I've been keenly following the recent cascade of articles examining the consequences of decisions by highly qualified and educated women a decade ago to leave promising careers and spend more time at home raising their children. In last week's New York Times Magazine, Judith Warner caught up with several women who were featured in a 2003 article by Lisa Belkin, to discuss the long range results of their decisions.
The article's conclusion? For most, the return to the workforce -- especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession -- was far harder than they had predicted. Still, while many wished they could've combined more time with their children with some sort of "intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work," none wanted to return to the high-powered but all controlling professional lives they led before.
In recent articles for The Huffington Post, Lisa Belkin -- who originally coined the phrase "opt-out" in her 2003 article -- admits that at the time she missed seeing something important. The choice between home and work wasn't what women really wanted. Rather, they wanted a third option, where a more technologically advanced and flexible workplace would offer them the opportunity to maintain their careers while carving out time for child-raising.
Others are less sanguine. In a surprisingly candid Grown and Flown column for The Huffington Post, Lisa Endlich Heffernan, who gave up a promising career as a Wall Street trader to raise children who are now grown, writes, "Although I am fully aware that being a SAHM was certainly a luxury, staring at an empty nest and very diminished prospects of employment, I have real remorse."
As a husband, father, and former lawyer, these reflections on the "Opt-Out Revolution" give me great pause. As Lisa Belkin herself notes, this topic is no longer just about women, as men have also increasingly questioned the toll work takes on their family lives. I know I have. I consider myself an "opt-out" dad. Not in the sense that I left the workplace to stay at home with the kids, but I definitely dialed back my career expectations and salary so that I could work less, have more flexibility to spend time with my family, and be the committed parent I want to be.
Statistics show that I'm not alone in my choice to put family ahead of career. More men than ever are choosing to spend quality time with their children, either by cutting back on work hours or becoming stay-at-home dads. As a consequence, men are now confronting the same work/life questions women have faced for decades.
Like Heffernan, will I regret having abandoned my first (and more lucrative) calling as a lawyer once my children are off to college? Will I still feel good about my decision to have a richer family life if the economy takes another plunge and our family's financial outlook grows decidedly poorer?
I'll admit that I've found that the workplace still isn't geared toward permitting professionals to be the types of committed parents they'd like to be. While attitudes are changing, it's still less socially acceptable for men to put family ahead of career. During one job interview several years ago, when I communicated (perhaps too candidly) that my family was my number one priority, the interviewer said he wasn't looking for someone who had priorities outside the office. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.
Does that mean I regret being an "Opt-Out Dad"?
Without the benefit of hindsight, I can only say for now that I'm comfortable with my choice. Having navigated the fork in the road and chosen the path of more family and less work, I cannot fathom a time when I'll regret spending more hours with my kids and less at work, especially during their formative years. Of all life's responsibilities, none is more important for women or men who choose to become parents than getting the child-rearing part right. As I often say to my wife, if I've been the kind of parent I want to be and my kid turns out badly, at least I won't feel it was because I spent too little time with them.
But my calculus isn't all about regrets or avoiding remorse. In the end, it comes down to what truly makes me happy. As with any decision in life, there are trade-offs. While I may be missing the prestige of a lofty job and the challenge of a steady stream of cutting edge projects (as well as the high salaries that come with the territory), that satisfaction pales next to the joy I feel in coaching my son to pitch his first shut-out or cheering on my kids' rock and roll band in their debut performance. Even sharing an after dinner movie with my boys that we've seen a dozen times gives me more pleasure than a dozen jury verdicts in my clients' favor.
While I hope I'll still have opportunities one day to opt back in once my kids have left the nest, if that doesn't happen I can at least take great comfort and satisfaction knowing I've done my best to raise two pretty good boys. And that I loved the process every step of the way.
John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com.