Managing Our Professional Identity Crisis
Is now the time for redefinition?
Being an entrepreneur is hard at the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic? As my Italian relatives say… fugedaboudit. The loss of self can be hard to reconcile when the public messaging is to be all-in-this-together. I thought I had my identity finally sorted: A queer, separated parent of two children, author and brick-and-mortar small business owner. I am many things to many people, and I worked hard to get comfortable with who I am. I consider myself well-versed in all things identity. Especially the loss of it. And yet the pandemic has made me feel as though I’m losing the identity I worked so hard to shape.
In what feels like a century ago, The Workaround, the parent-friendly coworking space with childcare was ordered closed on March 17. By March 20, I found myself immersed in homeschooling schedules with eight hours of crafts and activity plans, short-order cooking, emotional caregiving to my children, staff, family and friends, along with the responsibility of planning what to do next with my company. All to be in good order before the end of day yesterday. While some are flourishing in their uninterrupted time with their children, I’m grieving the loss of my professional existence. The one that had me working so hard to build a profitable company, one that employed 90% women and supported entrepreneurs of all genders. I miss being CEO.
Are other parents out there like me, who’ve found themselves sitting on the floor, muted on a work call, surrounded by sprawling lego and upside down yogurt cups thinking, “who am I anymore? How long do I have to pretend I’m holding it together? Who will I be when this is over?”
My question to you, reader, is this: is now the time for professional redefinition?
We are struggling to maintain all our identities. Women, particularly in heterosexual relationships, take on the majority of the household and parenting duties. There isn’t a 50/50 share of work-from-home-and-parent-kids ratio in many households that I know of. Even if we are the leaders of fortune 500 companies (I’m not… yet) we are still the ones expected to lead pandemic caregiving duties. Also worth noting that it is women who have professionally taken the largest brunt of the economic fallout: often women, people of colour and new immigrants own local businesses. We own the restaurants, cake-shops, dry-cleaning, salons and law offices that fill your main street. As the lower-income earners to male counterparts it’s likely women who are considering not going back to work. We’re holding many precarious roles.
“The reality is, we can’t easily make strategic decisions, or even minor shifts when we are in an unstable environment. We could perhaps attempt to, but it’s a lot better use of time to take a breather and wait it out.”
In order to regain some sense of self, I’ve found myself grasping to control an uncontrollable environment. The rainbow schedules and endless zoom social hour invitations are examples of our brains looking for normalcy and order.
What brings me hope is that thriving in unrealistic expectations is one of marginalized business owners’ strongest assets. I don’t believe that working from home with screaming children and late night business meetings is anyone’s ideal picture of a “new normal”. The reality is that nothing about this world is normal and it’s not worth our limited energy to repurpose our sense of self to fit within it. For those who have worked hard to build their identity in a system stacked with barriers, it’s worthwhile to preserve our sense of self during a societal collapse, however temporary the collapse. I’ve spiralled into a thought monster about the new world and how we will manage many times. The reality is, we can’t easily make strategic decisions, or even minor shifts when we are in an unstable environment. We could perhaps attempt to, but it’s a lot better use of time to take a breather and wait it out.
How can we survive our loss of professional identity in a crisis?
First and foremost, don’t try to redefine what is undefinable. There is nothing that brings me more stress in this pandemic crisis than uncertainty. Strategic planning is rendered useless when new government programs, restrictions and infection rates repeatedly change. If we could stop trying to grasp what we can’t hold, we might be in a more restful situation to gear back up when the time is right.
Find small ways to remember your “why”. For me, one of the main catalysts for starting The Workaround was to support families, particularly families who don’t fit within the stereotypical household norms. What helps me remember that I’m still helping families is the notion that I’m largely leaving them alone. We aren’t building virtual communities or daily check-ins. I know our members don’t have the capacity to participate and the best thing I can do right now is stay out of their way.
Don’t wear the mask of someone you never were. If your old identity did not include weekend watercolor paintings and evening knitting sessions, this temporary crisis world doesn’t have to either. One thing missing from all the “learn a new skills” rhetoric is that the pressure to be a better version of ourselves can pull us further away from the selves we know, adding more shame and guilt about that lack of productivity. If sales forecasts and marketing podcasts were your jam before, find a way to bring them into your day now. You do not need to be a new person in a temporary state.