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Women can have it all — that’s the message often repeated to us. In my naïveté that can only be attributed to age, I was a firm believer. This is the modern times; we are driven, professional women with opportunities abound in the workplace. We only have to seize them. A fulfilling career, a family, and a personal life — I can have it all.

Little did I realise how difficult that is. Here’s the uncomfortable truth that no one seems to want to talk about: you can have it all — just not all at the same time. It’s really not possible. Something has to give.

Reality hit home when my husband and I welcomed our first child when I was 29. I was doing well in my career and was moving up the corporate ladder. When opportunity came knocking at my door for a job switch to a better position, I didn’t leap for it. I thought long and hard. Could I do it? Could I juggle both family and a demanding career? Should I give this opportunity a miss? Would I regret it if I passed this up?

I decided to take it up as it was a rare opportunity, and thought it couldn’t be all that bad — so many women out there juggled both family and a full-time career.

However, I soon realised my folly. With the job came long and irregular hours, a demanding schedule and intense workload. Weekends and weeknights were burnt, I had to drop everything at home when something cropped up at work, which was often.

It became untenable. I found myself distracted when playing with my child. I was either on the phone texting about work, or thinking about something else while I was with her. There was always something going on at work that needed my attention. My husband was a great source of support. He stepped in whenever I had to work and was our family’s rock. But even then, I realised I was missing out on precious time spent with my child —time that I would never get back if I didn’t do something about it.

There was once when she kept asking me to do an activity with her, and I had no idea what she wanted. Her little face scrunched up in frustration and I was completely at a loss until my husband told me what she wanted to do. I had never felt so guilt-ridden. I was her mother. Why didn’t I know? What else had I missed out on?

It was then that I started to think seriously about leaning out. It wasn’t like I had wanted to be a career woman anyway. But when I started to think about leaning out, I felt like such a disappointment.

Why was it that others could do it and I couldn’t? Sure, I knew of many friends who had taken a step back from work completely by being a stay-at-home mum, but I wasn’t ready for that yet. I still wanted to work, but wasn’t doing well either on the work front or at home. I felt like I had failed somehow; I was unable to keep up.

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I felt that way until I came across an article that finally gave me the answer that I had been looking for.

It really isn’t about having it all. It’s about having what you want. Surely that’s true female empowerment. Finally, a positive, empowering message that doesn’t make me feel like a failure for leaning out. The message of leaning in is great for women, but it also made those who choose otherwise feel like crap.

Since leaning out — taking up a job with a slower pace and more regular hours — it has given me the headspace and time I need to spend with my child and family. I feel happier, more fulfilled, and so much more at peace with myself. Of course, leaning out means passing on job opportunities that could have helped me advance my career, and on promotions.

When I told my friends about my decision, I generally got positive reactions, and most of them understood. After all, it’s really about focusing on what’s important to you and acting on that. Sometimes I look back and marvel at how much I’ve changed.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I would pass up a promotion or a golden job opportunity. But a little human comes along and you suddenly realise nothing is more rewarding than raising her right, and being there at the important moments of her life.

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I no longer jump every time my phone rings, expecting work to be on the other line. In fact, it hardly rings now! I can cuddle with my husband and daughter on our couch and watch her favourite cartoon while hugging her little body, without the thought of work looming at the back of my mind. When I’m out with her, I don’t have to keep checking my work inbox for emails that need my immediate attention, or mentally run through my to-do list to make sure I haven’t missed out anything. It was liberating. I could focus on her, on my husband, and I had never felt better.

That’s the life I want now. We just welcomed our second child and I definitely know better now what I want. I wish someone had told me back then that it’s normal to struggle to find a balance between work and family, and it’s not about having it all, but having what you want.

Perhaps there may come a time when my kids are older and I won’t mind the midnight phone calls, urgent emails and working through the night. Or perhaps there will be a time when being at work doesn’t come at the expense of missing a family outing or time spent with my family. Perhaps then, I’d be ready to lean in again.

For now, all I want is to be there for my family. I know they are the ones who truly feel it when I’m not there. I’m not irreplaceable at work, but I am irreplaceable at home. And that’s the way I want to keep it.

Text: Lily Wong/Cleo