Written by Lisa Endlich Heffernan
The most expensive decision of my life I made alone. There was no realtor, no car dealer and no travel agent when I chose to leave the paid workforce. There was just me looking at my husband, my children and the chaos that was our lives. At no point did I calculate the lifetime impact of diminished earnings and prospects. I looked at the year we were in and the following year, and I bolted.
No part of my brain sat itself down and thought, What is the price, both in this year's dollars and my lifetime earnings, to leaving the workforce, and is it a decision that I might regret a decade or two from now? At no point did I examine the non-monetary cost that would loom just as large. At the time, it seemed forgone: We had two demanding careers, two small children and another on the way, and two adult lives hopelessly out of control.
One day I was working on the trading floor of a London bank and the next, I was on the floor of my children's playroom. Not once did I think, at age 33, of what the job market would look like for me a few years down the road. Therein lies my most expensive mistake.
I stayed home with my kids because I wanted to be with them. I had a job that allowed me very little time with them on weekdays and I felt our time was short. I did not stay home because I believed they needed me or that the nanny I had hired could not do a great job.
Now, on the downslope of parenting, I have misgivings about my decision to stay home. While I don't know any parent who regrets time spent with their kids, especially kids who have moved on to their own lives -- and I include myself among them -- in hindsight, my decision seems flawed. Although I am fully aware that being a SAHM was certainly a luxury, staring at an empty nest and very diminished prospects of employment, I have real remorse.
I let down those who went before me. In some cosmic way I feel that I let down a generation of women who made it possible to dream big, even though I know the real goal of the Women's Movement was to be able to dream anything. One summer in the 1970s, I read The Feminine Mystique while curled up on a couch in my grandparents' home. The book spoke to me and my mother and my grandmother spoke to me, warning me not to tread the path they had taken, leaving the workforce after their children were born. But the book and my mother spoke to a young ambitious preteen, not a young mother. Betty Friedan or not, I stayed home for almost two decades raising three sons.
I used my driver's license far more than my degrees. I got my driver's license after a short course and a couple of lessons in 11th grade. My post-secondary education took six years of hard work and yet, for years, I used my drivers license far more than my formal education. On one level, I felt like I was shortchanging myself and those who educated, trained and believed in me by doing this.
My kids think I did nothing. They saw me cooking, cleaning, driving, volunteering and even writing, but they know what a "job" looks like and they don't think I had one.
My world narrowed. During the years at home with my children, I made the most wonderful friends, women I hope to know all of my life. But living in the suburbs among women of shockingly similar backgrounds, interests and aspirations narrowed the scope of people with whom I interacted. In the workplace, my contacts and friends included both genders and people of every description, and I was better for it.
I got sucked into a mountain of volunteer work. Some of this work was deeply meaningful and some of it trivial in the extreme. Whether it is sitting on a hospital board or raising funds for a nursery school, volunteer activities involve a flurry of activity, but at the end of the day, those who are running the organization carry on and my job was over.
I worried more. Being around my children so much of the time gave me the chance to focus on them at a granular level. And I feel fairly certain that neither they nor I benefitted from the glaring light I shone upon us. Helicoptering takes time, and I had the time. If I had worked outside our home I would have still worried about them, but might have confined my concerns to more substantive matters.
I slipped into a more traditional marriage. Before our children were born and when they were young, my husband and I did the same job. We left in the morning together and came home together to stare at each other and at our small children through a blinding haze of exhaustion. In every way, my husband sees me as his equal, but in the years that I have been home, our partnership has developed a faint 1950's whiff. He doesn't ask me to run to the dry cleaners or fish store, but let's be fair, they are both closed by the time he gets home.
I became outdated. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, I worked in banking on Wall Street in a technologically cutting-edge department. Just as I mastered every new computer, it would be whisked away and replaced by newer, faster models. I was au fait with software the public wouldn't see for years and anything I didn't understand was explained to me by MIT-trained analysts. I have kept up with technology, but not in the aggressive way I once did in my job. In my world, I often use my young adult kids as tech support and endure their snide remarks and eye-rolling, knowing deep inside that at one time, it was very different.
I lowered my sights and lost confidence. But far and away my biggest regret about my years at home was that I lowered my sights for myself as I dimmed in my own mind what I thought I was capable of. I let go of the burning ambition I once held because I didn't feel as though I could hold it and three babies at the same time. My husband did not do this, my children did not do this, I did this. In the years that I was home, I lulled myself into thinking that I was accomplishing enough because I was. I was raising my children and as any parent who had spent a day with a child knows, that can fill all of the hours in a day. What I hadn't realized was how my constant focus on my family would result in my aspirations for myself slipping away. And despite it being obvious, I did not focus on the inevitable obsolescence that my job as mom held.
If I could wind back the tape, have a do-over, what would I have done differently? Looking on at my grown and nearly-grown sons, I am grateful for the gift of time we had. Yet, I wish I had tried to keep a finger, a toe or a hand in the working world to ease an eventual return. I did not have a job well suited to part-time work, and work at home was technologically impossible at the time. But, the solution required imagination, not capitulation, and with hindsight, I would have recognized that over time, my parenting and career would both ebb and flow, but neither would -- nor should -- ever end.