Opening Up

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Deciding to opt out of your career can mean more than a few sleepless nights.

My decision to step away from my career to spend more time with my son — as well as finish the novel that had occupied the back of my mind for ten years — was a hard decision to make. I was an independent woman, I said to myself and to my husband over and over again. I fretted over the loss of my income and the level of freedom one’s own money provides. Did this mean I had to give up my last-minute shopping sprees every three months when I carved out an hour for myself?

Most important: what would this mean for my relationship? You hear the horror stories of marriages that fail as couples experience big life changes. Would my husband see me differently now that I was trading in my Tahari suits for lululemon pants? Clearly, I would look different. But would I be a different person?We spent two years discussing whether or not I could leave my career. There was the money to consider. There was the time I had invested and the fact that I was finally starting to see my efforts pay off. I had attained a lot of responsibility and I was making good money. “These are your peak earning years,” so many people told me.

There was also our family and the fact that my son had been in preschool full time since he was two. “He is way too young for school,” my father reminded me, disapproval spilling from his lips.

And there was the fact that our laundry never got done and one too many times we ran out of toilet paper for more than a few days. Our refrigerator was often bare and we ordered in more often than I would like to admit.

Our lives were pinched and we were constantly racing from morning to night. By Friday night we were so stressed we simply wanted to “let the air out of the tires,” as my husband likes to say. This typically meant over-serving ourselves wine and waking up fuzzy on Saturday morning.

I flared up at my husband whenever I thought he was suggesting that I take on a more traditional role. I was not going to stay home to make lasagna and offer him a martini as soon as he came home. My mind went back to my mother, cleaning the house every day, leaving vacuum lines in the carpet as a way of demonstrating her work. Waiting for my father to come home, greeting him at the top of the stairs, and keeping dinner waiting until he was ready to eat.

“That is not going to be me,” I declared.

Before making the leap I called my friend who is a tech recruiter and asked her thoughts on someone like me leaving the workforce and potentially wanting to come back again. She told me, “You have two years. After two years, you might have to start over again.”

I felt some comfort in her guidance, but also some worry. What if I stepped away at forty and at forty-five wanted back in? Would I have to repeat the slow climb up the corporate ladder?

Then she paused and took the business out of the conversation. She revealed her feelings as a friend. “If you can really do it and you guys are okay financially, take the time off. I think my marriage would be in a better place if we didn’t both work so hard.”

Something happened when I revealed myself to others—when I voiced my concerns and worries. People began sharing their stories with me. They began leaving the surface conversation and opening up to me in an entirely different way.

There was the friend who wanted to take a year off but wasn’t sure how. The coworker who was driven by her mother’s insistence upon being financially independent and was the bread-winner of her family. An acquaintance who wanted to take time away from her career but had yet to really plan for it with her husband. There were so many stories untold. Too many unshared.

As women continue to gather more opportunity, we need to do more than ask for raises and sit at the table. We need to change the dialogue; we need to reveal our deepest doubts and our concerns. Share our successes. Divulge our struggles. Without judgment. Most of us are only just beginning at this pursuit of it all, and we have so many old rules to undo.

When I question myself and the decision I made, I remember what my mother told me about her own personal happiness. The happiest time in her life was when she had me, even though she and my father were poor at the time. “It was easier then, honey,” she said. “We lived more simply and we were happy.”

As women evolve, perhaps the best thing we can do is not to try to do it all at once but to be real and realistic about what we can do now. To celebrate our choices and support one another in our commitments. To include our partners in the process, because they are part of the solution too.

If we aren’t revealing our true selves and revealing what drives us, aren’t we missing out on learning from one another? If we are learning from one another and getting real, we can find the humor in the challenges of this new world.

Wouldn’t we all feel lighter if we admitted that sometimes the groceries don’t get bought for more than a week sometimes? Or that you sometimes yell at your children to go to bed, not because you are a bad parent but because you are exhausted and over-worked?

The best thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves and realize none of us have figured out how to manage all of this change. And we really don’t want Sheryl Sandberg and Gwyneth Paltrow pretending they have any idea what it is like to be us. They have no idea.

It’s time for us — the everyday women — to open up. It’s time for our voices to lead the conversation. Because if we get real with one another about our pursuits, won’t we all sleep a little better at night, whatever choices we make?

A brief encounter with a woman with cancer recently reminded me to slow down and acknowledge what is before us — even if what we see is hard to accept or comprehend. It was Sunday morning and I was walking through the Berkeley Rose Garden with my husband and son. I saw a woman sitting on a […]

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