The Self Doubt

I had kids ahead of most of my cohort. While friends were working and building careers, I took a break from mine and spent over 5 years at home with my 3 young kids. I’ll admit there were times when I thought the world had forgotten about me (my younger son was born during the Polar Vortex, which I considered to be a very isolating time, pre-Covid!). About the time my daughter was turning one, I started to feel a hankering to return to the professional world. But, what to do? I felt out of touch with my skills and sometimes couldn’t remember what it was like to carry on a conversation with someone older than a toddler. One rainy afternoon I saw a poster in the Lincoln Park Conservatory recruiting volunteer docents. Docents provide tours and informal interpretation at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool and Lincoln Park Conservatory. I jotted the number down; maybe this was a way to dip my toe back into the outside world? Also, importantly, to do something for myself that did not involve my family.

As a lifelong learner and child of two academics, I enjoyed the thorough six-week docent training. Still, when it came time to test my skills as a tour guide, the self-doubt started to creep in. Would I be able to remember all the plant names and facts? Would people actually want to listen to me? It was only by pushing myself that I overcame the nerves and started ‘working’ shifts in the Conservatory 2 weekends per month. Over time, the result was palpable. Oh yeah, I was a strong communicator and people responded well to my tours! After a year of docenting, I signed up to mentor new volunteers and to participate on the Docent Training Advisory Group with the Lincoln Park Conservancy, the nonprofit in charge of the program. Volunteering with visitors on weekends, brainstorming and working around the table with my fellow advisory volunteers and supervisor, I started to gain confidence in my voice once again.

The Transition

Fast forward to 2019, when all three kids were in school or daycare for the first time. An opportunity arose at the Conservancy to manage events in the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool. Did I have experience in this area? No. Was it exactly what I envisioned myself doing professionally for the long-haul? Definitely not. But it was another opportunity that was presenting itself at just the right time, at an organization I cared about and where I already had connections. I took a breath and interviewed for the position, which I got. I asked for a flexible schedule that allowed me to manage my homelife and the Conservancy’s wedding program.

After a summer spent in the lovely, historic Lily Pool and which I thoroughly enjoyed, the Conservancy was ready to launch its $7.3 million campaign to restore North Pond. With a small staff, what they really needed was a marketing and development leader to work with the Executive Director to kickstart this effort, the organization’s largest capital campaign to date. I had rediscovered my confidence in the professional world through my exploratory volunteering and adventure managing Lily Pool weddings. It was also evident both to me and the Conservancy’s Executive Director that my skills were being underutilized in my current position, and that my strong communication skills, attention to detail and experience with various aspects of the Conservancy’ s operations and programs would make me an excellent fit for this new position. Even while increasing my duties and hours, I was able to keep the family-friendly schedule I needed and have been working remotely since 2020.

The Success

Three years later, I’m the Manager of Marketing and Development at the Conservancy. I’m thrilled to share that the organization successfully raised the $7.3M budget for the North Pond project and will see the restoration completed this fall. In 2020 alone, we doubled our donor base, no small task during Covid. We’ve grown our social media presence exponentially across all platforms. And this year we hosted our most successful fundraiser ever, the Wonders of the Park: Auction & Party for Lincoln Park. Finally, we are in the midst of strategic planning and for the first time in the organization’s history we are looking to expand our work’s impact to every neighborhood that touches the Park, bringing new volunteers and donors to our mission to preserve and enhance Chicago’s largest and most visited Park. If you’re interested in getting involved as a volunteer or donor, reach out to me and I’ll be happy to tell you more.

I feel proud when I look back and remember how rudderless I felt as a young mom who stepped away from the workforce and wondered how I would ever find my way back. Interestingly, my friends who were busy with careers as younger women are now raising young families of their own – some while working, and others at home. I hear from them many of the same anxieties that I experienced as a young mom, but one positive outcome of the pandemic is a shift to remote work and labor–especially working parents–demanding accommodations to the reality we all live in. We are part of a larger system, sure – but the smaller system, one that many workers were forced to minimize or pretend didn’t exist in the pre-Covid world—is equally, if not more, important, and that people are now empowered to stand up and be present for.

Passing It On

We can empower not just ourselves but other women to have the space and opportunity to ask for and get the things they need to succeed: by pushing ourselves to grow and say yes to new challenges and experiences; by listening to our own voices and advocating for our needs; by having the self-confidence to value one’s own skills and contributions—especially as women—by acknowledging our fears but not allowing them to control our actions; by speaking honestly to our friends and in spaces like WomenBelong and by standing up for ourselves and others so that we can meaningfully participate in work and life.

Content provided by Women Belong member Britt Uhlenhake