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.