Can You “Opt Out” If You Never Opted In?

I’ve written a lot about work and it’s natural that the work/life balance issue is also on my radar.  There’s been a lot of interesting discussions at several blogs (see Wandering Scientist for her thoughts and links to other discussions).  I jump in from time to time with my thoughts but honestly, I wonder if I should even be a part of the discussion.

I’m a working mother and I don’t plan to opt out of my chosen field “for the kids”.   If I do stop working, it will be for a move to Europe, although I will take that opportunity to spend more time with my kids.  Note: I would hope to go back to work after a hiatus but I’m not sure how realistic that would be with language / cultural barriers along with age biases and that dreaded gap in my resume.

At the same time, even during college, I never longed for a high-powered career.   I’ve been happiest at my jobs where I work 40 hour weeks and “climb” up to a respected a mid-level professional.  When I read most of these work-life forums, they either focuses on academics or careers where most say they work 60-80 hours a week. Who are these people?? Most people I know don’t work that many hours.  I think that if your company expects you to work that many hours all the time, then they should hire more people because the workload is there.  

At my current job, both men and women value work-life balance to varying degrees.   The ones with kids want more family time; the ones without kids want that time  for their interests whether for traveling, spending time with friends and family, dating, or playing video games.  If there is a heavy workload, we work through lunch.  My boss may work from home on weekends but the rest of us usually don’t pull in more than 40 hours/week unless there’s a special project.

I guess what I’m saying is that if I did step back, I don’t feel like I’m opting out of anything because I’m not ramping down from a high-powered career in the first place.  At the same time, I understand that the more career women opt out, the more it hurts all women.  During my maternity leave, I was constantly asked if I would come back despite my many assurances.  Men don’t get asked that.  Maybe I would have been passed over for promotions simply because I was of child-bearing age.  I will never know because there really isn’t room for advancement at my current job.

My hope is that more women will stay in the workforce and make it a more balanced environment for all.  It’s not only up to women, of course, but it’s likely that women have more interest in making workplaces more family-friendly.  I also hope that younger women will not opt out because working isn’t all that fun.   Women I know complain that work isn’t that fulfilling.  I agree.  It’s doubtful that you can compare a job to parenthood.   However, maybe instead of quitting we should re-frame the way we look at work.  Sure, you may not be saving the world but this is a fact that men have known for decades.  Oftentimes work isn’t about the work itself.  It is about using your brains, creating financial security for yourself and family, and being independent.  Whatever you do, you can be proud of your career achievements in addition to motherhood.

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