post-pandemic life

Losing My Ambition

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Everett Collection

I have abandoned the notion of ambition to chase the absolute middle of the road: mediocrity. This, unsurprisingly, comes after the past two years — two years filled with intense pandemic parenting coupled with working full time. I want to “just be, man,” and won’t let concerns like success or climbing the corporate ladder stand in my way. The new dream is simply no goals, just vibes.

The Great Resignation paired with the parental primal scream echoing across North America since March 2020 proves I’m not alone in this pursuit of something outside our standard career aspirations. And despite Kim Kardashian’s recent insistence that “nobody wants to work these days,” people have never worked harder for less, have never given up as much of themselves over to capitalism in order to grasp at a fraction of a fraction of Kardashian’s enormous wealth. People want to work — we have to — but many of us are no longer willing to trade our well-being for a chance to claw at the decaying American Dream. There’s a renewed focus on relationships, community, and the slow beat of life outside the gaslight-gatekeep-girlboss ethos.

2022 may be the year my ambition truly dies, and to that I say, “Good riddance, bitch.”

As a young adult, I had to be ambitious; it was my only chance of escaping poverty. I knew if I wanted security and stability and comfort, I had to work harder, be smarter, and strive in the most active sense. (I chose journalism, so obviously I wasn’t quite as wealth-focused as I could have been, but still.) As hard as I worked and as much as I strived, though, I watched far less capable people get promoted ahead of me. I sat through countless interviews for promotions I was more than qualified for only to hear, “We loved you, but …” I would inevitably end up training the new hire to do the job I didn’t get.

Ambition becomes a funny thing when it’s blunted by the structural inequality I faced as a woman of color in a newsroom. It takes on a jagged shape, one that seems designed to maim anyone hoping to grasp it. Yet I was still trying to grab on, inching my way up and across different media companies. I took “strategic” pay cuts and promotions that included a lot more work with no extra salary in the hopes that ambition would somehow set me free, make all this striving worth something more than the carpal tunnel and credit-card debt I’d accrued.

When I was pregnant with my first child in my early 30s, I remember looking up stats on working women my age, only to have a days-long meltdown when I learned that I was perilously close to my best earning years and that things were only downhill from there. (According to Payscale, which studies salaries, women with a bachelor’s degree hit their peak earnings at age 44, making a median salary of $66,700.) The idea that this was as good as it might get was debilitating. Because of this fear, I ended up applying for new, higher-paying jobs just three months postpartum. I did a phone interview for one position while breastfeeding my newborn. I couldn’t stay in my current, low-paying job knowing all that ambition, all that striving, would peak here, working for a company that consistently promoted mediocre white men over women of color, being paid the most money I would ever be paid and yet still barely breaking even.

In the end, I did get a new job with a better title and more money, but motherhood had refocused and sharpened my idea of work. I finally understood time as finite and had to answer honestly to myself about where and how I was spending it. A year later, I quit my job to freelance, to spend more time existing, being a person all the time instead of just squeezing it in between commutes and emails. That Zen approach didn’t last long, though; when I got pregnant with my second child a few months later, I felt immense pressure to get another proper job, to lean into stability.

But soon the pandemic would hit, and everything I’d ever considered normal or stable or safe disappeared. Parenting and work were no longer separated; everything congealed into a sticky, uncomfortable mess that felt impossible to escape. But this chaos was also revelatory; many of us finally saw the mask of security fall away. Work continued to place profit over people despite the unprecedented and overwhelming nature of what was in front of us. Parents, mothers in particular, were expected to maintain both their jobs and their roles as caregivers at the same time, without faltering at either. The remaining picture was bleak but honest, imploring us to take a radical and clear assessment of what was working and, most important, what wasn’t.

By the time I was parenting a toddler and a newborn in lockdown, my idea of ambition had been permanently altered. I had to keep working to keep everyone fed and alive, and I realized I didn’t want or need more than that. I wasn’t willing to give up any more mental or emotional space to the idea that work itself was the pathway to something more. Work wasn’t my identity or my family; it was a means to an end.

There’s an illusion with work that everything you give up now, all the stolen time commuting, working overtime, checking your email and Slack notifications after hours, will somehow earn you freedom and capital in your later years. But the farce of “work hard now, play later” has been exposed for millennials and Gen-Zers; most of us will be working until we die. It’s hard to maintain your ambition in the face of that reality.

The pandemic exposed a lot of the raw nerves of being a working parent, illuminating the fissures in both critical spaces. It showed us plainly how both systems are failing so many, whether it’s a lack of affordable day care, paid parental leave, or remote and flexible working options. It showed how quickly companies were willing to sacrifice employees’ lives, to label them essential without providing the necessary safeguards and support to keep them healthy. It sacrificed mothers, forcing millions of women to leave the workforce at once, to manage the overwhelming load being asked of them and somehow only them.

Work asked us to keep our productivity apace despite managing an unprecedented health scare that was visibly stealing lives in front of us every day. We were told to consider spreadsheets and content as equally important as keeping ourselves and our kids functioning. It’s hard to want more of that, to strive for an even higher spot in that poisoned hierarchy.

Or it is for me, anyway.

More From This Series

See All
Losing My Ambition