A Postpartum Identity Crisis Made Me Rethink My High-Powered Dream Career

My success looks different than I or my mentors expected.

  • Arivee Vargas

Written on Jul 06, 2024

Mentors Helped Me Soar In My Career — Here's How I Overcame Their Disappointment When I Left Michał Chodyra, Syda Productions | Canva
Advertisement

I’m a first-generation Latina and lawyer. Until I arrived at law school, I had heard of law offices and seen local judges and assistant district attorneys in court. But I had never heard of large law firms — the kinds I’d find myself joining for two summers during law school and after I graduated.

Needless to say, I was one of the few attorneys of color and Latinas at each law firm. Unfortunately, those numbers haven’t improved much more than 15 years later. But during those early years, I had to learn a new culture and environment. The steep learning curve and my desire to be excellent at my craft made for a combination of long hours, working through holidays, and having the opportunity to work with brilliant legal minds who would become dear mentors and later, friends.

Advertisement

In the early years of my career, my mentors became sponsors — those individuals who have the decision-making authority to advance my career — and I was able to take advantage of opportunities to do some of the most rewarding work of my legal career. My best advocates were those who had worked alongside me and seen my talent, work ethic, and potential firsthand. As a result, I have benefited from a network that’s ensured my name comes up in rooms where it matters and that my achievements are recognized.

RELATED: Why Having Mentors Can Help Your Career Take Off

Over the years, I grew in my career and was encouraged that I could be whatever I wanted as a lawyer — a federal judge, a prosecutor, a partner at a law firm, or the general counsel of a company. It was everything I’d dreamed of when I started law school. 

Advertisement

Yet, despite all that I had accomplished, there was always that little voice in my head that would often ask me, whispering — hey, is this what you really want to do; is this really who you’re meant to be? I was always working so much that it was easy to brush those thoughts aside.

Everything shifted after I had my first child. After experiencing a postpartum identity crisis, I realized my professional identity, while significant, wasn't how I wanted to define myself anymore. I didn't want my self-worth to rely on work and external validation, as this created a never-ending cycle of needing more and more to feel good about myself. The birth of my son gave me the space to reflect on what I truly wanted and who I was.

Coming to that realization didn’t make me feel lighter though. It felt heavy, like another burden to carry. I felt guilty and foolish. The thought in my head running on repeat was: You should just be grateful to be where you are. That thought would kick off a spiraling of other thoughts that went something like this: Look at you. You’re so ungrateful. Other people would give anything to be in your position and you’re going to throw it all away? What are your mentors and people who’ve invested their energy and time into you going to think?

Advertisement

RELATED: 10 Signs You're Having An Identity Crisis — And How To Figure Out Who You Really Are

I eventually was able to overcome my fears and inner doubts, and I left my firm before pursuing the opportunity to be partner. Many of these fears did play out in my relationships with my colleagues and friends. I had mentors who for years didn’t understand why I would have left the law firm and not at least tried to make partner. This was a difficult perspective to follow. I had the utmost respect and gratitude towards the people who’d helped me advance in my career, but I quickly learned that my gratitude had transformed from a helpful practice to something I was using against myself. 

Weaponized gratitude is a method of convincing ourselves that what we have and who we are is fine — and that we owe something to the people who helped us get there.

It’s a mindset that’s particularly challenging for women of color like myself because more often than not, we’re conditioned to keep our heads down, not make a fuss, do the work, and be grateful to be there. Gratitude is programmed into us from a young age, especially because we often find ourselves in better financial positions than our parents. 

Advertisement

The message I — and many high-performing women of color — got from my parents has always been that a steady job and a reliable stream of income means financial security and less stress. I had to dig deep to change that and to realize it was not contradictory to both be appreciative and want more for myself — to be grateful for what people had done for me, and to ask for a raise or promotion, or to leave my career for a new one.

RELATED: 7 Clear Signs It's Time For A Job Change

Years later when I’d ultimately transitioned from law completely into Human Resources doing employee relations then leadership development and executive coaching, there were plenty of people who didn’t get it. Some asked me if I felt I had “wasted my time” as a lawyer. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Advertisement

I needed every single experience as a lawyer to do what I do now, which includes speaking, writing, and coaching high-achieving women professionals who are often lawyers.

The lack of representation of Latina partners in law firms and executives in corporate America is just as much of a problem today as it was then. It would have been such a great accomplishment to become one of the few Latina law firm partners or even be one of the few Latina General Counsels in the country, let alone in the city of Boston. So my guilt didn’t stem only from feeling like I’d be letting down those with whom I worked closely and who personally invested in me. I also felt like I was disappointing my community by robbing younger generations of seeing someone like them do something they might never have known was possible.

In the intervening years, I’ve recognized that what I needed was to stretch myself in ways that being at a law firm would not provide. While I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and pressure letting down those who believed in and invested in me, living a dishonest life felt worse.

Advertisement

My career shift taught me that I owe it to myself, to be honest with where I’m at today, and to not contort to the previous version of me. In the end, doing the introspective work to live a life on my terms has been the ultimate way to honor those who have supported and invested in me all these years. They are a part of my journey — and my success, while it looks different than expected, is their success too.

RELATED: 15 Signs You're Winning At Life (Even If It Doesn't Feel Like It)

Arivee Vargas is a Women’s Life & High-Performance Coach and the founder and CEO of Humble Rising LLC, which empowers high-achieving women leaders and lawyers to create lives and careers full of joy, fulfillment, purpose, and personal alignment.

Advertisement