More Options for Today’s Working Women: Leaning “Homeward” vs Leaning “In”

Work life balance

Many women would opt for time away from the traditional “9 to 5″ work life to remain home with children — and a growing body of research supports this.  I reached this inflection point a short time after finishing my degree. Happily entrenched in a growing HR consulting firm (with a fair amount of career momentum on my side), it became obvious that my best laid plans for melding home and work life weren’t going to materialize. At the time, my decision to “lean out” may have appeared ill-advised — but as time would pass, it became clear that it was truly for the best.

Our young son didn’t sleep nights. He couldn’t tolerate formula. He seemed particularly distressed when we left him with a sitter for even a few hours. When I compared stories with other working mothers, things just weren’t adding up to a “lean in” scenario. The guilt and compounding stress were overpowering. I was torn between two disparate worlds that just weren’t meshing. My instincts told me to stay at home if at all possible. Luckily, after weighing both emotional and financial concerns, the option to complete some project work at home came into play. I happily chose this option — too exhausted in the moment to even begin to evaluate the long-term ramifications of that decision.

Knowing what I know today about work life integration, I would have sought a more permanent part-time solution (with an option to return when home life became more predictable). A recent article in The Atlantic, Moms Who Cut Back at Work Are Happier, explores the often difficult quest for women to find balance with their ever-evolving roles. The piece discusses research which reveals that many married moms would indeed, rather work part-time at specific points or “seasons” in their career — “leaning homeward” instead of “leaning in”. Furthermore, many who have the opportunity to embark on such a career “sacrifice” are happier overall. A recent CBS/New York Times survey echoes this sentiment, where it was found that nearly one-half of working women with children under the age of 18, would prefer an option to work part-time.

The fact remains, that it is challenging for many women to carry on their careers after children, as if nothing has changed. Dialing down the pressure should be a viable option — but keeping meaningful work in plain sight should also be part of that equation. With women making a significant investment in both their education and career, this has become a growing necessity — as we should have the opportunity to continue to contribute in a manner that remains fulfilling.

We are indeed making progress in this area. However, widespread acceptance of part-time options will likely not materialize until we acknowledge the need for a pervasive change in mindset. If you have had the opportunity to read, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, by Anne-Marie Slaughter — you’d know exactly where I am going with this. We have to step up and vocalize what we really need to remain both happy and productive. With a healthy dose of transparency, these changes may come sooner than later. We  should discuss the realities of melding work and career life, openly and often — because the essence of being truly happy at work, might lie just as much in being honest about what we cannot do — as much as what we can.

Suffice it to say, that my instinct to remain at home was on target. I needed to be there for a variety of reasons. Years later, it is apparent that I’ve had a fair amount of explaining to do in reference to the gap in my career. However of late, I no longer feel the need to either hide the reason — or the fact that I did so without hesitation.

I would like to think that in the future — working women won’t have to make these decisions bleary-eyed and exhausted.

Have you shared a similar experience? Were you able to adjust and work part-time? Share your story.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist.  Read more of her posts at LinkedIn.

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8 thoughts on “More Options for Today’s Working Women: Leaning “Homeward” vs Leaning “In”

  1. I was on a fast track with a big consulting firm and when my first child was born, not only did she have medical needs but also my company’s offer to work part time was going to be much closer to 40 than 20 hours and I decided to opt out. Luckily, after my second child turned two I found a firm that accepted my reasons for my employment gap, still valued my experience, and hired me to lead a new division. I learned about work-life-integration the hard way by making good and bad choices along the way. I’m still learning :) Your story and experience resonates with me. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for this insightful post. I recently left my corporate job with a 6-figure salary, and I couldn’t be happier. A change in management had resulted in increasingly hostile attitude toward mothers who didn’t “lean in”, where there had been tolerance for a part-time schedule in the past. It was very uncomfortable, and I missed a lot of my two young daughters’ special events. It led me to the question: Why devote my life to the financial success of such a corporation, when I could focus on the success of my own family and business? There are two young children and a wonderful husband who deserve my attention far more. Now I do consulting work and writing to make work fit my family’s life, and not the other way around. I will never go back.

  3. EditorGFH, I am so glad that you had the option to make the choice that has worked for you and your family. It takes courage to fight the current. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  4. I’m torn. I am an older mother (I just turned 42) with a 1 year old. She is a high needs baby, much as you described your baby and I would love to be home with her…but I worry that leaving the workforce now would mean an end to my career goals. It is one thing to have an employment gap and be returning to work at 30 or 35, it is another thing to try to rebuild a career at 45 or 50.
    My employer goes above and beyond to try to give me time with my family, allowing me to have portions of my schedule be flextime, but it is still not ideal for my children.
    At the same time, I love what I do and I feel like being a women in a leadership role at a technology company is important. I would be sad to give up what I have worked so hard to achieve.

  5. I agree — that would be quite unfortunate. As I mentioned in the post, I do wish that I had done more to hammer out an arrangement that worked. At that time the “super woman” fallacy was much more prevalent. In my case, I wasn’t sleeping and did not have the energy to keep working on a longer-term solution. (I did feel that I did not measure up. I was the only individual in my PH.D. program that was not working full-time. I was so wrong about that.)

    On a very basic level, I would say to explore every possibility of finding an arrangement that works. Maybe you could consider a leave of absence, if there are acute issues to solve. However, in my eyes, the longer-term ramifications are always more vital. Peace of mind always wins.

    I didn’t go into this in the post, but after proper diagnosis, I did need to be home.

    Thanks so much for writing. Please keep us updated.

  6. Marla, thanks for sharing your story. I’m writing this to honor the decision that my wife made to set aside her career to be with our children. We worked for the same large company and had similar jobs. In fact, her career was advancing quicker than mine. After our first child was born we had a nanny come to our house. When our son, our second child, was born my wife decided that she was drawn toward being with the children more than the office and she wanted to resign. In addition to putting her career on hold, it was a big financial hit for us as a family so it was a big choice. Within a couple of years we came to understand that our son was high-functioning autistic. With all of the therapies for our son and the needs of a brilliant daughter, my amazing wife made it all work. Through it all, she used her intelligence and skills and her open heart to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for our kids’ schools, volunteered to teach science and run science fairs, teach science to home-schooled kids in our area, organize travel for school trips and many dozens of other things that benefited our children, their classmates and their schools. Along with that she roped me in to helping and that has made me a much better person. It may not be the best choice for everyone, but I am forever grateful to my wife. My hat is off to everyone out there that makes the difficult choice, but makes life better for our families and us spouses.

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