I know that the topic of mothers working or staying home touches a well of emotion in me, as deep as it is inchoate, because every time I read anything about the debate I cry. Ten years ago, Lisa Belkin’s seminal Opt-Out Revolution piece was my introduction to this subject. I was curious about the article because it focused on women from Princeton University, my alma mater, and I was also new to the arena: it came out on the very first birthday of my first child.
Over the years I have read Lisa’s piece several times. I read her book of essays on the topic, Life’s Work, and a litany of titles and articles longer than I can list about the debate. Judith Warner’s follow-on piece in The New York Times this past Sunday, The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, is about the same women profiled by Lisa Belkin a decade ago is the latest in the canon, and I read it with tremendous interest. My passion for writing about the tension between working and staying home is seemingly boundless, and the discussion always brings tears to my eyes.
The thing is, while the topic touches a knot of something buried in my chest, the truth is it never makes me regret my choice to work. I have never opted out. I graduated from Princeton in 1996 with a degree in English and with an MBA from Harvard in 2000. I transitioned from a career in management consulting to one in executive search and had two children along the way (a daughter, Grace, now 10, and a son, Whit, now 8). When my children were small I worked part-time, and now that they are both in school all day I work full-time. My office is in my house and I am able to manage my schedule, most of the time, so that I don’t miss anything important in their lives.
WITH HER HARVARD MBA, SHE CHOSE A ROLE THAT WAS ‘MARGINAL AND EXTREMELY FORTUITOUS’
When I look back at the path my career has taken I can see all the chance and luck and randomness that have shaped it. But I can also see that my early and unwavering goal, to have flexible yet meaningful work, has been met. What is less clear to me is how I came up with this particular goal so early in my life. When I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2000 I chose a role that was at once marginal and extremely fortuitous in terms of setting up the career I have now. I oscillate between being frustrated at my 25-year-old self for so immediately “leaning out” – I didn’t even have children yet – and being profoundly grateful that I sensed back then that flexibility would be vitally important to me years down the road.
One thing I am certain about is that the choice to stay home with babies is one of huge privilege. I’m constantly frustrated – amazed, even – that the dialog about mothers working or staying home so rarely acknowledges the simple fact that most mothers in America don’t have this choice. The very first piece of writing I ever published, in September of 2010, began with a scene where my pre-baby self pointed out to a roomful of angst-ridden Harvard MBA-holding mothers that feeling torn between careers and babies one loves seemed to be a dilemma of privilege. I described the way I was flayed by this crowd, and went on to discuss the downsides of my choice to have a foot in both worlds by working but also by refusing to cede primary responsibility for the day-to-day lives of my children.
There are certainly downsides – mostly a lingering sense that while I’m doing everything, I’m doing it all poorly. The thing I’m not sure of is whether this is a result of my choice to work and have children or whether it’s a more fundamental and innate orientation, and that I’d feel this way no matter what. This latter point of view, which is the one I lean towards, also suggests to me that the emotion all this discussion triggers in me is a deep-seated desire to do right by my children that has almost nothing to do with what I do during the day that they are at school. Maybe the knot that my reading and writing and thinking about working and motherhood touches on, that prickly tangle of feelings, is as basic as my hopes and dreams for my children and my fierce wish to do the best job I can as their mother.
‘IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION FOR ME TO KEEP WORKING’
As my children get older I feel more certain, not less, that it was the right decision for me to keep working. They are in school all day every day now, and I am grateful that my years of part-time work, coming out of that decision to lean out for which I have so maligned myself, enabled me to ramp up to a challenging and interesting position now. Do I feel exhausted, and overwhelmed, and as though there are too many demands on me? Yes. Do I feel that our lives could be simplified? Yes. But do most of my friends who are mothers, regardless of the choices they’ve made about their careers, feel this way? Yes.