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On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back In

lean in opt outI have developed a bad habit of feeling regret and guilt.

In many ways, these feelings are an inevitable side effect of motherhood.  Two experiences that are impossible to imagine without the other. “Guilt” and “motherhood” are like hamburgers and French fries, peanut butter and jelly, autumn and falling leaves.

Like everything else about parenthood, my personal experience of guilt and regret is different than what I expected.

With each passing day I get less stressed out about the little things: the vegetables my son didn’t eat at lunch, the teeth my son didn’t brush at bedtime, the toys that never get put away in the living room, the laundry that piles up in the bedrooms, the floor that needs to be washed in the kitchen.  Yesterday my son’s preschool teacher told me that my son needed to learn to use a regular cup, and apparently he’s the only kid in his class still using a sippy cup.  I’m making half-hearted attempts to get him to use a cup, but I’m hardly stressed about it. A year ago I would have embarked on an intense “cup training” program so that my son wasn’t “behind” all his classmates.

With each day the daily vicissitudes of parenthood feel a little less extreme. I’m gaining confidence that my son is a happy, healthy little person of his own, in many ways separate from me.

As I gain perspective on the little things, I get increasingly stuck on the big questions of motherhood.  Ten years from now, will my choices — to forgo a traditional academic career — still make sense?  Will I regret not having more children?  Should I have tried harder to pursue other career paths?  Am I being brave to try freelance writing or not facing up to my fears of not competing as a traditional academic?  Would my marriage become stronger over time if I worked full-time?  After several years of absence from the work place — finishing my dissertation, having a baby, moving to a new city — will I always be “behind” my peers?

A year ago it was practicalities and worries about my son’s feeding and sleep issues that kept me up at night.  Would he get over his food allergies?  Would he ever sleep through the night?  Why was he refusing to nap?  Should he go to another GI specialist?  Now it’s reflections about my own choices.  And then I feel selfish: shouldn’t I be thinking more about my son and less about myself?  Those big questions again…

A decade ago, when the original “Opt Out Generation” article by Judith Warner came out in the New York Times, I remember the media controversy and I had strong feelings about it.  This would never be me.  I would never sacrifice my earning potential and future career ambitions for the sake of being the primary caretaker of a child.  My future husband and I would share equally in child care and household responsibilities.  I was certain of that.  A decade before that, I had written my undergraduate thesis on first-time motherhood.  I interviewed women and couples before and after the birth of their first child, over the course of a year.  With the exception of a few women, these were professional, suburban women in Connecticut.  Every single one of the women in my study decided either before or after their babies were born to quit their jobs. I was horrified and analyzed my interview data through that lens: explaining why our society’s parenting decisions are so gendered.

Now, if another 22 year old feminist college student from Wesleyan showed up at my door to interview me, a first-time mom, I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from any other mother in my study.

I didn’t mean to opt-out.  I didn’t mean to be leave the work force permanently.  My intention was to “lean in,” but it didn’t quite work out the way I expected.  And I do want to opt back in. But I want it to be on my terms, with no regrets.

Those women from Judith Warner’s article, all those women who “opted-out.”..I’m not so different, it turns out.  What did they discover that they wanted?  Here’s what they said to Warner:

What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.

This is what I want: my own career identity, without being crushed by professional demands. To contribute to my family financially.  To share equally with my husband in the emotional and physical work of raising a child.  To experience professional fulfillment and to know that I am using my talents and education.  To have small daily moments with my son — reading our favorite books together on the couch, walking hand in hand to our neighborhood park, stopping to play with the train table in the library.

I don’t want to be a cautionary tale of regret, of what happens when you “opt-out.”

Do these words — leaning in, opting out — have any meaning for you in your family and work life?  Or do you think they might be media creations intended to make mothers feel guilty?

Thank you to my FTSF hosts:  Stephanie, Kristi, Kate, and Dawn!

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  1. Amanda says:

    The media lives and dies by our emotional and fanatical responses to what they write. It only makes sense that they press our most potent and division building buttons. Leaning-in and opting out to me are just catch phrases they’ve put on things we’ve already been considering. My dalliance with opting out had way more to do with being forced to pump breast milk in a a unisex bathroom between the leisurely dumps the male sales reps would make, than it was about choosing kids over career. My leaning-in? I’m not so sure it fits the Sandberg definition, for me it’s definitely been about proselytizing that women can carve out something closer to the scenario that they want if they ask for it. Now I am rambling, ultimately what I am trying to say is that it’s all up to us, we have vastly more power than we think in that we can abandon guilt, we can double dutch our way in and out of our career, and we will all feel a tiny bit of what if no matter which path we choose.
    Amanda recently posted…Separation AnxietyMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      There is so much truth in the fact that the media creates “buzz” about certain cultural trends relating to women, and then plays that buzz — and the guilt that’s increasingly a part of modern parenthood — for all its worth. But I do think that often these media trends do reflect anxieties and inconsistencies that are genuinely present. But how much are they perpetuated by the media itself? Not sure.
      Jessica recently posted…On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back InMy Profile

  2. Great post! For me, I think that terms like “opt-out” and “lean-in” are media-friendly summaries of the actual complexity of our lives. We tend to look at our experiences in snapshots (and in the age of Instagram and Facebook, that’s even more literally true). There is so much finality implied when these decisions get discussed in public spheres. It’s as if this woman “leaned-in” and is now stuck in a perpetual forward motion while this one “opted-out” and can now never get back in the race.

    The truth, though, is that most of us both “lean-in” and “opt-out” on a daily basis, in ways that aren’t nearly as exciting or dramatic. It’s like being on a Tilt-a-Whirl, not a rocket ship. We move back and forth with the ebb and flow of our lives around us.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences to these decisions, and–as you point out so well–there’s going to be guilt, but I don’t accept the notions of finality that get tied into these narratives.
    Balancing Jane recently posted…Technology Hold-Outs: Tools I Didn’t Know I “Needed”My Profile

  3. Oh, boy. I could write so much about this. I opted out of practicing medicine when my first was born and had medical issues. I intended to get back into it when he was 6-12 months old…and then never did. What I would have loved was some way to combine both, but I don’t think even that is a perfect outcome in reality.
    I know myself well enough at this point to know one thing for sure—No matter what choice I made, I there’s no way around wondering about the other choices. If I had not stayed home, I would wonder about how that impacted my kids. If I had figured out a way to do both at the same time, I would probably feel like I gave neither my full attention. The truth is, I am pretty happy the way it all turned out. I honestly would make the same decision all over again. (Which is more than I can say about some of my decisions in life so that’s not bad) –Lisa

    • Jessica says:

      That’s so interesting, Lisa! I would love to hear more about your story! There is so much wondering: about the other paths, about other lives, about how our kids might be different if we had made other choices. I do think that my choices were work out for me. It’s just difficult to be in a sort of “transitional” moment in your life.
      Jessica recently posted…On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back InMy Profile

  4. I know all about opting out, too. Having been a teacher before having kids and then losing my position with cutbacks during my second pregnancy. I didn’t bother trying to go back, because at this point the positions are indeed scarce and I will not just substitute teach to pay for my kids daycare. I don’t see that as being worth it. But the media does put a lot of focus on us moms who choose to stay at home. Yes, i do feel guilty on a lot of levels and no that I do technically work at home, I feel guilty for so much of the time I spent on the computer indeed working and networking. I think there will always be some form of guilt we feel as moms. Really wonderful post and I thank you for linking this up with us today!
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Finish the Sentence Friday Blog Hop 31My Profile

  5. Lindsey says:

    I remember vividly reading Lisa Belkin’s first piece in 2003, and I read Judith Warner’s follow up this week with great interest. I don’t know that there is a single answer, well, actually, I know there isn’t. I think all we can do is keep our finger on the pulse of our own hearts, which will tell us if we need to “lean in” more or less; what we can’t know is what lies ahead, around the curve, how we will feel in X years. I am certain you are more tuned into your own thoughts on this one than the average person; I’m fascinated by the transition between worrying about your kids’ choices to worrying about your own. I think that must reflect comfort and ease about the former, which I think is great. I have no answers, but I can tell you I’ll be here reading and listening and nodding along … xoxo

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you, Lindsey! That means a lot. I like that idea of “leaning in” more or less. The media sort of presents it as a dichotomy: you’re either “leaning in” or you’re not. But life is much more complicated than that, as all of these women from the article and their experiences demonstrate.
      Jessica recently posted…On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back InMy Profile

  6. Articulate reflections. The media’s tendency is to posit things in black and white – opt out or opt in – but is so rarely like that. There are so many ways to work.
    It is very hard to get nuances in a headline. (I think the Judith Warner headline was a little misleading though it was catchy – these women wanted back in a very specific way like you point out, but how to capture that in a headline?)
    Personally, I did not opt out (I am the sole breadwinner actually) but my career track is not what it would have been if I did not have three children. I felt guilt for a long time from all sides, but it has eased over time.
    Rebecca Hughes Parker recently posted…Naming Twin A and Twin B, Too SoonMy Profile

  7. Katia says:

    Oh Jessica. This is so perfect. I love reading a post that feels as if I wrote if myself if I had the brains and eloquence. It’s so interesting to observe how we do a 180 on our pre-kids expectations of ourselves and so strange to realize how non-original we are in doing this.

    I loved this sentence: “Like everything else about parenthood, my personal experience of guilt and regret is different than what I expected”. It’s so accurate. I observe myself as a mom and I am so frequently surprised watching myself function and react in ways that I could never have predicted.
    Katia recently posted…Applying Parenting Book Principles to Your SpouseMy Profile

  8. I think a lot of moms feel this guilt. If they work, then they are not spending enough quality time with their kids. If they don’t work, they are “opting out” and not contributing financially. I have struggled with this myself. I always intended to be a stay at home mom, but somewhere in there I lost the sense of my own identity. I think I am finally getting it back through blogging and re-focusing on some things I enjoy, but it has been a very long journey and I’m not quite to the finish line yet!
    Lisa @ The Golden Spoons recently posted…Tuesday Ten – Birthday EditionMy Profile

  9. First, I think it’s funny we are the same age, and Wesleyan was one of my final choices for college… how funny if we’d been in college together… Anyway, I feel like the media like to play up these stories about opting out, leaning etc., because they know all mommies are going to get riled up about their choices. For me, the choice to continue working full time was part financial, but mainly because I LOVE my job and teaching and the intellectual stimulation it provides. I don’t have dreams of ‘advancement’ – I would never want to be an administrator, so it wasn’t about feeling like I had to work or lose my place in the field. Teaching is one of those careers you can go in and out of (though with financial consequences). I took long maternity leaves (well, long by US standards) of about 10 months and 7 months with each of my children, and that was enough to let me know that I am NOT SAHM material. I am a much better mom when I am a working mom. I am fulfilled, and I feel we have a bit of the best of both worlds. Since my husband and I are both teachers, we have long winter and spring breaks, and wonderful summers when all 4 of us are home together. I also feel it is important for me to be using my education.

    Great thoughtful post… so much here…
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Bad Habits and Blurred LinesMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you, Sarah! If I had stayed in teaching, I do think that education can avoid a lot of these lean in/opt out questions. And you sort of get the best of both worlds, because you get summers off and to experience life as a SAHM and plenty of vacation time. And you’re right there’s less penalty for going in and out of the work force in education. I too knew that I didn’t want a career in administration. It’s funny though that during my teaching career, I’ve had mainly female principals and superintendents, nearly all of whom had been either single or childless. And I had conversations with several of them about the choices that they made in their educational careers.
      Jessica recently posted…On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back InMy Profile

  10. KeAnne says:

    I think the media seizes upon the concepts of “opting out” or “leaning in” because it is an easy way for them to compartmentalize what for most women is extremely complicated. They become sound bites. For most women, it’s not either/or. I work full time outside the home, and I like my job. However, as I rush, rush, rush and feel guilty when my son says he wants to stay home instead of go to daycare, I wish I could opt out. At least for a little while. I wish it were easier to both lean in and opt out without major repercussions.
    KeAnne recently posted…What I Learned at the Gun ShowMy Profile

  11. Nina says:

    Jessica, I want what you want exactly. I’m hoping to keep moving towards it. I have it in many ways though would love to bring in a bit more (like any) $$ at some point. I feel fulfilled with the writing and blogging, but I can only do such a thing because my husband is able to support us. I know that and appreciate it. By the way, I read all those pieces too . . . it seems like every woman interviewed had a big big career in 20s and most of 30s then stated home with kids and were new moms in their late 30s. There was not a lot of discussion of a mom like me who had kids a little earlier. Would be interesting to study that population too . . . people like me who are getting serious about our careers for the FIRST time in our mid-30s, not becoming new moms in mid 30s.
    Nina recently posted…The Interestings, Midwesterners, and Hebrew SchoolMy Profile

  12. Dana says:

    Oh boy. I have struggled with opting out for over ten years, and while the battle in my head has quieted, it’s still there. I went to school, got my Master’s, got married, had kids, and stopped working. I love being a stay at home mom, but I feel guilty about the mixed message I am giving my children, particularly my daughter. I can give myself enough guilt; the media just makes it worse. Really great post, Jessica!
    Dana recently posted…Don’t interrupt when I’m talking to myselfMy Profile

  13. Raia says:

    Well said, a great post! I also read the 2003 piece by Judith Warner and thought, as a recent grad just starting out with a career in engineering, that I would never opt-out because my career is important to me and I wanted to be a role model for other women and girls interested in math and science. Now, 10 years later as the mother of a 2.5 year old still working full-time as an engineer, I find myself wanting something different. Ideally it would be the “intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work” Warner mentions in her recent article. But where does such a thing exist and how do I find it? I have reservations about dropping out altogether, but I do consider it from time to time. I am blessed that my family could afford to live without my income, so it’s an option. But one I’ve been too scared to take. I am planning to have another child and will likely reevaluate then. In general, it seems we, as Americans, put too much emphasis on working and hard work with long hours. I’d like to see all of us get a little more balance between life and work.

  14. Dani Ryan says:

    If you asked me 10 years ago if I would be a SAHM, I would’ve laughed in your face. I wanted to BE SOMEONE, and I was doing really well with my career when I got pregnant. But once we had that first ultrasound, all of that stuff seemed irrelevant, and I knew in that moment that I wouldn’t be returning to work after my mat leave was over. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss having an identity outside of being a mom and a wife, and that I don’t secretly want to put on a power suit and go to the office now and then to use my brain, but I don’t want to wake up 20 years from now regretting that I wasn’t around. So now I use my free time to try and figure out how to make a go of this blogging thing and turn it into some sort of business, and that is actually keeping my brain as occupied as I can handle with a 2 y/o running around. But check in with me when she goes to school, will ya? 😉 Great post!

  15. Kate says:

    I don’t think any woman knows what she will be do until actually in the situation. Then you do what’s best for you at the time! Luckily, you can always change your mind even if you have to alter things a bit… at least that what I am hoping because all I know is I have NO IDEA what to expect 🙂
    Kate recently posted…Dumb things I did this weekMy Profile

  16. Jessica, really good article. I, too, was 100% convinced that I’d never leave the job that I loved to be a mom. I knew that I would be able to do both. In reality, I could do both, but I no longer want to. I didn’t quit my job until I was on maternity leave and realized how much time I was spending remaining engaged at work. My mind wasn’t in it, and everything I’d loved about it before (the high-pressure, high-intensity, long hours, sense of power, sense of leadership) were all things that I resented while replying to emails while my infant son slept next to me.
    I don’t regret my decision at all. My son just turned four and I only now went back to work part-time. It’s been a difficult adjustment because it turns out that 20-25 hours a week is a greater chunk of time than it sounds like to somebody who used to work 60-70 but I’m glad I did.
    Thanks so much for this – I feel less alone!
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…I have some bad habits.My Profile

  17. Wendy says:

    I, too, have felt the pulls to family and to career. I just couldn’t stand feeling guilt or regret any longer, so I have decided to embrace life as it is. Honestly, once I did I finally felt a simplicity I have longed for my entire life, even though I have 2 small kids and trying to finish a doctorate. I feel lucky I can live my life in this way because so many women cannot. Our culture is not family/women working friendly and we either have to accept it or fight like hell to change it. Jessica, cut yourself some slack because you are making such a contribution to the world via your blog all the while spending quality time with your son. I was just talking about you the other day with a friend in a similar situation as all of us. I told her how impressed I was that you have reinvented yourself within just a few months. Look at all you have accomplished just from the luxury of your own home. You have nothing to regret because I guarantee you will soon be dong interviews and writing a book where you are the expert (and getting paid!).

  18. Jessica says:

    This subject is near and dear to my heart…I’m also opting out, but temporarily. Because my husband is also a teacher, I really have no choice but to go back to teaching full-time eventually. When my girls are both in school full-time, that’s a good time for me to return full-time, too. Like you, I’ve been lucky and managed to find stimulating part-time work, but I so identify with you when you say that what you want, truly, is to have an identity and a career, but not to be completely overwhelmed with professional responsibilities. If I could find that all the time, I would totally go for it. Our whole family’s quality of life improved when I started working part-time, rather than full-time, and I’m so nervous about how things will be when I go back to full-time employment.

    I enjoyed reading your post! I think so many of us are right there, too. I wish more part-time options (and part-time benefits) were out there!!
    Jessica recently posted…Once Upon a MigraineMy Profile

  19. Mary Kathryn says:

    What a lot of comments on this! 🙂 It’s a lively topic. What strikes me most is that the feelings of regret/worry/fear about these decisions comes from US — I put the fear of regret on MYSELF. We tend to blame culture/society/media/feminism/etc. for this niggling fear of letting go of anything we might later regret losing. But in the end, I must admit that it’s ME who demands to have my cake and eat it too. I want two lives, and I want them both in full. And that doesn’t happen. Neither life allows for it. I get, as a human, only One Full Life. Once I accepted that, and chose the better one, I was happier.
    Mary Kathryn recently posted…That Family TogethernessMy Profile

  20. I am so thankful for the SITSsharefest do that I found this piece! Beautiful and honest!
    This resonates with me because I am returning full time to a career that I love, but with nerves and hesitation by being crushed by the high expectations.
    Thank you!! You are not alone and I can see that I’m not either 🙂
    Mytwicebakedpotato recently posted…Apples and BananasMy Profile

  21. Honestly, I say that I would like more time to spend with my kids, but then I do and it drives me bonkers. I want to work outside the home. I want to interact with other professionals. I think it is a “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” phenomenon with me.
    Stopping by from ShareFest; thanks for sharing!
    Rabia @TheLiebers recently posted…Five Minute Friday: LonelyMy Profile

  22. I always thought I would opt out. I took a year off to be with my kids after each was born (Canada’s mat leave:)), then planned on pulling out. Divorce changed everything for me and I found myself working full time. My biggest challenge was not even the guilt – which I certainly had. It was the judgment from other women. Somehow if you stay home, you love your kids more. I had to feel guilty for working even though I HAD to. Many women are in that situation. And if they are not? If they choose to work – they are made to feel even worse! I know lots of SAHM who spend their time having coffee with friends, decorating, going to yoga and NOT being with their kids. And many working Moms who drop everything to go to the school play, spend evenings making cookies for the class etc. The point is we are all individuals. What is important is we do what is right for our family , and for ourselves, and support each other in those choices. I am self employed – in private practice so I now work full time hours / but around my kid’s schedule. This is what works for me and my family. I love my family and they are my first priority alwayd but I find work fulfilling and the financial reward work for my family. Great post!
    Leah Davidson recently posted…Terms of EndearmentMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      That’s wonderful that you found this kind of schedule and this kind of fulfillment. And, you’re right! I love your point that the categories of SAHM and working mom do not at all define that mother’s or her family’s experience. So true! And I also appreciate your sharing about your divorce. It seems like for the women from the original opt-out group, it was divorce that had the strongest influence on their own experience of balancing work and family.
      Jessica recently posted…On Regret, Opting Out, and Opting Back InMy Profile

  23. Julie Burton says:

    Thanks for this great piece, Jessica. I have had a similar ongoing internal battle since I became a mother 18 years ago. I have realized that I feel better and more balanced when I am working part time, even if it is doing freelance writing or teaching a few yoga classes a week. I wish I could earn more money doing these things that I love and that provide me with the flexibility I have needed to care for my 4 children, but I have to admit that no matter what the amount is on the paycheck, I do get satisfaction just seeing my name on the payee line. I think the terms leaning in and opting out do sound “judgy.” Every mom needs to figure out what works best for her and her family without the fear of being judged. Unfortunately, I think many moms, myself included, feel both internal and external pressure to do the “right” thing…and who’s to say what that really is?
    Julie Burton recently posted…See New Post on SheTaxiMy Profile

  24. Shell says:

    I think those terms are all interesting, but I also think they oversimplify things. Because the decisions we each make aren’t simple- we make them for different reasons and for a hundred reasons. And I think almost every mom, no matter which path she takes, has some moments of wondering “what if” (better than saying regret, right?)
    Shell recently posted…Pour Your Heart Out: My Son’s Simple View of 42My Profile

  25. KraftedKhaos says:

    I know this isn’t really what you intended your readers to focus on, but you said something in your article that caught my eye… you mentioned if your marriage would be stronger if you were back working, and I wanted to say this:

    Your marriage’s strength depends on the amount of time and effort you each put into it. If you refuse to allow the relationship to weaken, if you put effort into it every day, then it will stay as strong, or stronger, than it ever was. As important as your child(ren) is/are to you, your marriage should always come first, because eventually children grow up and move away, and you will be left staring into the face of a stranger without the buffer of your child holding you in the same location.

    (Note: I don’t have children myself, but I do know a little bit about failed marriage. The part about putting your marriage first actually comes from my mother, one of the wisest people I know, who just yesterday celebrated 38 years of marriage.)

    I’m not trying to ‘preach’ or tell you how to live your life or raise your kids, but make sure you’re not forgetting the relationship that GAVE you that little person you love so much. 🙂
    KraftedKhaos recently posted…Hoping They Hear MeMy Profile

  26. Carinn says:

    Wow. The paragraph that starts “this is what I want” hit me like a boulder. That is exactly what I want as well. Yet it is as common to find as a four-leaf clover. Why is that? As someone who has opted-in and opt-ed out (and leaned waaaay in pre-baby), I never feel completely content. Why don’t motherhood and career overlap a little more? Why does it have to feel so all or nothing?
    Carinn recently posted…That Kind Of MotherMy Profile

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