My Career Mentor, My Mother

I’ve had a career mentor since I was born, though I didn’t realize it at first.

Career mentorship just isn’t relevant until you’re an anxious college freshman (me), or a first-time entry-level employee (everyone else). But even when I started thinking about where I wanted my career path to lead, it still didn’t hit me that a fantastic source of guidance was also the source of my favorite minestrone soup recipe.

My mother went back to work two weeks after I was born. She had a great arrangement where for six weeks she worked as many flexible hours as she could, took vacation days to make up the difference, and then switched back to full-time. She has three other children, and has never stepped out of the workforce for longer than a cursory maternity leave. When I asked her how soon she went back to work after one of my sisters was born, she admitted to checking emails on the way to and from the hospital. Leaning in indeed.

But she’s not Sheryl Sandburg, because she doesn’t want to be. She proved herself as a valuable worker early on so she was able to request a flexible schedule, and she’s made (or turned down) more than one career change to avoid limiting her time with her family. Her biggest regret is the one time my preschool-aged brother was ill and she had to ask a family friend to take him to the doctor. She will probably never forgive herself for that.

This is all only relevant because I want to be her. She’s in management consulting, and within the past year, my constantly shifting interests finally settled in the same field as my mother’s. Her job is 97 percent problem solving and 3 percent magic, and I love that. So I decided to make the switch from groveling for nonprofit grant-writing internships to groveling for private-sector business internships, despite the fact that I have an (in-progress) English major with Classical Languages and Linguistics minors. By some miracle, I persuaded someone to interview me over Skype for a marketing internship at an IT staffing firm, and four weeks later, I had the job.

Due to work location proximity (our offices were a half-mile apart) and a shortage of vehicles in my household, my mom and I carpooled to our respective jobs. This gave us around two and a half hours of time together every business day, and it was the perfect chance to ask her all the questions I’d been building up the night before or during the course of the day: How should I approach my boss about needing more work? What do I do if they offer me a job at the end of the summer? Should I ask the IT guy to connect my work email to my phone even if I’m just an intern?

And herein lies the key to my successful mentoring relationship with my mother. It isn’t that she’s my mom—it’s that I’m comfortable asking her seemingly stupid questions. Business is situational; the whole purpose of mentorship is to provide a resource that can work one-on-one with you through specific challenges you’re up against. The best part of my interest in my mom’s field is not necessarily her connections, but my easy access to her knowledge, experience, and advice. In short—while the convenience is hard to beat, anyone can have a mentoring relationship like the one I have with my mother.

When you have a great mentor, there are no stupid questions. This is a person you could come to with almost any work problem: not just what to wear to an interview, but how to apologize when you’ve broken the copier, or when it’s creepy (or appropriate) to request a LinkedIn connection. She’ll help you figure out how to turn your varied work experience into great interview stories about your strengths, and maybe even let you call her before your interview for a quick pep talk. She can tell you how office birthday parties work and what to do if you want to take on more responsibility. You two can exchange Fast Company articles and talk about professional development in both of your careers.

So while I’m very lucky to have been born into a great mentorship situation, proximity was really only the jumping-off point. Anyone can build a relationship with the same benefits, and in fact, learning to do just that is a valuable career skill. If I’ve learned anything from this whole situation, it’s that mentorship opportunities can appear in unexpected places, and you should take them when they do. And, if possible, my advice would be to try to pick a mentor who makes perfect chocolate chip cookies while on a conference call like mine does. It’s excellent professional development.

 

Madeline Stone is from the Midwest and proud of that. She is currently finishing up her degree at Macalester College and is waiting to see what will happen next. She’ll keep you posted.

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9 Comments / Post A Comment

ellabella (#1,480)

“…anyone can have a mentoring relationship like the one I have with my mother.”

No.

I feel like the whole essay is saying the opposite of this and then it just… says anybody can have that. No, having a family member or close family friend who you can truly be yourself around and still have as a professional mentor and a role model is a privilege that many people do not have access to. It is great that you have this but I don’t really understand why you think this is possible for everybody and you don’t really provide any recommendations for how one should even try to form this kind of relationship if it’s not readily available.

@ellabella Also this Anyone can build a relationship with the same benefits, and in fact, learning to do just that is a valuable career skill. Well, but you didn’t really have to build a relationship, it’s your mother, it was there already.

I do second taking advantages of unique mentoring opportunities when they come your way, though. But don’t expect having a great mentor to be like having a second mom or dad.

chflx (#4,332)

@ellabella i think the point of the article is that anyone can have a mentoring relationship, and it’s more important who you choose than forcing yourself into one with a family member, this one just happened to work out.

The article is pointing out how she learned which aspects of a mentoring relationship are the most important, not “How to Land a Career Mentor.”

ellabella (#1,480)

@chflx One of the reasons these lines stood out to me is because otherwise this piece is very thoughtful and I do really like her portrait of her relationship with her mom. In many ways I have a similar one.

But I think it’s really important, especially on a place like The Billfold, to be aware that not everyone has the same selection of mentors. Socioeconomic privilege hugely expands your field of potential mentors, and those two sentences seemed to quite harshly ignore that reality.

Also, it’s just a fact that you will not have the same relationship with your mother, or anyone else you have known since you were an infant, that you will have with anyone else, even if you do luck out in finding a really supportive boss/professor/whoever who is happy to take on the (quite large responsibility) of being your mentor, even more casually.

francesfrances (#1,522)

Whoaaa, Macalester + The Billfold party! I’m a 2010 Mac grad. Good for you for pursuing a business career instead of nonprofits. I’m starting to do the same after a few years of nonprofit work – as an English major, I am qualified to do everything and nothing. It’s tough out there.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

@amyfrances Would love an article on this, or maybe even just an elaboration of this comment. I have English and Art History degrees at the bachelor and masters levels. I currently work at a non-profit and am very happy for now but of course wonder “what if?” So I would love some advice and/or stories on switching from non-profit to business sector.

francesfrances (#1,522)

@amyfrances Well, I’m afraid I don’t have too much advice. Right out of undergrad, I worked in nonprofit program coordination for a few arts-related nonprofits. Then I left to work at an Internet marketing agency, hated it, and now I’m an administrative assistant at an fantastic design firm. It was a big decision, and I got some tough love advice (that turned into a fight) from a friend who worried I was taking a huge step back and wouldn’t be “producing anything” in an admin assistant role.

But, with student loans payments, a mild shopping addiction (Work clothes from Gap! Raspberries!), and the desire to build up a savings account and move toward homeownership (or a nicer apartment), I felt that I’d rather toil away in the for-profit sector than the nonprofit sector (I’m 25). I think it’s going well? I guess I gave up some opportunities to have a lot of responsibility, but I wasn’t happy with the pressure of my nonprofit job. In two years, I’ve raised my salary by $10,000 with two job changes, which seems like a good thing…? But I’m also in a lower level position than I was 2 years ago….. This is rambly, probably an overshare. Oh well!

Is there something I should do when I break the copier besides say I’m sorry and offer to take the lead on making sure it gets fixed?

It’s interesting to hear about families that end up in similar fields. I think, though, that sometimes close is too close. It’s fine to piggy back off your parents’ interests, connections, and skills (and obviously there’s some “family trades”) but actually using them as career development professionals/mentors can get…uncomfortable. My parents were a great resource when I was starting out (that skirt is too short, etc) but they have too much emotionally invested in me and my success to really offer me objective advice.

hopelessshade (#580)

@polka dots vs stripes I can’t even fathom getting good advice from people who, in my case, last encountered the job market in the 80s and haven’t looked at it since. “the recession 80s!” my mother says pleadingly. But my dad works in big oil, and I’m a museums student, and so my mom’s objective advice is to “get another undergrad degree, that’ll make you look good for grad schools!” …

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