It’s a fairly constant theme in conversations with other mothers I meet. The kind of conversations that make anyone who chose to take a step back from work squirm a little. What do you do…? And often the Sheryl Sandberg perspective begins to surface…how important it is for women to Lean In, despite the many challenges working mothers face.
Six years ago, I left a great job at a highly-regarded institution. Never mind that I had two little ones in diapers and a mother with a terminal illness — and that the stress of managing her care and watching her decline were keeping me up at night, when my children didn’t. It wasn’t even a deciding factor that my husband’s job was incredibly stressful and intense, and any and every doctor’s appointment and sick day were going to fall to me. I could have worked around those things. People do, every day.
I wanted to be with my kids. There were many, many things I loved about my job. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was missing a hundred tiny, irreplaceable moments with my little people every day I spent in the office.
It took me several years of hand-wringing to accept that this fact was the most important fact. I fretted about the image I had of myself as successful professional woman. I worked hard to earn those degrees and work my way up the career ladder. Wasn’t it reductive to lose the professional identity I spent years honing?
And, ack! Gender roles! Studies show that children benefit from seeing their mother head off to work every day; they’ll know mommy is much more than meal-provider and housecleaner. And what about the financial implications for our family? We could tighten our belts, drive older cars, and get by on one salary. But years spent out of the workforce are impossible to make up. Women who partially or fully exit the workforce face a lifetime of lower earning potential and miss crucial years of retirement savings.
It was my husband, in the end, who finally said to me: Your work status doesn’t define you — and is completely irrelevant to how I see you. We’ll make it work if you want to leave your job. I’m pretty sure he’s never read a single page of feminist literature, but he was more enlightened than I was on this point. (It’s also possible that he couldn’t stand to listen to me deliberate about it for another day!)
My children see mommy working at the computer now, but they haven’t seen me march off to work in actual professional attire since they can remember. We talk about gender roles all the time — how boys and girls can do all of the same jobs. I hope they’ll see that taking care of children is important, sometimes undervalued, work.
My mom taught me that feminism is about women having choices. The choice to pursue a career in any field. Or the choice to make your children the priority, for a time. All choices are valid. Yes, our retirement coffers are not where they might have been. But time is fleeting. That first little baby, who I held more than I was supposed to, and always had the iron grip on my finger? Now he won’t hold my hand or hug me in public.
It took almost a decade, but I’m finally fully at peace with my decision. I know not everyone gets to make this decision. I appreciate and admire women who make a different choice, for any number of reasons. And I’ll get back on that bus, down the road. But for now, I’m glad I fell off of it.
Top photo: Instagram/Lean In
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Joanna McFarland Owusu is a freelance writer and researcher based in Dallas, Texas. A federal government analyst in a former life, Joanna now spends her days wrangling two little boys and an infant daughter.