Opting out, leaning in and searching for something in between

This, again, already?

That was my first reaction when I saw the New York Times article “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” It seems like only yesterday that I was intrigued by the original article about “The Opt-Out Revolution,”

But no. It was ten years ago. I was living in Chicago. (More sordid details can be found here). The Cubs had an exciting run into the playoffs that fall. I was just months away from getting engaged, from accepting a new job and moving to another state. And I was years away from having children, and, while employed, was not necessarily “career-oriented” and definitely on the low end of the salary spectrum. So I’m not sure why an article about high-power, upper-crust women leaving the workforce to stay home with their kids resonated so strongly with me. But it did.

I actually remember thinking that it was a bit of a relief, that “opting out” was the new thing. Despite the coherent criticism against it. Truthfully, I think I was just looking for an excuse to get out of working. I was 25, in a job that I was not particularly enamored with, and, due to my limited exposure to children, assumed that staying home with kids was more or less like taking a day off work in my child-free life. (Insert foreboding cackle here.)

Fast forward to 2009. I’m married. Living in North Carolina. With a career I enjoy. And a new baby.

I had the option to stay home after our first son was born. While we’re far from the high-rollers in the Times article, we could have done it. But I decided I wanted to see what it was like to be a mom working outside the home. (Kind of like how I wanted to see what labor was like before I decided on the epidural. Basically, I’m a masochist.) And so I did.

Working full-time in a demanding field (in my case, advertising) with a small child (and later, two) was for me, in many ways, a total cliche.

I cried the first day I dropped Noah off at daycare. I took conference calls while changing exploding diapers. I pumped in storage closets on business trips. I guiltily left meetings early to race to daycare pick-up, relying on my generous colleagues to cover for me, and I guiltily left the house before the kids were awake in the morning to make meetings, leaving my patient husband to do breakfast and drop-off duty.

In short, it was a constant struggle.

But I kept working. I liked my job, and the satisfaction I got from doing it well. I liked earning a paycheck, and my benefits. I liked the smart people I worked with, the interesting ideas I was exposed to every day. The challenge of solving problems and the high of a great presentation.

And for all the monotony and loneliness of business trips, occasionally I really enjoyed a nice dinner out, a hotel bed to myself and working out on my own schedule. An extra glass of wine. We had great childcare; I liked having other caring adults in my children’s lives.

That is, of course, until I got laid off last month. As I mentioned in my last post, I had turned down a opportunity for advancement, which put me in a vulnerable position when layoffs came around. But like one of the women in the “opt-out” article mentioned, while the promotion would have meant more money, it also would have meant more pressure, more travel, longer hours. I wanted to work, but at the expense of the rest of my life.

I guess that’s what really made me sad about the update on the women who opted out. I didn’t pay much attention to it ten years ago, but most of the women enjoyed their work, but weren’t able to successfully negotiate a flexible schedule to accommodate their lives. It became an all-or-nothing choice, a choice for which some of them are now experiencing difficult outcomes.

(Now, you know that I am not saying that staying home with your children is fraught with peril. It is the right choice for many families, including many of my friends, and possibly me.)

What makes me sad is the all-or-nothing part, real or perceived. And I’m not sure how much that has changed, even now, ten years after those women made the choice to leave their careers.

Not long before my last day, I had a conversation with a new senior manager. I was candid with him about my situation and desires. “I wish we could find a way to keep talented people who are in the same boat as you,” he said. To his credit, he asked me to think about what that type of position would look like. I’m thinking about it. But I’ve yet to come up with a job description that fits the bill.

So here I am. And at the moment, my “occupation” is yet to be determined. Am I “unemployed” or a stay at home mom? I’ve been home for almost a month, and I’m not interested in another full-time position, at least not right now. I’ve had some discussions about part-time freelance work in my field, which is definitely appealing. But a job like that has to pay enough to cover childcare, which isn’t always feasible.

In this desire – a job that’s meaningful but not all-consuming, flexible but decently-paying – I seem to have something in common with the women in the article trying to find their way back into the workforce on their own terms. But as the article points out, isn’t this the desire of many people? Not just mothers, but fathers, and people without children, too?

I have friends who have stayed home from the minute their children were born. Friends who are passionate about their careers. Those who wish they didn’t have to work but don’t have that choice. And many other variations on those themes.

Despite their different situations, there is one thing most of these friends agree on: there is no “perfect” way. Each of us has to do the best we can with the choices we have. Opting out and leaning in have their place. As for me, even though I know it won’t be perfect, I’m holding out hope that it’s possible to find balance somewhere in between.