career in housing and residence life. Although I was fortunate to have a supportive supervisor and colleagues, as 23-year-old residence director living on campus, I was overwhelmed. I do not have any older siblings, was the only one of the live-in staff who had children, and was the first of my circle of friends to make the transition into motherhood. Looking back, sometimes I wonder how I made it through.
My son turns 10 years old in just a few months, and as I reflect back on the dual journey of motherhood and building my career, it is evident that we have both come a long way from those early days. Since I have been a parent and a professional for nearly the same length of time, it is hard for me to consider one role without thinking of the other. In fact, I believe that the timing of both has made me a more effective professional, and a better parent as well.
I had to learn to negotiate the delicate balance between work and family very early on in my career. Because I was new in my position – and pretty broke – I was only able to take 18 work days off after my son was born. Returning to work so quickly meant that I was sleep-deprived and still recovering physically. About three weeks after returning to work, I got ill and realized I had been pushing too hard. I spoke with my boss about a plan for flexible hours, and went into the office early on Saturday mornings to stay ahead. Caring for a newborn is a pretty time-consuming thing, and I learned how to shut off “work brain” and be fully present at home when I am able. Ten years later, in a job with more responsibility, I am grateful for the opportunity to practice setting appropriate boundaries very early on.
Having a family proved to be a vehicle through which I could show more of my authentic self to the people I supervised. Since I was a young parent, and in a position where I directly supervised students, many of my supervisees were naturally very curious about my pregnancy. It was an interesting paradox; I was relatable to my students because of my age and life experience, but yet I was going through a transformation that seemed very foreign and “adult” to many of them. I found that my student staff could open up to me about their lives more easily, almost as if allowing people to see me when I wasn’t my best actually strengthened our relationships.
I found community with other parents. We teach our hall staff about the importance of belonging and community; for many, entering into college can be a confusing, overwhelming, turbulent time and finding a place to belong is what keeps us moving forward. The same can be said of parenthood. When my son was very young, I changed jobs and ended up at a much larger university in a department which employed many parents. One of my current closest friends is one of the first “mom friends” I made. It was so comforting to have someone going through the same things, to reassure me that I wasn’t crazy. That experience crystallized for me the importance of developing strong communities in our work.
I became a better advocate for myself and an advocate for others. One of the most overwhelming things about having children is realizing that you are completely responsible for this tiny helpless human looking up at you. I learned early on that I was the only one (other than his dad) who could speak on his behalf, and he trusted me to do so. As I became more comfortable voicing concerns for him, I also began to find confidence speaking up for myself. It was easier to consider things like asking for a raise, negotiating salary at a new job, and addressing concerns in the workplace once I realized others were counting on me to have those conversations.
I also found a voice to help other women. I have a bulletin board in my office with the quote, “We rise by lifting others.” Becoming a parent has helped me find purpose in my work as I work to lift, push or pull other women into positions of leadership. All too often, we women are the most critical voices in the crowd towards our female colleagues; I have a goal to create a space that allows women to be authentically themselves at work. If that means allowing them to speak about their significant others, children, pets, or career ambitions, my role is to listen and ask questions to help staff fit work around the rest of life.
Work, life and family will never be in perfect balance, but I’m pretty happy with where things are in each area for me. I have grown as a person and a professional in tandem, and both roles are a solid part of my identity – at work and at home.
Jennifer Todden is the assistant director of housing for West Campus at the University of Florida. She has also worked at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the University of Louisville over the course of her career. Her professional interests include working with strong women, facilities management and navigating campus politics. Besides wife, mom and housing pro, her other roles include crocheter, avid reader and self-confessed history nerd.