Why Our Choices Don't Matter as Much as We Think

06/29/2015 02:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

To work or to stay at home?

That is the question.

The answer:

It doesn't really matter.

I want to say it's an age-old question, but the widespread prevalence of doing paid work outside the home after having children is only a few decades old.

Women have always contributed to their households through domestic chores, but outside paid labor started to grow in the late 19th century and it was only in the 1960's that reforms were made to equalize pay and work opportunities for women.

With these changes, the weight of the decision -- stay at home and raise your own children or leave the house to do paid work -- grew heavier. Today, the debate is no longer simply a financial or analytical question; it is also an emotional one.

Women may work because we want to "have it all" or because we want intellectual stimulation and a social life outside our children. We may work because we want financial independence or because we want respect, recognition and meaning.

Regardless of our choices and reasoning, however, there is always a proponent of the "other side" with some telling women to work and aspire for the top because it is possible to have it all and others saying it's impossible to do everything without sacrifices. Even more, some will say that quality parenting has nothing to do with the time you spend with your children, while others will say that having a stay-at-home parent leads to healthier, smarter, better adjusted children.

This debate is so polarizing that you find it in every day conversation as well. I was recently chatting to a working mom who told me, "I don't understand, we don't live in the stone age anymore, why would a woman choose to be financially dependent on her husband instead of working and being self-sufficient?" She continued, "if something were to heaven forbid happen to my husband, I could take care of myself and my kids, but I get so angry when I see a woman put herself in a position where she would be destroyed if she lost her husband."

This statement in itself epitomizes the problem with our society today. We make a choice and then deride anyone who makes a different one. What's worse though, is that we categorize and value everything in monetary terms. Yes, a stay-at-home mother is more likely to face financial difficulties if she loses her spouse, but a working husband would also be destroyed if he lost the mother of his children, his partner, his lover, the woman who stays at home and who keeps the children taken care of and the home functioning smoothly.

Relationships are complex, and it's hard to say who is doing a more important job or pulling more weight. The truth is, in most relationships I've seen, the roles change over time with each partner shouldering a different weight of the responsibilities at different times, whether both, neither or only one of the two is working. Relationships take two to function well and trying to categorize the importance of one person in that relationship based on income reduces the relationship to nothing more than a financial arrangement.

The other problem with trying to send a message about what the "right choice" should be -- whether subtly or blatantly -- is that there is no such thing as "the right choice."

Not only because some women are happier working while others are happier staying at home, but also because there are as many different circumstances and situations as there are families, and no single arrangement can work across the board.

That's why I was so surprised to read an article in New York Magazine encouraging one woman to do everything despite everything being "exhausting and too much for anyone to handle." The article went so far as saying that if a woman does actually enjoy being a SAHM then she's a rare breed or only a "one in ten" woman who is very "low key."

I guess this author wants to tell me that after four university degrees in six years and working at the top consulting firm in the industry I am happy being a stay at home mom because I am low key.

Well, thank you. But no, thank you.

If I am happy with my choice it is not because I am a rare breed or low key. In fact many of my former peers from both business school and work, who are just as and even more ambitious and successful, have made very similar choices to mine and are also enjoying the total involvement in their children's upbringing.

Does it mean we don't miss our old lives? That we don't sometimes wish we could have more intellectually stimulating conversations on a regular basis? That we don't miss dressing up in something other than yoga clothes?

Of course we miss that life and we miss some of the perks that came with it too, but we also know that the grass is greener on the other side.

Find me one woman (or man) who loves waking up every day to go to work, enjoys every second of her day, never fantasizes about what it would be like to be at home having breakfast with a friend and her kid instead of writing a slide or a memo that may or may not be read.

I'm not advocating the staying home path over the working. God knows there are days I question my own decision as well. But the truth is, neither arrangement is entirely perfect. The good news is: it doesn't matter as much as we think.

It doesn't matter because whatever choice we make today -- as much as it can make our lives pan out differently down the line -- we will find ourselves questioning it, at times enjoying it and at other times feeling guilty about it, and finally convincing ourselves that it was the right choice for us.

Research has consistently shown that we tend to overestimate the duration of our emotional reaction to both negative and positive events -- that is why we are able to return to work after a horrible day and feel fine and why we are able to kiss and cuddle our babies to sleep after the longest and most trying day, and why we are able to continue living even after the death of a loved one. It is also why the novelty of new and exciting things -- big house, new car, winning the lottery -- wears off after a while.

This doesn't mean we should be making decisions on a whim without thinking things through, but it can give us comfort to know that whatever choice we make -- whether out of our own volition or out of circumstance -- will not be as fatalistic as we initially thought.

I don't imagine that we will ever settle this debate or all agree with each other. But as women, rather than being each other's harshest critics and judges, I think we would benefit much more from sharing our experiences with each other and respecting the choices we each make.

Your choice may not be right for me and mine may not be right for you, but until we are living in each others shoes, there is no way either of us can tell what we would have done in that situation.

This advertisement hammered the point home for me. Children were asked to write two letters, one to santa and one to their parents. In the first they ask for toys, in the second they ask their parents to spend more time with them. When they are told they can only mail one letter, they all choose the letter to the parents.

Indeed a tear jerking ad, but I couldn't help wondering, if those children had one of their parents stay at home would they still have valued time with their parents as much as those children whose parents left the house to work?

I can't be sure, but I do know the grass always appears greener on the other side, even to children. So instead of judging each other, why don't we invite the person across the street for a cup of coffee onto our lawn?

Maybe then we'll realize that nobody has the perfect life, but that life can at least be more satisfying when we have each other.

After all, as one Harvard psychologist researching decision making said, "our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing" -- happiness.