If You Could Choose Your Parenting Choice Again, Would You?

You would think that choosy moms choose their choice and would choose it again. But not always. A recent informal experiment into whether stay-at-home mothers would also advise other soon-to-be moms to stay at home now that they've walked a mile in their own choice shoes produced some interesting results about choice-choosing in retrospect. Ch-ch-ch-choices!

This went down over at the New York Times parenting blog Motherlode, where KJ Dell'Antonia noted a reader question that got the wheels turning:

Last week, when we asked readers for advice for people returning to work after a family-related career break, one reader posted a question that jumped out at me:

I am under 30 and hoping to be a mother soon (2 years of infertility, but that's a different story). … I worked hard for my degrees and I don't want to completely give up a career. In hindsight, is stay-at-home parenting something you'd recommend to anyone and if that's what I want to do for a few years, are there things I can be doing now that will help make it easier to get back into the workplace when the future kids start school?

So much has been written about the pros and cons of staying home or not, if there is even such a thing as a real choice in this matter anyway, and it's all been argued and hairsplit (hairsplat?) to death. But Dell'Antonia was curious what would happen if readers advised the question-asker from a different, way less uber-politicized place, i.e., in retrospect. She asked:

The question of the day, and all answers for possible publication: In hindsight, would you have stayed home, or gone back to work? Please, limit the judging to yourself—what are YOU glad you did and what do you wish you'd done differently? A soon-to-be-parent reader wants to know.

And her reasoning was this:

Asking us to look back on our own decisions invites us to turn the lens of judgment that too often colors this question onto ourselves. It becomes not a question of what we think is the right thing to do, but of what we think of our own choices, and our reality: Circumstances might make us regret choices that seemed right at the time, and that we might even make again. That's exactly the kind of thing I think this reader wants to hear.

It's the sort of thing I'd want to hear, too. I had about 10 weeks of maternity leave, and then my husband stayed home with our daughter for a year while I went back to work. My official stance was that I wanted to keep working because I had a career going and didn't want to lose traction in it. The reality was much different: The things it took then to be good at my job still — going out, talking to people, being willing to go where a story might take you — suddenly seemed impossible in the short-term while postpartum, learning breastfeeding, and dealing with a storm of hormones and questions of my new identity as a mother. It radically changed a lot of things about my identity, and though I always knew I still wanted to write in some way, being at work both made me wish I were at home and yet gave me valuable insight I might not have gotten while at home: I knew I needed to rethink how and under what conditions I could do what I wanted.

This is why when Dell'Antonia put the question to readers on Facebook, the answers didn't surprise me. Some people were happy with their decision to stay at home or not, others were not. But the happiest people were those who'd figured out some kind of hybrid and the presence or lack of flexibility was the Holy Grail of it all going well or not.

The largest happy group among those who commented on Facebook (mostly but not all women) were those who had done exactly what Sheryl Sandberg tells young women not to do: They left before they left, either intentionally or not. They chose careers with flexibility, and then they were flexible; they left and came back and went part time and freelanced and juggled. That flexibility made the "choice" part of the question fade to the background (even women who wrote that the family depended on their income described making these shifts), and why not? For people with more flexible options, making a series of choices is the plan.

It's not that there weren't happy people who were full time or who didn't work at all, or who had gone from one extreme or the other. But the more common refrain (among people in my Facebook bubble) was one of lauding flexibility and gratitude for the ability to make use of it, and the most common regret was the lack of flexibility in a given career or job or the decision to leave without "keeping a hand in" in some way. If they regretted anything (and many didn't), both people who stayed home and people who worked full time seemed most likely to regret not having a more flexible option available.

This is not shocking, but it's always worth remembering when you are looking at how to structure your life. For many of us who choose to be parents, there is satisfaction both in work and in parenting, and the best of all possible worlds is getting to move both those things along to get a little bit of the best of both worlds. I will not use the dreaded 'having it all' because it's not all. It's a lot of some, some of the time.

A foot out. A hand in. It's the porridge Goldilocks would choose, and that is never too shabby in my book.

Image via Rob Marmion/Shutterstock.