What you do speaks so loudly, that I cannot here what you say

This is the post that I submitted to the Women in Student Affairs (WISA) blog.

Growing up, my mother used to say this all the time. Like most children, I rolled my eyes and walked away. Now, I am the mother. I am also a wife; PhD; advocate for childhood cancer awareness, funding, and research; an academic specialist/advisor at an amazing Big Ten University; and a mid-career, higher education professional who is still trying to figure out who and what she wants to be when she grows up. In these roles that I negotiate, people are watching how I behave and paying less attention to what I say. On a cognitive level, I know this. In parenting and in student affairs, we lovingly refer to this as “the fish bowl effect.” We live in a glass bowl where our words, actions, and mistakes occur out in the open for all of the world to see and to judge.

It is one thing to know that people are watching me and it is quite another to let that knowledge influence my choices. My two young sons are watching everything I do. Every choice I make, whether intentionally or unintentionally, sends them a message about the choices and sacrifices I am willing to make for them and our family. My choices also show them how much I value myself and my own well-being.

I finished my doctoral studies in August 2010 and immediately began searching for “the next step” position. I had the credentials, the requisite years of experience, and the desire to be a mid-level, mid-career professional. I applied for many, many positions. On the recommendation of some colleagues, I applied for and was offered a Director-level position at a small, Catholic school. I bought some new professional clothes. With my degree in hand and self-righteous assuredness, off I went to my next step. I had made it!

I worked hard. I met some wonderful colleagues. I got to teach a first-year seminar course. I was a voting member of six or seven different university committees. I managed a quarter of a million dollar operating budget and I supervised five professional staff. On paper, it is the next step position.

That is what it looked like on the outside. On the inside, I was tired. All the time. I was spending three hours a day in my car. On a bad day in the snow, it was more like five hours. I was not exercising, ever. I never ate breakfast with my boys. I missed almost every event at their school. I missed my husband and my children. I had severely underestimated the physical, emotional, and financial toll that commuting would take on me and my family.

Worst of all, I wasn’t being true to myself because I wasn’t bringing everything I could to each of my roles. I was not living with integrity. I said to myself and to anyone who would listen that my family was most important. But, my life was not letting me be with them. When I walked in the door at 530pm every night, one of my sons would not speak to me because he suddenly realized that I wasn’t there before and he was mad. I am sure it felt like I was never there. It felt that way to me, too. Yet, every chance I got, I was touting myself as an example of someone who was successfully negotiating mid-career, family, and personal interests/passions. I was openly advocating for working mothers and mid-career professionals, “Look, I am doing it! So can you!”

Integrity is defined as: 1) adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness of moral character, honesty; 2) the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; and 3) a sound, unimpaired, perfect condition. I was not living a life of integrity. I was not being honest with myself or my employer. I was certainly not in a state of being whole, and I was not in perfect condition.

In November, I accepted a position at a university ten minutes from my house. I let go of my Director-level position. I gave up my seat at the Alice Manicur Symposium; hopefully another mid-level, mid-career professional was able to go and get from it all that she could. I no longer commute. I exercise at lunch now. The other day I helped a young woman with her resume and I introduced her to Twitter. These things do not make me a hero. But, they are little things that I am doing to re-align my words and my actions.

I eat breakfast with my boys every morning. Some days, I take my children to school. I am re-connecting with other working moms. When I get home, both of my boys greet me at the door and we go play, because I can. I have the time and mental energy to blog and tweet and volunteer with childhood cancer organizations about which I am passionate. I made choices that work for me and I am doing the best I can to actively live in to those choices. I am happier than I have been in almost two years.

Who is watching you? Your supervisees. Your supervisor. Your children. Your partner. Maybe a new professional is watching you and wondering if the student affairs “lifestyle” is really something s/he wants. Maybe it is a mid-career professional who is deciding between taking the leap to the “next position” and leaving the profession altogether. What are your choices telling others about who and what you value? Are you living with integrity?

Life is indeed a trade-off, a constant negotiation of roles, responsibilities, and choices. Turns out, my mother was right. What people do speaks volumes about who they are and who they value. I need to parent, lead, and work with integrity. There are two very important people watching me.

Bio
-Monica Marcelis Fochtman, Ph.D. is an academic specialist at Michigan State University. She is married with two young children. She also volunteers with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, raising money and awareness for childhood cancer research.

Connect with Monica on Twitter: at @monicamfochtman or email mfochtman@hc.msu.edu

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