Just recently, the first box of my book arrived, and I had to let it sit in my hallway for a few days despite the eagerness of my sons. I felt the magnitude of the accomplishment. It has been ten years since I was first pregnant, then not pregnant, then pregnant again at work. Since then, I have often shared my own stories for support nearly always behind closed doors, yet in 2020 inspired by both the dire circumstances of the pandemic’s effect on women in the workforce and the profound strength I saw because of it, I decided to do more.
In the past three years late at night, I wrote Carry Strong (and re-wrote in one round of edits that included 4,872 track changes) to flip the script on a cultural constant—but most of all, to create conversations to empower women to defy expectations without creating new ones including for themselves. The humble ambition is to encourage women to embrace their journey and evolving identity with grace and fortitude fueled by the powerful hindsight of others to be their foresight.
The excerpt that follows is from chapter 5, Identity, one of the five principles introduced in Carry Strong along with perspective, balance, communication, and community. It was the hardest to write despite being the most universal, but ultimately the most rewarding, much like motherhood.
As women, our various identities can run off a list: “I am a friend, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a teacher, a leader, a mother,” with motherhood compounding the list of labels society gives us, and we give ourselves. I know I’m not alone when I say that, for me, it often feels like a never-ending list where I am failing at everything on a bad day and stretched to my limits on a good day. I shared this with Virginie Nothard, international career, leadership, and business development coach, trainer, stress therapist, and speaker. She explained, “Sometimes without a mission we are living our life through our titles. We have so many of them that we can lose ourselves through them. If a business folds, I feel like I lose part of me, or if I have a baby, I gain one, but does that take away from my others? Instead, within these titles you have a different opportunity every day to focus on your mission. It’s fuel to do more. It becomes a vessel where you live your purpose, and you make an impact.”
This idea of our identity being a “vessel” made a huge impression on me. I used to think of myself as having all these titles, things that I do, including responsibilities to allocate time to. If you picture a cup full of water, I had one big cup and then had a bunch of little cups that I could pour myself into. People would question how I could do it all, and frankly most of the time it felt like I was pouring out everything and had an empty cup I would shake to get the final drops or peer wistfully into to get whatever was left. I was longing for something for me that was separate from all those cups. I realized that what I needed to do was change my perspective.
Instead of having one big cup that represents my finite time and energy, what if instead each part of our identity had its own little cup, and each cup had varying amounts of fuel in them every day, or even at different times of the day? With that starting point in mind, they all pour into the vessel of myself that because of all my many facets is often overflowing, and they often fuel one another. Instead of giving myself away and pouring from an empty cup, I literally am self-fueled and embrace all my titles at the same time, as both a responsibility and an opportunity. If this seems overly optimistic, consider it a way to prioritize your day. If something isn’t in service of that mission, the big vessel, why are you doing it? You do have finite time but you also have unlimited potential.
You may have heard the Pinterest-friendly adage, “Your purpose guides you, mission drives you.” As your identity shifts and transforms with pregnancy and motherhood, having a personal mission statement can serve as a grounding motivation for you to connect all the ways you define yourself, and to reconcile something that one multihyphenate contributor defined as “the overwhelming list of who I am.” Together with vision (where you want to go) and goals (what you want to achieve), a mission connects identity (who you are) to impact (the living legacy you want to have).
My personal mission is to help people and organizations reach their full potential for positive impact. I use my curiosity and leadership skills along with the joy of connecting people to do so in a very personal way, so reaching that potential is self-directed yet supported. I feel the most frustrated when I see potential being constrained. I would never have been able to fully craft this mission without my experience in my career as an executive, but also without my experiences as a mother. It suits me as a professor and now as an author. For someone who is very goal oriented (and a runner who likes a clear start and finish), I love that this mission has no end date either for myself or for others.
From CARRY STRONG by Stephanie Kramer, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Stephanie Kramer.
Stephanie Kramer is the author of Carry Strong: An Empowered Approach to Navigating Pregnancy and Work (Penguin Life, May 2023). Stephanie is Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of L’Oréal USA and teaches management communication on the graduate business program at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she serves on the program’s Industry Advisory Board. Stephanie has two young children.
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