One story of leaning out

The moment came swiftly and unexpectedly, but I distinctly remember it.

One story of leaning out
Alena Thouin is deputy director, legal services, at Ministries of Energy/Infrastructure/Economic Development & Growth/Research, Innovation & Science/Accessibility in Ontario.

The moment came swiftly and unexpectedly, but I distinctly remember it.

It was not long after I came back to work after my maternity leave. Coming back wasn’t easy; I was tired and my head would often start to lean toward my desk as I churned out complex agreements. I questioned every day whether sitting at my desk was the right thing to do, drowning in myriad emotions, which I managed to put away before going into client meetings and calls.  

I was in-house legal counsel in the mid-call years of my career and I was wondering whether I myself could maintain this mirage of work/life balance. I felt like someone had lied to me, as though law school contracts and property courses never talked about how you manage lack of sleep, young children, a heavy workload and all the other household demands of being a spouse. But, worse of all, I felt guilty that I was even considering walking away. After all the talk of inspiring other women and leaning in, I felt lost.  

I didn’t have a female sponsor or a mentor, I was surrounded by a male-dominated industry and I had little guidance on this topic. My colleagues and superiors were supportive, but they never truly appreciated the self-loathing and internal disappointment when you fall asleep in your child’s bed instead of working on something you intended to do that evening, followed by the guilt of even feeling that way. I needed to escape — leaning in was a mirage — so I decided I would take a break in my career and focus on the needs of my family.

One day, though, something strange happened. I remember sitting at my desk reeling from my daughter’s latest bout of teething when I looked out of my office window facing the heart of the financial district and I felt a pinch in my stomach — I didn’t really want to give this up, I worked hard, spent countless hours in law school and, while a junior lawyer, learning to become a lawyer — a practising one.  

Despite all of its flaws, I still loved this profession. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but the hazy thoughts later turned into a decisive feeling. I felt compelled to stay and to rise. It was a small voice at first, but slowly it became louder. It wasn’t just for me, but it was for others. I realized that seeing women in my profession take the step of pushing higher, contributing more and assuming leadership roles is part of the bigger puzzle. The rest was a series of choices, luck and tremendous support from family, colleagues and sponsors. But, at the end of the day, it was me; I chose to assume and fight for those opportunities. 

I took an opportunity to become a general counsel at 34. I managed travel, large transactions, building teams and in my current job dealing with incredibly complex and high-profile issues. I battle every day to get through it, when my kids are sick, when my home obligations conflict with work, when I have to choose between client meetings and doctor appointments and all the other little things that I manage on a daily basis. The organized (and sometimes not so organized) chaos that’s my life has no easy solution. I hold my head in my hands at least once a week and try to run, take dance classes and eat healthy somewhere in between. I fail miserably at least once a day. There is no magic bullet that will help women to advance into senior ranks, but there are certainly policies, accommodations, systemic changes and human understanding that can propel those who now choose to leave this profession (and there are many).  

Many articles I read on the topic include numbers of women exiting the workforce, opting out of management positions or simply focusing their attention on other areas of their life. I wanted to give at least one success story a human face, one that goes beyond the numbers, one that recognizes the daily, ugly grind of being a working professional mom in a management role.  

When we choose to “lean in” during the time when the rest of our life is running at 100 kilometres an hour, we reach the ceiling and we shatter it. We force our employers to create an envoronment in which women can succeed. And for those of us who made it, it is our responsibility to create a better path for those behind us.

Alena Thouin is deputy director, legal services, at Ministries of Energy/Infrastructure/Economic Development & Growth/Research, Innovation & Science/Accessibility in Ontario.

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