It's interesting to observe the debates that break out whenever the topic of whether or not a woman should work after having kids comes up. For me, the issue was always whether or not I was going to have children -- and not whether or not I'd be part of the workforce. I always assumed I'd have a Career --with a capital C -- and once we decided to have kids, I knew I'd continue working.
Part of it was financial reality; I'd always been the primary breadwinner in our family, and my husband very clearly wanted a job that fit his temperament, which didn't really mesh with the attitude required to have a capital C career. And part of the desire to keep working also came from the fact that I was good at what I did, and got a lot of personal satisfaction from a job well done.
Because I was a valued employee, I was lucky. I got to structure my life in a way that worked for all concerned; I worked from home part-time during my son's first year, got to structure my day in ways that worked for my family, and made it to events like the preschool Thanksgiving lunch, for example. And in between career transitions? We had money enough to let me coast at home for extended rejuvenation sessions, only to jump back into yet another Career Move that would let me set our lives up nicely.
Sure, there were challenges along the way: tradeoffs made, compromises struck. But we had choices. And we were part of the lucky few who got to create a lifestyle that worked for us, for the most part.
Now, as a single parent by choice, working in a technology economy that cratered a few years back, there are no longer choices about whether or not to work. And the choices you have are much more unpalatable when you're not working: borrow money from friends or food stamps? (I've done both, much to my dismay.) The job that offers no flexibility, but does provide benefits -- or the one that offers plenty of flexibility, but no security or long-term guarantees?
I've spent a lot of time lately with parents who scoff at the notion of being able to create a lifestyle based on desire, rather than the simple need for food and shelter. (In fact, I'd bet that they'd scoff at the word 'lifestyle' itself.) And I was resigned to that attitude as well: Find a job. Any job. Suck it up. Support the kids, first and foremost.
Amazingly, my luck still holds. I managed to find the one job still available that welcomed me as a single mom, offered flexibility, promises stability and tops it off by paying decent wages and benefits. It may not be a Career with that capital letter attached, but it's still a career, and I'm grateful for it.
I start next week, and I'll still get to walk my daughter to the bus stop in the morning. She's thrilled about joining an after-school program that promises more fun than she'd get at home with me; I'm thrilled that it won't cost an arm and a leg. My 12-year-old son Alex is equally excited about the prospect of resuming allowances and not-so-secretly relieved that Mom has a job again.
So I chuckle wryly when I read stories like that The New York Times article Julie referred to a few weeks ago. I naively assumed that my world would be full of choices when I became a parent and for a while, I was lucky enough to have a plethora of options. But those 'choices' quickly go right out the window when you need to pay attention first and foremost to fundamentals: food, clothing, shelter, support.
That window can yawn open in front of you, too at any time. Ivy League degree or not, 'comfortable lifestyle' or not. My advice? Never make assumptions about what you'll be doing down the road and please don't set those judgements about what's important and what isn't down in stone. With any luck? You'll get to live the life you dream of at 22. And then again, maybe you won't.
Betsy is a 40-something single parent in Oregon with a daughter in elementary school and a son in middle school.