Not all that long ago, a mother approached me on the school playground and carefully sized me up from head to toe. Wearing a dress (clean, with no visible snot smears or handprints) slightly stylish high heels, and a few dots of makeup on my otherwise makeup-free face, I was out of character from my normal routine as a work-at-home consultant and freelancer.
“What are you doing?” she asked incredulously.
My answer was pretty simple: I had client meetings that day, hence the professional attire. End of story.
But I knew that her question was bigger — that there was some sort of deeper issue over my role that she needed answered but was unable to articulate: Why work if you don’t “have to”?
I applaud Judith Warner for tackling this sticky parenting issue head-on in last week’s New York Times article, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In."
But first, a short multiple-choice quiz:
Why should you work outside the home if you don’t “have to?”
A. For insurance purposes in case my husband leaves me (or drops dead — see below).
B. It gives me something to talk about other than my kids.
C. I like money.
D. People will respect me more if I have a “real” job.
E. I get to pay someone else to watch my kids/clean my house/run errands/do the laundry.
F. All of the above.
In just over 6,500 words, Warner addresses all of these points and then some, pulling back the curtain on many of the parenting myths that we, educated mothers of a certain X Generation, bought into a decade ago. In short: Getting back into the work force is hard. Stay-at-home parenting can be a thankless job. Marriages can end in divorce. Volunteer work doesn’t necessarily translate into real job experience.
The themes aren’t new — in fact, reading this piece reminded me of the oft-repeated lectures my mom pounded into my skull during the 1970s and '80s, before I went off to college, plowed my way through a series of challenging but “great” jobs, got married, had a baby — and then quickly realized I’d been sold a bill of goods about the benefits of “having it all.”
That was in 2003, right around the time Lisa Belkin’s famous Opt-Out Revolution piece came out (also in The New York Times), and not coincidentally, the same time my 39 year-old husband died suddenly of a heart attack when my daughter was 10 months-old.
So there you have it. No luxurious option of opting-out for me.
It will surprise no one when I say that my years as a single parent were some of the most challenging. But things were easier, too. I never once second-guessed my decision to work outside the home, wondered if the grass might be greener, questioned my role as a mother, or agonized over the distinction between by professional persona and the one I assumed as a parent.
Now, happily remarried, with two school-age kids under our roof, I find my situation murkier. My husband has a demanding job that he loves. I have a career that I love. Technically, no, I don’t “need” to work. But I want to.
And therein lies the rub.
Two parents working long hours creates a situation that is nothing short of crazy-making. It’s messy, stressful, chaotic, and someone (or something) always gets the short end of the stick. And I’m constantly over-thinking almost everything.
Is it worth it to live this way?
For years I have enjoyed the benefits of both worlds, working from home and setting my own hours. But there’s a scrappiness that goes along with self-employment, and while I didn’t care so much about how little my projects paid, I missed the perks went along with a traditional professional identity. Sure, I could get my work done while wearing my bathrobe, but that didn’t mean that anyone respected me for it. Plus, even with the flexible schedule, I was still pretty stressed out.
Just as I began to mull this one over, a plum assignment fell in my lap. A big global retailer wanted me — me! — to be their writer on a high-profile campaign. The hours would be part-time (or so I thought) and I would be able to write my snappy headlines and compelling CTAs from the comfort of home. The pay was great, too. I took the job in a heartbeat.
Overnight my self-esteem skyrocketed. My husband took over all of the grocery shopping and even some of the cooking. I bought a fancy new car. My whole attitude shifted (why haven’t I been doing this all along?!). Even the kids started showing an interest in what I was doing. Everyone was proud of Mommy.
And yet, there I was last week, driving home from work at 6 p.m., nearly in tears after a stressful day full of intense deadlines and unrealistic expectations, knowing that I would have to pull another all-nighter just to get everything done. I looked over at a homeless guy begging for handouts at the freeway off-ramp and actually fantasized about trading places with him right there and then.
No, my exit strategy on this one doesn’t involve homelessness, but I think it highlights one of the core themes of Warner’s article: We want balance, but the modern world doesn’t offer balance.
Each well-intentioned choice might solve one pressing problem, but it can also create a new one down the road. The mothers in 2003 who opted out had very good reasons for leaving the workforce.
But then what happens when we find ourselves with our panties down, with no job experience, no financial security if our husbands leave us (or we leave them), no sense of self worth or identity outside of our families or the PTA?
What happens when the kids grow up?
I’m very much struggling to find the right answer. What solutions are working for you?
Allison Ellis is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at AllisonEllis.