On Flexibility

Apr 02

4068093834_09723560bb_bAnyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m a big fan of KJ Dell’Antonia’s Motherlode blog at the New York Times. And it was with particular interest that I read last week’s post in which she addressed a reader’s question asking her whether, in hindsight, she would advise a new mom to stay at home with her kids or return to work after her kids were born.

While acknowledging that most women don’t have a choice in such matters – and that, as I’ve long thought, even for women who do, decisions are more often fait accompli than the product of real choice – KJ took the question to her Facebook page to elicit the opinions and experiences of her friends and readers and “was surprised by the general honesty of the necessarily non-anonymous responses — which is to say I was surprised by the number of people who would have done something differently. But here’s the thing: It was almost exactly equal. Facebook friends who had stayed home were just as likely to harbor some regret as those who had returned to work.”

The women who were most satisfied? The ones whose careers allowed for flexibility and the ones who took advantage of that flexibility: “[T]he more common refrain…was one of lauding flexibility and gratitude for the ability to make use of it, and the most common regret was the lack of flexibility in a given career or job or the decision to leave without ‘keeping a hand in’ in some way. If they regretted anything (and many didn’t), both people who stayed home and people who worked full time seemed most likely to regret not having a more flexible option available.”

This question has been coming up more and more among my friends lately. Of the women with whom I was friends before having kids, all but one work full time, mostly in the fields of law and education. Most returned to work after brief maternity leaves, never taking off enough time to feel like they were at risk of being left behind professionally. While none express an interest in not working, all of them struggle with making everything work, especially when the unexpected – a snow day, a sick kid, a changed deadline – arises.

Of the women with whom I’ve become friends since becoming a mom, most stay at home with their kids. Of those, several have recently expressed an interest in going back to work part-time. But this, of course, is tricky. Finding a part-time job during school hours is one hurdle. Re-entering the work force after a long break is another.

And so it is once again that I count my blessings. I stopped teaching when my oldest son was born and I didn’t keep a foot, or even a toe, in the door. And there are ways in which that choice wasn’t exactly a choice: A move precipitated by my husband’s job made my working outside the home in my chosen profession a virtual impossibility because I wasn’t certified to teach in our new state and there weren’t any positions available even if I had been. But we were fortunate that my husband’s income was enough to allow me to stay at home with our son. And I was also very lucky to discover writing, a second career that I love and that gives me ultimate flexibility (if not a particularly large paycheck). We’re even more fortunate that my husband made his own career shifts that give him a job with a lot of flexibility.

Sure, there are trade-offs. Like, say, subsidized healthcare. And a steady income. And prestige. In a society that measures a not insignificant part of a person’s worth by what job they do, neither of us is doing particularly prestigious work. But it’s work we enjoy and work that gives us more flexibility than any other working family I know. And that’s something. It’s a lot, actually.

Even as I count my own blessings, I’m thinking of my friends and all the other parents out there whose work doesn’t give them either enjoyment or flexibility. And I’m wondering what we need to change as a culture to help with that second piece at the very least.

Are you satisfied with your current mix of career and family? Do you feel like you’ve arrived at where you are now through a series of choices or through matters beyond your control?

Image: Working mom by Ran Zwigenberg via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.