You may have seen a link to Lisa Endlich Heffernan's Huffington Post essay Grown and Flown: Why I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom, which was published yesterday and is currently making the Facebook and Twitter rounds. In her essay, Heffernan discusses each of nine points that contribute to her overall dissatisfaction with her choice, which are:
1. I let down those who went before me
2. I used my driver's license far more than my degrees
3. My kids think I did nothing
4. My world narrowed
5. I got sucked into a mountain of volunteer work
6. I worried more
7. I slipped into a more traditional marriage
8. I became outdated
9. I lowered my sights and lost confidence
All of these points are well made, and I think many women, myself included, can relate. But beyond her reasons for regretting her choice, there were two things that really struck me about her writing. First, that she is speaking only for her own experience, and does so without defensiveness. She doesn't attempt to generalize to other women and she doesn't attempt to prescribe what all women should or should not do. She doesn't apologize for her feelings or try to justify them. They are what they are. Kudos to her - owning one's opinions without defensiveness or offensiveness is difficult, and most essayists miss the mark.
Second, I found myself measuring my own choice against her points, and while some of them are true, what occured to me was that they were less straight-forward in my own experience, and that I have actually found positive aspects in many of them, with the result that on the whole, my internal scales tip to the "I'm happy I made this choice" side of things. I should emphasize: Heffernan is not wrong to regret her choice. It is how she feels. It is how the balance settled in her life. Nor is there blame or shame to be assigned (in the comments, quips such as "I didn't have kids so someone else could raise them." and "having the luxury of raising your own children instead of hiring a stranger to do so is a blessing" are fortunately in the minority). There is nothing wrong with her for having been able to make this choice, and for having complex feelings, including negative ones, about her choice. I'm pretty sure she recognizes and values her privilege; that doesn't mean she can't ever wish she had made different choices.
I wanted to offer up my own list of nine reasons that I don't regret my choice, as a whole, after 10.5 years of being a mother who doesn't bring home a paycheck. This is not intended to be a contradiction to Lisa Endlich Heffernan, but simply another woman's own experience, free from defensiveness or cattiness toward other women. Because it's not about other women. It's about how I feel about my own choice.
1. I honor those who went before me. As a feminist, I have struggled with this one in the past. When I decided to finish a master's degree and then stay home with my new baby rather than continuing to work toward a PhD, one of my advisors said, "women like you should be in academia" and several professors and supervisors showed their disapproval. The implication was that women with academic aptitude are wasting themselves and letting the world down if they leave their careers. Apparently that option is only acceptable for - whom? Less-intelligent women? Yikes.
My female forebears and their male allies fought for me to have options. They did not fight so that I could be locked in to academia and stock brokering and CEO-ing and locked out of homemaking and teaching and nursing; they fought for all options to be open to me. I am fortunate that I had all of these options available to me. I chose this choice.
By "opting out," as it is sometimes called , I have found that I am "opting in" in others. I am actually more available to walk in the activist footsteps of those feminist ancestors. There is a certain flexibility built into not holding a 9-to-5 job, and that flexibility has enabled me to take part in feminist activism that requires my physical presence during business hours.
2. I put my degrees into new perspective. I hold a BA in Psychology and an MS in Audiology. I am currently neither a psychologist nor an audiologist. I have student debt remaining from both degree programs. I regret nothing. During eight and a half years of undergraduate and graduate studies, I learned self-discipline. I discovered how I learn. I figured out how to negotiate many different social situations. I explored and put to rest several different career options. I got a front-row seat to see what life as a college professor is like, and realized that I didn't want it, after all. I got a lot of perspective about who I am and where I stand in the world. I had some incredible, positive, life-changing experiences. I learned things that have served me often as a parent, as a spouse, as a friend, as a member of an academic (preschool and elementary) community. In all, I have gained a different perspective on the role of college education in our lives. For me, it was more than job training.
3. I have the opportunity to re-frame "women's work" for my children. I have three sons, and yeah, I have worried from time to time that they don't see what I do as "work" or that they will grow up to expect their spouses to stay home while they bring home the bacon. We talk often about people's jobs - what my job is and how it benefits us, what Dan's job is and how it benefits us, what jobs other people we know hold. We know a passle of stay-at-home-dads. We know mothers who are the sole earners in their families. We talk about jobs and work in terms of their effects: how does each person's work (by which I mean any work, not just paid work) change the world around them? So far all three boys seem to be people who challenge social norms, including gender norms. I think we're going to be ok.
4. My world narrowed. Yes, it did, although at the same time, it didn't. I might meet fewer people, and I do meet more like-minded people than not-so-like-minded people, but I have found that at this stage in my life, that has been an incredibly positive thing for helping me to be the kind of parent I want to be and the kind of person I want to be. Some of my life choices are nonconventional and it has been helpful to be in communities that "get it" and can serve as resources and give support. It was nurturing for me to be coccooned a bit when my babies were little, and enabled me to make some big life changes. As my kids get older, I'm noticing that my circles get broader. This might not flow easily for another family or in another place, but it worked for me/us.
5. I am available for volunteer work. As Heffernan acknowledges, volunteerism is often necessary to make the world go 'round. When my kids were really tiny, it was hard for me to be involved in volunteer activities, and I felt grateful to the people who were able to give their time. Once all three of them were in school for part of the day, I was able (and willing) to be one of the mondo volunteers for their school. As we move forward and I am segueing into full-time photography work, I am doing less volunteering, or finding other ways to volunteer, and once again I feel thankful for the people who have more flexibility in their schedule. Sometimes I feel like volunteering is an obligation that I can't turn down, but as time goes by, it's much easier for me to set limits and say "no" when it's simply too much.
6. I worry..less? I tend not to be a helicopter parent, and my anxiety disorder manifests more as a need for control of my environment than as worry. There's no way to know what my mental state and my kids' mental states would be if I worked full time, but I do know that all three of them are kids who often need to ease into things and who benefit from slowing things down, both at home and at school. Having one less thing on my plate (paid employment) does help me to be less agenda-driven and more go-with-the-flow, which seems to benefit all of us. I also have quite the guilt complex, and in the guilt battle of kids vs. career, I ultimately feel less guilt about career than I would about kids. Your mileage may vary.
7. My husband and I have had to figure out what an egalitarian one-income marriage looks like. It's relatively uncharted territory, and not really what either of us expected sixteen years ago. It's about being equal people, not about doing equal things. Sometimes resentment can flare, and then we know it's time to change something. One thing that helps a lot is that he has very little desire to do what I'm doing, and I have very little desire to do what he's doing. Each of us is glad that the other one wants to do what we don't want to do, and I think the tug toward 1950s-style marriage helps to keep our focus on what we value and finding new ways to be partners.
8. The farther I get from grad school, the more free I feel to find another career. I've changed a lot in 10 years, including my interests and needs. If I were to go back to audiology, I would probably have to earn a new degree, due to changing certification requirements. I might have to redo clinical internships, after which there would be exams and a fellowship year. That's a big investment. Is it really how I want to spend my time and money? Short answer: no. When there's no easy fallback, I'm forced to make sure my future is something I really want. It's scary, but in a good way. (Mostly.)
9. I've been humbled, have learned to surrender, have discovered reserves I didn't know I had. Kids are unpredictable, and they will bring you to your knees. In those low moments, I have found despair, but I have also found solidarity with other mothers and fathers. There is something beautiful in a parent's raw state during their baby's first year, and in those moments of complete uncertainty that hit every so often as the kids grow up. One of the most powerful things I have learned in the last 10 years is that all of us, every last one of us, feels inept at times. All of us mess up. All of us do things we wish we hadn't. We are all. so. HUMAN.
Before kids, I hated the word "playdate." I don't know why; I think maybe it just sounded stupid and over-scheduled to me. As a stay-at-home parent, I love playdates. Playdates are really for the parents, not the kids, although the kids benefit, too. Playdates are when we confess things to each other, commiserate, celebrate, dream. Playdates are when we find out that our worries, our fears, our mistakes are NORMAL. Playdates are when we learn cool tricks and hear news we had missed and meet new people. Playdates are when we hold up a mirror to our friends to show them the great things about themselves, and they do the same for us. Playdates are what brought me into several amazing communities that have changed the course of my life in extremely positive ways. I am deeply, profoundly grateful for 10 years of playdates. I would not have had them if I had stayed the course, earned my PhD, and gone on to research and teach.
Of course there are negatives to my experience, too. I get "touched out" by my kids from so much togetherness. Outdated skills in my degree field and a new, not-yet full-time career mean I'd be in a tough spot in the event of divorce. I do not "enjoy every moment" as the grocery store grannies recommend. A lot of the moments suck. But, moment to moment, I still choose this. When I put everything on the scale, it tips to the positive side for me, and for that I'm grateful, because it was a giant risk and there are no do-overs. For Heffernan, the scale tips to the other side. I'm sure for some, it's an even swap, while for others, the balance is strongly to one side or another. And it's all ok.
In the end, regardless of what I think about my past choices, I like who I am right now, and where I'm going. I suspect that Heffernan feels similarly about herself. There is no blame or shame, no right or wrong, in how you feel about your decision to hold full-time, part-time, or no-time employment.
Where does your scale balance out? What are the overwhelming negatives or positives? Would you make the same choices today?