Lean In, Opt Out, What the F*ck?
[UPDATE, December 2017 – I wrote this before Sheryl Sandberg’s husband tragically passed away. (I also wrote this just before heading into the eldercare vortex, which added another layer to the mix.) And having since read her (and Adam Grant’s) powerful book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,” I know that she and I are much closer in our experiences now. Life has a way of stepping in and making us detour off what we thought was our path. But real life, and real growth, is in those detours. For me, it led to my new journey at New Pathways Coaching, LLC, helping others create a new path building on what we gain during these transitions. And my ultimate point holds true even more: when you are a caregiver for a kid with issues, an elderly parent, an ill child or relative … you have to fight SO MUCH HARDER to maintain your personal and professional self. It won’t be easy, and your success with it may seem intermittent at the time. But what you learn from that fight, and from those detours, will enrich you forever.)
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but have been putting it off. It hits so close to home … and I am also of two completely different minds on the issue, and still trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers … but I am living with the questions. … and the repercussions – both good and bad – of the answers I’ve chosen to date.
Many of my friends have read and are talking about Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, about how we, as women, should jump in full force with our careers and our dreams, and just assume that everything else will work out, or that we will find a way to make it work out.
Got children? Elderly parents? Anyone or anything else you need to take care of? Don’t let any of it stop you. Go for the gold, reach for the brass ring, grab the bull by the horns, follow your bliss, make your mark, go bold or go home! Go for it!
And my first reaction is:
“Lady, you don’t have a kid with issues. You have NO F*CKING idea.”
Then, out comes a New York Times magazine article about successful career women who opted out of the workforce to raise their kids. Instead of Leaning In, they Opted Out.
And my first reaction is:
“DON’T DO IT! Keep a hand – or foot – or whatever body part – in the workforce, no matter what!!!”
If I sound conflicted on this issue, it’s because I am …
My second reaction to “Lean In,” after my “Lady, you don’t have a kid with issues” reaction, was this:
“Am I making excuses for the things I haven’t done?”
And my third reaction ….
“I may have helped my kids, but did I screw myself by making that choice?”
Lean In, Opt Out, what the f*ck? What’s the right choice for us as individuals, as women, as moms, and especially as moms of kids with issues? Because as any “issues mom” knows … having an “issues kid” is the work of many kids in one. There are extra school visits, a gazillion afterschool appointments, nightly hours-long homework battles, etc., etc., etc.
There’s your full-time job right there, folks.
Of course, there is no one “right” choice …. but are we really aware of all of the repercussions of the choices we make, when we make them? I’m not sure I would have made any choices differently (especially since it did not feel like a choice at the time, once the issues appeared and started to take over) … but I might have enacted those choices a bit differently if I had known what pitfalls lay ahead.
I took time off when I had my kids, and fully expected to go back to work part-time originally, and then full-time. In other words, I Opted Out … with the plan to Lean back In when the kids were a bit older.
During that time, my middle child’s issues became apparent – and he became my full-time job … one that I fully Leaned Into, and one that I don’t think I possibly could have done if I had been working a standard full-time job.
Now, I fully recognize that I was fortunate to have the back-up of a husband who did have a full-time job, and health insurance. What would I have done otherwise?? I don’t know. Made it work, I guess, like Sheryl Sandberg says. But at what cost? And how long could I really have kept a job if I kept having to respond to school phone calls, pick up my child, take him to appointments that could only be scheduled during regular working hours, etc.? (Especially since my husband travelled up to 15 days a month at the time.)
Bottom line, I am glad I was there for my kids, and especially for my son, and don’t think I would have wanted it any other way.
So, yes, you would think that I fully support Opting Out – when you can afford it – if you have a kid with issues.
But the truth is, I am also living with some of the negative repercussions of Opting Out, too
Because here’s the flip side:
You lose a lot when you step out of the workforce. Yes, the trade-off may be worth it … but there is no denying that there is a price to pay. Any mom knows this … but there is more to it for an Issues Mom.
Our kids’ issues can start to take over our lives.
They can be so all-encompassing that you can lose your connection to non-issues life …. which often means, you can lose your identity and your individuality. Sometimes (Sometimes? How about every day?) it can feel like you’re losing your brain or your mind.
And sometimes … it’s just not that good to be so focused on one child in particular. It’s not good for the kid, it’s not good for the siblings, and it’s not good for you.
Because of all of these things (here’s another hard part to write) – I was not the cheeriest, most involved mom to all my kids. I was so overwhelmed so much of the time, that often I was just trying to get by, day by day.
Maybe if I hadn’t lost so much of myself, I would have been a happier individual, and therefore a better mother? I’ll never know. But I do wonder.
Ultimately, I did “lean back in,” in a modified way. I realized that having my “issues kid” become my full-time job was not healthy either for him or for me. So I started a new career (teaching) that, in addition to being personally and professional fulfilling, would allow me to always be around when my kids were home – after school, summer vacations, winter and spring breaks, etc. It didn’t pay well, and there were many frustrations (and even though I was “home” at certain hours, I certainly wasn’t 100% available, due to the 24/7 nature of what teaching really is).
I made some subsequent career choices, too, that all revolved around being available for people who needed me, but that also meant much lower pay and narrowed career opportunities. Exactly the opposite of what Sheryl Sandberg writes. And the result – well part of me still says, “Lady, you have NO F*CKING idea” … and the other part says …. “She’s right.”
Because ………. and this the one that is the absolute hardest part to write …….
If you have a kid with issues …. and again, this is hard to say, but I’m going to say it …. chances are, your marriage may really take a hit. There’s a lot more stress, and a lot less time as a couple. Some marriages pull together and get stronger under stress, but others do suffer. And that could mean that at some point in the future, you may need a full time job. One that pays well. One that secures your own future. And guess what — your Opting Out means that you have cut those possibilities, and your income-earning potential, to a fraction of what they would have been if you had stayed involved in the workforce some way. (In fact, the New York Times magazine article addresses this very issue.)
But … again …. especially if you have a kid with issues ………….. could you have done it any other way? Would you have?
One last thing – no matter what you choose …. leaning in, opting out, combining the two, etc. …… someone will judge you negatively for it. That’s a given. (Welcome to motherhood …. 🙂 )
That’s a lot of rambling for one blog post ….
As I said, I don’t have any of the answers …. I’m still living with the questions … and with the repercussions, both good and bad, of all of the “Opting” and “Leaning” that I’ve lived so far …. while I figure out where the next phase of my life will lead.
I do know that I did the best I could at the time, and that I’m glad I am who I am today because of it all.