The Unintentional Opt Out

When my first child was born, I had feelings that I never thought I would have. As a staunch feminist…as the daughter of a mother who’s business afforded my college tuition..as an independent working woman who had lived in NYC for 10 years prior to getting married….I was the last person you would have ever thought would choose to stay home with my kids.  I was the girl who had spent the first part of my career looking for the right fit and had finally found it in a job that I loved. I was the girl who loved splitting the check while we were dating.  I was the girl who insisted on keeping my own bank account after we got married. I was the girl who had lived abroad and traveled on my own. I was the girl who wanted to make sure I could always take care of myself…just in case.

But the pull towards staying home with my daughter wouldn’t go away.  At work, sitting in the first office I’d ever had as a young adult, with my name on the door, I kept my newborn’s picture in front of me and glanced at it periodically.

Yet I leapt out of bed to go to work each day.  I still enjoyed my work, although traveling was proving difficult to be away for a week at a time.  As my husband and I talked about what to do, I felt swayed by many of the people around me telling me to leave my job and take time out.  We also decided that the cost of our babysitter and transportation (I was then traveling to another state for work) didn’t really make sense.  Now, looking back, I think perhaps money was an excuse.  Had I factored in my benefits, working was worth far more than just my salary, and you couldn’t put a price on the personal sense of satisfaction.  I had unintentionally opted out.

But having a baby changed me.  I wanted it all.  Traveling three hours a day, five days a week to work back and forth made me feel like “all” would never really be possible. Maybe I’d step out for a year and step back in? Let’s get one thing straight: going back to work after six weeks (12 weeks with Family Leave Act) was hard.  I was still breastfeeding and as an attached parent, I was attached.

I knew right away that being home and I were not a match made in heaven. While my company was looking to fill my position, I actually dreamt about contacting the head of my department to beg for my job back.  When they called me in to train my replacement,  I knew or felt immediately that I had made a mistake.  It was painful.  I was passing on work that I really didn’t want to leave.  

I was never good at staying home with the kids.  Two babies, 19 months apart. It was hard.  I realized I wasn’t really cut out for domestic life.  I started to look for a job right away, and there were interesting prospects, but the kids were young and all the jobs were full time.

But as time progressed, my confidence dropped and I felt like I was going to pull my hair out.  My husband and I both realized it, so I started to think about returning to the work force with kids ages 1 and 2.

And I did.  I was offered a full time job, which I negotiated to part-time.  It paid well and I had a nice balance of work and family life.  I went in several days a week – got my mojo back, was a part of a team. It ended three years later and led to other part-time jobs.  I’ve always had a foot in the industry, have never stopped working. Along the way, I started this blog, worked several years for a start-up, took some graduate school classes, took on a ton of volunteer work including interviewing Holocaust survivors, became a freelance travel writer, produced a few plays, took a theater producing class, took on a leadership role at my synagogue and started my own marketing consulting company. Most importantly, I took care of a special needs child who needed me in more ways than I ever anticipated. I’m actually still doing all of these things.

It’s been nearly ten years since I unintentionally opted out. Yes, I read the article in the New York Times Magazine and I remember reading the story that preceded it, written in October 2003, the year I was contemplating leaving the full time work force.  What can I say? Do I wish this piece had been written about opting back in back then so I knew the realities then that I know now? Yes. The stories are daunting, about three women who opted out and have varying difficulties getting back in.  I can’t say I can relate to all of them.  One made 500K in her peak, and when she went back to work, she was making 1/5 of her salary, but was forced to return when her marriage dissolved.  Another woman in the article really liked staying home but decided it was time to contribute to her family income and lucked into a job that evolved out of volunteer work, making her career more satisfying than ever before.  The last woman is a journalist, with an impressive resume, who has had an extremely hard time breaking back in. Like me, they’ve all dealt with financial pressures (the upcoming braces my kids both need, Bar Mitzvah’s, college tuition), lack of intellectual stimulation and desire to be more well rounded as a woman.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this subject and my situation. My post on whether to work or not on Scary Mommy garnered nearly 100 comments; my post called What About Me? on PHDinParenting also created an interesting conversation and I mentioned being ready to opt fully back in on The Broad Side early this summer. One of the commentators there mentioned how she had a full blown career and stepped down when her daughter hit the teenage years.  When is truly the best time to opt out? According to the article, never.

One of my closest friends had a baby last year and her job dissolved by default (relocation).  I am the first to tell her not to wait, to explore her options now, to opt back in.

The only thing I will say about the flexibility that I’ve had over the past 10 years is that I’ve done things I never would have done had I worked full time. I’ve had amazing opportunities as a result of having time to spread my wings and I’ve met some wonderful people on this side of the pond.

But to be told that I opted out after all the work I’ve done over these years – both in my home and out – and to have trouble opting back in.  That is something I wasn’t expecting back then.  I’m going to try not to let the NYT piece get to me.  I’m going to keep my chin up and march into my dream job.  All it takes is finding that one interviewer who can look at my resume and say wow, look what YOU have done.

P.S. I met that woman and she just offered me a job.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your struggles.. This is the biggest challenge moms face (work/life).. I think the key is that you keep yourself in the job market – whether it be full or part time.. I have friends that don’t have any jobs to put on their resume for the last 10 years and now they NEED to work. I wish there was a better way for all moms to have access to flexible work. I think the main issue is childcare – because many moms want to work.

  2. Oy… Sorry for the typos above. 🙂 (IPAD) hope I made a little sense.

  3. Iread this post with interest as well as the comments, and also am interested in Danny, PP, above and responses to his post. In fact, more than the opt in/ opt out conversation right now, in is period of my life, career, and marriage. One of the most challenging discussions my husband and I have always ends up in a fight over who gave up more. I, like culturemom, feel I made sacrifices in my career in order to be the mom I wanted to be, and sacrifices to my family in order to dream and act big in the world outside my family. My husband argues that we took a hit financially when I decided to work at home/start a business and while he appreciates my contribution as a mom, part of him wishes we had decided that I continue it’s my career and be in a better place financially now. I think that men, like women, struggle in this modern age… And one day we honor the parent in us and the next day (which may be years later) we find ourselves compelled to honor the businessperson in us…or the sexy carefree artist or …one day…. The grateful child. Marriage…parenting…work…life, the only known I can be sure if is that they call cycle…in and out…and if I am going to achieve happiness, I need to be prepared to cycle in and out with them.

  4. It’s so sad to that this has to be the struggle it is for all mothers. I loved being a teacher with all of my heart. During my first pregnancy, I had to leave my teaching job before the end of the year because I was having complications which made commuting and standing in front of a classroom physically impossible. Every September, in the seven years since then, I contemplate a return to the classroom and then realize that the time commitment and low pay would make it impossible for me to be home when my children need me. I wish I could find that balance and am holding out hope that I magically find some kind of part time position as my children spend more of their daytime hours in school. I applaud you and anyone else who has found some balance of work and parenting that works for them and for their family.
    As for the comment from Danny Franks–Shame on you! While I am terribly sorry for your loss, you have no right to purport to have insight into the workings of somebody else’s family. Every family’s methods of decision making are different and every relationship has waves in which one spouse gets more or less of exactly what they want. Holly never said that she didn’t discuss her choices with her husband and, as this blog is her own personal space on the internet, it would be silly for her to speak as anything other than “I’.

  5. Holly, I love reading your story – of course, I know bits and pieces but never saw the whole picture. Our situation is quite similar to yours only in the reverse: My husband chose to opt out when we had our son, and I continued in my full-time job. He now works occasionally (he’s a performer) and we work on some projects together.

    We both travel for work on occasion (individually, though sometimes we manage to travel as a family, even if one of us is on a working trip) and while we evenly divide some household duties, he’s in charge of many daily tasks, including groceries, laundry and lunch making.

    Do I resent it when he’s out of town, performing, and doing what he loves, or networking with other dad bloggers? Absolutely not, even though I hate waking up early with my son (he and his dad are very early risers) and I’m a lousy lunch maker. We both need to fuel our creativity, recharge, and unwind as individual adults sometimes, and not just as part of a family of three.

    I think he’d like to work more, and now that our son is starting kindergarten that may be more feasible. But I know that he doesn’t regret the time he spends with our son, time that too many parents don’t get to have.

    I applaud you for figuring out how to make your family work! Even if it hasn’t always been 100% perfect for you, as we all know, nothing is ever perfect. Hang in there and your dream job will come!

    • Thanks for commenting, Stephanie. I used the word “unintentional” because my move truly was and my resume truly has no gaps so it’s hard to be looked at as opt out.

      The point is, as you rightly state, that all women make a choice and all women need to be content with it and not judged by others.

  6. Seriously? I take offense to the Danny comment above…it is so amusing to me that when men have jobs that require travel, women–working full time or not–have to find a way to juggle it all, typically without missing a beat. Few people step up to comment that the woman is a martyr, as Danny implies that the man must be, just for picking up the extra duties while the husband/wife is away. Well, the same rules should apply. The writer is not off ‘getting her jollies’…she’s building a better life for herself and her family. The writer comments repeatedly about talking with her husband about the ongoing situation. The point of her piece is that if you step away from your career for the sake of family, expect that it will be difficult to break back into that profession. Each individual has to weigh the pro’s and con’s and make the right choice for them personally. No need to attack…instead, how about a little support for someone just trying to do their best for all involved?

  7. Thank you for sharing what is a real struggle for many mothers.

  8. Danny Franks says:

    I’ve read your blog with interest.
    I’m a single dad who had to balance bringing up two boys after my wife died, with a full time job and a life.
    I too am involved with synagogue, charity and school. I also spend time cycling (to keep fit) and spending as much time with my kids as possible.
    You mention “I” a lot in your blog. (and yes I do know its your blog) but does your husband not have a say? How does he cope when your off gallivanting round the country? I’m sure that if he’s a stay at home dad that it won’t be too much of a problem. But if he’s in full time work how does he balance his life when you’re not there?
    Having a family is about partnership and understanding. Understanding your other half and your kids and giving them as much support as you can. It looks by what you say in this blog that you go on “jollies” to get away as much as possible, not supporting your family.
    Escaping to do the things you do, you should call your blog “culture single mom …. kids looked after by their dad”

    • The Culture Mom says:

      Thanks for your comment. I remember meeting you a few years ago at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah and perhaps at my father-in-law’s shiva. I am so sorry for your loss.

      I started this blog because as important as motherhood is to me, I wanted to keep in touch with everything in life I love the most and I love inspiring other parents to do the same. As a parent, you can get caught up in the everyday hustle and bustle and forget about yourself. I never “escape” – rather I include my family in everything that I do. On the rare occasion, I do travel for work or a conference, and I make sure that everything is under control in my absence and that my husband’s work load is not interrupted. He’s very supportive of my career and I of his.

      I didn’t mention my husband much in the post because he is private, and this is really not a blog that was created to reveal all the tid bits about our personal lives. But he knows that my family is my priority, just as yours is to you.

      La shana tovah.

    • I think you’re attacking the author here, and unfairly.

      I am so sorry for your struggles. Single parenting is a challenge unlike any other, and being widowed is a true tragedy.

      The author here brings to light a very real concern for many mothers, and she handles it appropriately. Attacking her premise would have been reasonable (though I personally agree with it), but attacking her parenting, her marriage and her commitment to her family is beyond the pale.

    • I read this article with much of the same sentiments. For me, it was an unintentional “opt-out” that I took after working for many years, the major breadwinner of our family and having three kids. I knew that this would be the last opportunity I had to stay home with my youngest child and I took it. I had no intentions of it being so long, and I knew it was not the best fit for me either.

      I loved working and having a career, a bank account of my own and making my own way in the world. So I too started a blog (where I say “I” all the time!) and also where I travel for my new version of “work”- which includes paid for junkets and compensation for a variety of projects.

      I read your comments “off gallivanting round the country” as well as “go on “jollies” to get away as much as possible, not supporting your family” as naive attacks on the author- making assumptions that she is not supporting her family or contributing to the household. You mention partnerships and understanding. Partnerships are about sharing responsibilities. That means both parents get a turn. What about when her husband goes on business trips? She is there to take care of the kids. Not to mention all the other times she is there for her family. And she does support them and contribute- financially and emotionally. Does this mean she should never have business trips of her own or time off? Shouldn’t the balance be equal with both parents taking care of the kids and the household when the other needs? In your words, no. It should solely be on her.

      I am sorry for your own loss, but you really should not make assumptions about someone else’s life. Who takes care of your kids while you are off riding your bike?

    • Danny, I am sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine losing my husband and hard it must be. But I should remind you, that you have not walked in the shoes of a stay at home mother’s shoes either. You have no idea the pressures we feel to stay, to give all of ourselves every single day in service of our children and our husbands, and at the same time long to have something outside of the home. Not just to contribute financially, but to be good at something, to have adult interaction not centered around our children’s milestones. She is talking about her feelings, not her husbands, because its not about him. Its about the conflict of motherhood and letting it consume your every breathing moment. That’s just not enough for some of us. I stay home now because I married the Air Force, we live I Germany, and his 13 hour rotating shifts would make our children sacrifice too much for me to work. But I dream of the day when I can “opt back in” and I realize my job options will be limited due to my limited experience in the past 5 years. She isn’t showing a lack of support for her husband and family, she is being real and honest with other mothers that are faced with the same choices. Its her story, she’s not telling anyone who to live their life. She is just sharing her story. Be NICE Danny!!

    • Danny,
      I’m sorry for your loss. But, your judgement of this blog is misplaced. Holly makes it clear it is important for her to contribute both emotionally and financially in a relationship right up front; the relationship with her family and with her career. Perhaps you skipped that part – or disregarded it. Further, I can’t see anywhere in the piece where she infers she is ‘getting her jollies.’

      “Judge a person by their own deeds and words;the opinions of others can be false”…..Talmud

  9. Good for you, Holly. I haven’t read the NYT piece. I’m kind of afraid to.

    In any case, what I’d like to see happen in the next ten to twenty years is to see this sentence “P.S. I met that woman and she just offered me a job.” turn into this sentence “P.S. I met that MAN and HE just offered me a job.” When people of either gender can see through the so-called “lapse” in the resume, then I will feel really good about where we’re headed.

  10. Congratulations on finding a job even if its not “the dream”. It sounds like you’re well equipped to make an opportunity bloom into more, so best of luck on that journey. The Times article paints a hyperbolic, dismal picture, but then, they’re trying to sell papers. User results may vary.

  11. I truly loved reading this piece. It gave me so much to reflect on. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Estelle, it’s not full time nor is it my dream job but it’s a step in the right direction. I’ll explain when we speak!

  13. Wow. Holly, what a journey of discovery. I actually know the journalist, Kuae, and I think her situation is much like my own. I’m now President of Mothers & More (volunteer position) as she is with Mocha Moms, and my industry (magazines) has changed so much (and contracted) since I was in it. Congrats on you getting a full time job now. Can’t wait to hear all about your dream job. I’m not quite ready for full time yet, but I’m excited to hear about your progress.

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