‘Quitting’ Your Aspirations to Retain Flexibility

I recently read a great articled called “The Year I Learned to Quit”, in which the author Christine Bader talks about how important it is to know what and when to quit. My favourite quote in the article is:

I’m talking about quitting before the going gets tough. Leaning out. Not pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do.

She also talks about walking away from her dream job because it wasn’t the perfect fit with the other dimensions of her life, noting “the hours were manageable, but I wasn’t as present as I wanted to be when I was home”.

This resonates with me, as the decision to “lean-out” is something many of my coaching clients struggle with, something many of my female friends have struggled with and something I struggled with too.


When I was in my 20’s I was full of ambition: my definition of success was based firmly on continuous progression. Lucky for me, that drive got me where I wanted to be and by the age of 30, I held a reasonably senior role. Five days before my 32nd birthday I fulfilled another ambition and had my first child and the second cherub followed a few years later.

I was lucky. I worked in a forward-thinking organisation and my bosses saw the value of retaining a female leader. So for around five years, I had the opportunity to job-share with another female leader.

I wouldn’t say my ambition ever went away during that time and I often wondered what it would be like to be in the sort of role that ‘naturally’ came next in my career. I was even encouraged by others in the organisation to keep climbing the ladder. But I knew it would mean giving up flexibility (as I knew it). It was then I took time to reflect on what was important to me and I realised that my personal definition of success had changed.


I’m not alone. Among my friendship group, I can tell stories of intelligent, successful, highly educated women who, at the peak of their careers decided to “lean out”. It’s very flattering to be encouraged to apply for more senior roles – the sort of roles that play to your strengths and potentially deliver a higher degree of job satisfaction – but instead of progressing into roles they aspired to pre-children, these women have all chosen an alternative. An alternative offering the flexibility their family needs. The women I am referring to are women with late primary school (or high school) aged children.


What I mean is, when women first start a family and want flexibility, there is an unspoken expectation the need for flexibility will go away at some magic point in time. Perhaps when they’re out of nappies? Or when they start school? Or when they can recite their 12 x tables? Women are led to believe at this magic point in time, they won’t need flexibility anymore and they’ll be ready to pick up their careers where they left off. However, that is not necessarily the case.

A friend, who has a 14-year-old boy,  recently said “He needs me more now than he ever has before”. Another good friend – with three teenage girls – feels that it’s just as important for her to be around now when they get home from school as it was when they were little. TV personality Jessica Rowe’s decision to leave a high-profile role to “be a more present mother” with her daughters – aged 9 and 11 – highlights this issue.

And I’m not saying the same struggle doesn’t apply equally to men (which it does, and which needs to be allowed to surface for men more often) as Annabel Crabb highlights beautifully in her book The Wife Drought. What I am saying is there are expectations placed on women which are not always manageable.

The women I know have chosen or settled for specific roles so as not to feel guilty walking out of the office at 4pm. Roles in which they won’t be expected to attend 8am meetings, or meetings that finish at 6pm, or drinks and dinners with key stakeholders that may keep them away from their families on weeknights.

Despite the promises made about flexibility, the expectation in many senior roles is that you will be available to do these things. This expectation isn’t always easy to manage when you have school-age children, particularly if your partner (for whatever reasons) is unable to support you.

My suggestion? If/when you find yourself in this situation, there is no right or wrong answer. But it is a good time to review your definition of success – even if that sometimes means you need to ‘quit’ your original aspirations.  You can also check out the flexible employers that advertise on FlexCareers to help you find a more supportive work environment.

What have you had to ‘quit’ to retain flexibility?

Blog post by Julie Lines first published by Flexcareers on 11 May 2018.