(Poets&Quants) — The topic of mothers working or staying home touches a well of emotion in me, as deep as it is inchoate. Every time I read anything about the debate, I cry.
Ten years ago, Lisa Belkin’s seminal Opt-Out Revolution introduced me to the 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 first birthday of my first child.
Over the years, I have read Belkin’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, about the same women profiled by Lisa Belkin a decade ago is the latest in the canon, and I read it with tremendous interest.
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 earned an MBA from Harvard in 2000. I moved 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.
When I look back at the path I have taken, I can see all the chance and luck and randomness that have shaped it. But I can also see that I have fulfilled my original goal: to have flexible yet meaningful work.
What is less clear to me is how I came up with this particular goal early on in my life. When I graduated from Harvard Business School, I chose a role that was at once marginal and extremely fortuitous. 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 dialogue about mothers working or staying home so rarely acknowledges the simple fact that most mothers in America don’t have this choice.
The first piece of writing I ever published, in September 2010, began with a scene where my then-childless self pointed out to a room of angst-ridden Harvard MBA moms torn between careers and babies that theirs was a dilemma of privilege. I described the way I was flayed by this crowd, and went on to discuss the downside 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 days 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 a mother.
As my children grow 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 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 simpler? Yes. But do most of my friends who are mothers, regardless of the choices they’ve made about their careers, feel the same way? Without doubt, yes.
It seems unavoidable, the paradox that life is long and the years when our children are at home full-time are vanishingly short. These are years we can’t get back, with our children, in our professions, in our lives. I don’t think there’s a single answer to something so fraught with emotion, and I don’t presume to know what’s right for others. For me, it was worth it never to opt out completely.
By staying in the workforce, albeit in part-time roles, when my children were small and at home, I never had to opt back in when they went to school full-time. When I read Judith Warner’s piece last Sunday, I felt grateful for having made my choice.
I also thought about what my daughter wrote in the “about the author” section of the book she spent weeks writing in fourth grade: “It took Blue five years to write Chasing Vermeer, because she was teaching and also taking care of her kids.” I loved reading this, because I saw that she recognized that life has seasons when certain things take more or less of our time, but that we don’t ever have to let go entirely of the various strands that make up who we are.
Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and executive search consultant who lives in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Mead writes daily at A Design So Vast.