I recently left my job at the helm of a nonprofit organization. The main reason was my need to be more present for my family. Yet it has been very hard to share that rationale far and wide. How come?
Well, first, it’s a punch line. Generally the story goes like this: A man in leadership announces he is resigning in order to spend more time with his family. What he really means is: a) the feds are closing in, b) he had an affair (this one is ironic, since his spouse probably isn’t begging him to spend more time at home), or c) he did something disastrous and the Powers That Be are giving him the option of saving face rather than being fired.
No one ever believes he actually wants to or will spend more time with his family. It is assumed that this reasoning is a lie. After all, isn’t this someone who likely rose up in the ranks by working obsessively, putting his family behind his career? Isn’t this someone whose kids accept that he does not know friends’ names or daily schedules? Whose dog doesn’t recognize his scent? Whose spouse is entirely accustomed to managing everything at home without his help? Whence the sudden familial yearning in his heart? It doesn’t make sense.
To be a woman who is leaving to spend “more time with my family” is even more complicated. Condemnation comes from all sides. From one side comes a shout of frustration as yet another woman steps off of the Brilliant Career Track and onto the (apparently disappointing, lesser) Mommy Track. From another side comes a scornful “told ya so!” as yet another woman tries—and fails—to have it all. And from yet another side comes a huge sigh of disappointment, from those who invested in her, who coached her, and believed in her, hoping she would stick with it. And so she sails into a Bermuda Triangle of other people’s issues.
I know I’ve been as guilty as the next person in allowing stereotypes to prevail about women who step back from big jobs in order to be home more. The cartoon that played in my head was always of a minivan, headed to soccer practice, Stepford wife at the wheel. (I currently own a minivan, and it’s not so bad; the real nightmare is that it’s not daily soccer practice, it’s daily violin practice.) And the qualifier I can attach to my decision—that I certainly plan to continue working, albeit in a flexible, consultant role—is important to me.
But I’m now walking a mile in the not-always-sensible shoes of the many women who have decided that they are going to have it all—but on their terms—and I finally really get it. The cartoon is just a cartoon. The reality is complicated.
My mom died seven years ago, but given her complicated reality, I wonder what she would say about my decision. She was a brilliant scientist who also had four kids over the space of 13 years, and in order to make sure she was around for us, she stepped back from fighting to win the professional trophies she absolutely deserved (but as a woman in a man’s field during the second half of the 20th century, were even further out of reach for her). She never stopped working completely. My big sister, the oldest, went with her as she traveled to the Arizona desert from New Jersey to complete her PhD research on bees, and my two younger brothers accompanied her on a work trip to China. But she worked shorter hours than the men around her who were moving faster up the career ladder, and she dedicated evenings (until we were in bed) and the bulk of every weekend to us. When we were old enough to mainly fend for ourselves, she put her foot to the gas pedal and her career started to accelerate. Then she got leukemia and died. But in the 14 months between her diagnosis and her death, she published 12 scholarly papers and contributed five chapters to scientific books, an illustration of her academic flame and sense of urgency.
After she died, I thought a lot about her experience, and I think about it even more in this moment. I know that even if it wasn’t ideal, even though she may have resented the sexist structures that prevented her from reaching the pinnacle of professional heights while she was also raising her children, she had no regrets. Given the same context and constraints (a critical caveat), she would have done it all over again the same way, I believe. And I want that to be my story, too. The first step toward a future with no regrets? Making it okay to say this is my choice, and I’m happy about it.
I have the privilege (that’s a whole different essay), along with the background, connections, and education to rebuild my career in a way that both fulfills me as a professional and leaves me space to be fully present for the people I love most in this world. I will be able to witness and participate in more of my three daughters’ beautiful childhood experiences. I will also be there to support them through the pains of childhood—pains I know all too well from my years as an educator. And I will have the opportunity to be there for my dad, who recently left his home of 36 years and the state he’s lived in most of his life to move closer to me. I do believe I’ll look back one day and have no regrets. I just wish that when I and others like me tell our stories, and we get to the part that involves stepping back to spend more time with our families, the predominant response was a heartfelt congratulations, a high-five, and a toast to a hard decision, well made.