In her recent piece, The Captivity of Motherhood, author Wednesday Martin refers to the choice to work or opt out of the workforce to care for children after having a baby as a “false choice.” Why? Because, according to Martin, a choice implies options. Yet when we meet someone with kids and inquire as to what degree he/she works, we make the assumption his/her choice is exactly what he/she prefers. In reality, for many of us, satisfaction with either option is not so black and white. It didn’t take me long to realize that is precisely why this “choice” was so agonizing for me and continues to be for so many other women and men. It is because it is a false choice.
My “choice” to stay at home with my first child came after a failed attempt to negotiate a part time schedule with my employer. With my company sympathetic but unwilling to establish a precedent of flexibility by granting my request, I was left with two options – keep my full time job with a 2 hour commute and probably spend about 1-2 waking hours with my daughter per day or quit and raise her full time while I search for something more flexible. I chose the latter. Yes, it was my “choice” to stay home, but it was not what I wanted…at least not full time. And when neither option is desirable, it’s a false choice.
Now nearly six years into my work-life integration journey, I can reflect back upon my situation postpartum with a new-found wisdom and see what options would have made my decision to quit and stay home truly a choice. While at the time all I saw were two imperfect options, I now see so many shades of flexibility that could have led me down a different path. Any one of these options would have made my decision feel more like a genuine choice. Here are five examples:
- Had my employer offered onsite childcare so I could have monitored my child’s care, visited her during the day, nursed her if I chose to, and spent more waking hours with her.
- Had there been the option to job share my full time role with another equally qualified employee seeking a flexible, reduced schedule.
- Had my employer been willing to let me reduce my hours so that my time and energy could be more equally shared between my career and family.
- Had I been able to transition my role into a contract position where I could personally manage my desired hours and work load.
- Had my employer been willing to allow me to work remotely or a varied shift so that I could maximize waking hours with my daughter but still get my job done.
For many families, two or more incomes are required to make ends meet and stepping out of the paid workforce for any period of time is out of the question. For these families, there are no options. But flexibility opens up possibilities – ways to keep your career and salary while having a greater presence in your child’s daily life. Flexibility = choice.
When flexibility is not offered, it forces us to seek contentment with either staying home and caring for children full time or working outside of the home full time. That isn’t the ideal for all of us, and thus it is a false choice. What if I want to continue to work outside of the home but also spend more time at home with my children? Or what if I want to raise my kids full time but still find a way to keep my professional skills sharp? Only when we have many shades of flexibility available to us will the decision to work within or outside of the home – and to what degree – truly be a choice.