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A year after I quit my job to stay home with my first child, I read Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work (2006), which chided well-educated women for doing just that. Why, she wondered, would a congressman “listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler’s?” Although my daughter was napping on me, I still managed to scrawl in the margins, “Because they vote!” I was her target audience, and I felt under attack.
Since then, similar books have followed, notably Leslie Bennetts’s The Feminine Mistake (2007) and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, published this year. While Sandberg pays more lip service to the hard work stay-at-home mothers do, her thesis is largely the same as that of her predecessors. She is quick to point out the risks of taking time off. “Women who take time out of the workforce,” she warns, “pay a big career penalty. Only 74 percent of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and only 40 percent will return to full-time jobs. Those who do rejoin will often see their earnings decrease dramatically.”
Although her argument was familiar, the unease Sandberg’s book brought me was distinctly different from that caused by either Hirshman’s or Bennetts’s. Or perhaps I was just different. Older. The truth was, I hadn’t followed Sandberg’s advice. Career-wise, I leaned out when I should have leaned in. I anticipated children before I had them. When they did arrive, I scaled back my work. And recently I’ve been feeling some regret about that.
I was not the likeliest candidate for this position. Before I had kids, I wrote a master’s thesis on the importance of women’s economic independence. I wrote articles on feminism and getting women to the top. In other words, I knew this stuff. But I also knew that shortly after giving birth, I’d be moving to another city. My husband was finishing up his PhD, and there were no local positions in his field. So I left my job, figuring I could freelance while the baby napped.
I hired a sitter, but for a time my work took a back seat to life. We moved and, two years later, moved again so my husband could take a job overseas. A second daughter arrived. Then, shortly after, I found myself in a situation I never predicted: sitting across from a divorce lawyer who didn’t even bother writing down my annual freelance income. I had published well and often, but my compensation was less robust. It would barely have covered a month of her costs.
I spent the next year or two beating myself up. I had, after all, made a choice of sorts. Though divorce is common, I never anticipated it, or the vulnerability even an amicable one could inspire. So, now more than ever, I get Sandberg’s point, often echoed by some on the left, who remind women that despite feminism’s emphasis on choice, not all choices are equal.
And yet lately I’ve come to believe that there is more to this story, especially given that nearly every mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their “work selves” completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid. The climb back into full-time employment seems monumental. “I’ll be 40 next year, with a PhD—I will not be an intern,” my friend recently vented, with perhaps a few expletives.