Working, Parenting, Regret, and the Spaces in Between
It’s the sort of title that is intended to spark clicks and controversy. One that might also be intended to add some fuel to the fire of the ever-inane “Mommy Wars.”
Whatever the case, when I saw the title, I clicked on the link. Because I wanted to see that perspective. And because I appreciate brutal honesty about things like regret and parenting and work and the spaces between them.
In this article, the author, Lisa Endlich Heffernan, explains quite succinctly why she does, in fact, regret her choice to be a stay-at-home mum (or “mom,” for us USians). She introduces her remorse as such:
One day I was working on the trading floor of a London bank and the next, I was on the floor of my children’s playroom. Not once did I think, at age 33, of what the job market would look like for me a few years down the road. Therein lies my most expensive mistake.
I stayed home with my kids because I wanted to be with them. I had a job that allowed me very little time with them on weekdays and I felt our time was short. I did not stay home because I believed they needed me or that the nanny I had hired could not do a great job.
Now, on the downslope of parenting, I have misgivings about my decision to stay home. While I don’t know any parent who regrets time spent with their kids, especially kids who have moved on to their own lives — and I include myself among them — in hindsight, my decision seems flawed. Although I am fully aware that being a SAHM was certainly a luxury, staring at an empty nest and very diminished prospects of employment, I have real remorse.
She goes on to recount how she “used her driver’s license far more than her degree,” how she fell prey to the traps of helicopter parenting, how the job skills she once possessed quickly became outdated. And because, as she describes, she did not “[try] to keep a finger, a toe or a hand in the working world,” she was never able to return to the workforce in any sort of personally preferable manner.
At first, I felt as if she was pointing a finger at me–directly at me–for choosing to work from home while my kids are young. This feeling, however, is mostly the product of my own narcissism. It’s the narcissism that leads many of us to assume that people who deeply regret making some of the same decisions that we have made must also think that our own decisions are bad ones.
It’s an assumption that the media leaps upon whenever they are trying to fuel the fire of the “Mommy Wars.”
The thing is, Endlich Heffernan does not cast a judgment upon all other mothers (or fathers) who have made the same choice that she did. She’s baring open her soul and exposing all that realness–all that real regret–that she feels over her decision to quit her job and stay at home with her kids. And in a time where parents–and perhaps especially mothers–are admonished for feeling anything but deep satisfaction with every single second that they spend with their children, I think that Endlich Heffernan’s soul-baring does a great service for others.
For those of us who have a decision at all, the choice about whether to work outside of the home or work from home or quit all of our jobs and stay home with our children is fraught with multiple challenges. Sometimes the choice is only even a half choice. Other times, it is not a choice at all but instead one that is mostly the product of circumstances, of family finances, of divorce, of a move to a new city or state or country, of a job loss, of a changing workforce, of a lack of affordable and reliable childcare.
This is one of the reasons why I so often despise those conversations that cast one working/parenting arrangement as preferable to all others. There cannot be one arrangement that suits all families because not all families–and not even two families–are arranged exactly alike. More than that, not all parents’ preferences or dreams or goals or situations are exactly alike.
There is the possibility of sacrifice and regret in whatever decision a person makes when it comes to their working/parenting arrangement. And truly, these possibilities lurk around the corner no matter what major life decisions we are making.
With that being said, I get what Endlich Heffernan means when they rues the fact that she never kept a finger, toe, or hand in the work that she so loved. For those of us who are able to–and truly, we should live in a world where everyone is able to–any work/parenting arrangement we make should allow us the time and space to stay in touch with the work that is solely ours and no one else’s. That might mean that we teach classes part-time. Or that we run marathons. Or that we run an online business. Or that we write a blog. As long as there is something, perhaps there is less room for deep and long-lasting regret.
Just last week, I listened in on a conversation between two friends who had recently left their out-of-home jobs. One is now doing freelance design work and loving the freedom her current work situation gives her when it comes the time she has with her children. She liked her job but doesn’t seem to spend much time, if any, pining away for it. The other, however, described her choice as momentarily necessary but akin to experiencing a death in the family. She adored her job and misses it dearly.
As I listened to them, I was struck by how many important issues arose in their conversation. At the heart of it, they made very comparable decisions to leave work and stay at home. And at the heart of it, they each felt radically different about their decisions and what was left in the wake of those decisions.
These nuanced differences are often lost on so many SAHM vs. WAHM vs. WOHM discussions. To reiterate, the controversy should never be about which arrangement is right. It should be about which arrangement is right for each individual family. And sometimes families must make decisions that are both right and not right: less than ideal, but still “what works” for the time being.
This is the reality of many families. This is the reality of a world in which “having it all” is a terrible myth, and sacrifice and regret and sadness are just as real as dreams and goals and personal satisfaction.
Many of you know that I work from home. Many of you might also know that, though I am completing my PhD in philosophy, I have no desire to pursue a career in academia. Those who don’t know me well might wonder if I am giving up on a dream in order to raise my children and work at jobs that only partially satisfy my talents and aspirations. Those who know me very well, however, know that I am giving up a career that I felt ambivalent about at best in order to pursue other career paths that are more in line with my own dreams. And I am delighted and privileged to be able to make these choices and to be able to find satisfaction in them. I also know, however, that my conception of success looks vastly different from the conception that contemporary corporate culture often perpetuates.
Frankly, the thought of working 80-hour work weeks in order to climb a ladder in any chosen career–even one that might be a “dream career”–appeals very little to me. My success trajectory involves a different sort of balance between family and work time. To others, however, the 80-hour work week makes up a career that is part and parcel of who they are and what is important to them. And to more others, their conception of success looks radically different from these two that I have described.
Can I say that “all of us should just be living our own truths without anyone judging us” without sounding wishy-washy and new-agey? Because that’s precisely what I think so many of us need to hear.
If you have the ability to choose the work/parenting configuration that works for you, do it. None of them are perfect. All of them demand sacrifice. Oftentimes all three of them feel terrible when you’re in the thick of it. But if you can find the one that works and that makes you happy? Count yourself lucky and stick with it.
In my humble, working-from-home-parent’s opinion.
When it comes to these issues, I have little time to devote to a more detailed and nuanced and statistically-driven analysis. (I’m choosing to work from home with a toddler in my midst. This choice complicates my work situation, wherein “my work” includes this blog. And thus the story goes…) I can, however, share a bit about what I think when it comes to parenting, work, and the many configurations betwixt the two:
I think that the “having it all” ethos has waged a war of mental and emotional destruction on all parents, and especially on mothers. There is no “all” that is humanly possible to be had. To have this mythical all held up as some laudable goal–or even simply as an achievable goal–is misleading at best, and damaging at worst. Every single one of us must sacrifice some of that “all” at some point in our lives.
I think that we need more women at the table in the board room. All of them “leaning in,” if you’re in the mood for buzzwords and catchphrases. But I also think that we need more board rooms to accommodate parents–and caregivers of any stripe–who could benefit from paid parental and leave and flexible work hours.
I think that we need a broader recognition of just how much privilege is packed into these worries and concerns. Those of us who worry about our choices to stay at home or work from home or work out of the home must rely upon other people–and many times, other mothers–who work low-wage jobs with little-to-no benefits and little-to-no flexibility. So when we talk about “us” and “we”–we mothers who face such extraordinary difficulty when it comes to our work and parenting configurations–are we including all parents in “our” conversation? Or just those who look and live and enjoy many of the same privileges as “us”?
And I think that Endlich Heffernan’s sense of regret is one that could be felt by any parent who has chosen any work/parenting arrangement. For that, I am exceedingly glad that she shared her perspective.
image credit: rankun76 on flickr