Working or Staying Home: Is It Really a Choice?


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During a pre-natal LaLeche class, I raised a concern about trying to breast-feed while working. The instructor warned me that my job would put me at risk for breast-feeding failure.

Then she concluded: “But that's your choice. "

Fast forward to more than a decade later. A debate rages about the “choice" of many professional women with children to stay home (For example, see “The Opt-Out Revolution" by Lisa Belkin and “Opt Out: The Press Discovers the Mommy Wars, Again" by Cathy Young. ). Media attention to these women raised fears that their actions would feed old stereotypes that said women didn't really want to work.

Oh, if only it were that simple!

Few of us have the luxury of free “choice" as we strive to balance career and family. Many of us find our “choices" severely limited.

My LaLeche instructor didn't ask if I had a spouse (swollen fingers prevented me from wearing my wedding ring). How much of a “choice" is it to work when you're a single parent? Or when your partner's job lacks health insurance or enough income to support the family in decent living conditions?

Many, many moms - and dads - work out of necessity rather than choice.

At the same time, many professional women are abandoning the workplace because of the poor choices available there.

A recent survey of 43 white professional women who had left the fast track highlighted the scarcity of attractive workplace choices (Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy in “Mommies and Daddies on the Fast Track: Success of Parents in Demanding Professions, " Sage Publications 2004).

About 90 percent of the women in the survey had struggled with the decision to quit. A former manager at a public utilities company said:

"What. . . was so hard was it was like a loss of identity. Ironically, that Sunday, after I made the decision, the sermon at church was ‘Loss of Identity because of Loss of Job or Loss of Spouse. ’ That kind of clicked with me. "

Moms who'd left demanding professions - in most cases, male- dominated professions - cited such concerns as:

*60+ hour weeks with 24/7 responsibility.

*Inflexible schedules.

*Part-time arrangements that ended up being full time.

*"Mommy tracks" that lacked interesting work or chances for promotion.

*Downsizing and restructuring resulting in speed-up and a more “corporate" culture less supportive of parenting.

Meanwhile, fast-track husbands and a lack of high-quality child care added pressure from home.

Five women in the survey quit their jobs for “traditional" reasons. These women had no ambivalence about quitting their jobs and placed a high value on being with their children full time.

But many of us are working - or not working - because of factors that have little to do with our values or “choice. " A failure to recognize the limits on “choice" all too easily leads to false blame or guilt.

Does it make any sense, then, EVER to use the word “choice" when talking about work/family balance?

Yes - with care.

The key is to be clear about what's under our control and what isn't.

The next step is to find resources that help expand our choices. We can enlist the help of other moms in the same “boat" or hire a coach or career counselor. We can also connect with organizations (e. g. , ThirdPath Institute, that assist parents and others in creating flexible work arrangements.

It will take all of us working together to create real choices for healthy, balanced living.

(c) Norma Schmidt, LLC

Norma Schmidt is a parent of two and a former Lutheran minister. Her career includes serving as a pastor, campus minister and cancer center chaplain. She has also worked with children with disabilities. Norma offers workshops on parenting and on living with serious illness. Her writing has appeared in “Coping with Cancer" magazine. Download her free report, “61 Great Ways to Teach Kids about Money” and look through her other articles by going to ">


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