Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a bored reader who left the workforce to stay at home. Her advice includes summoning her Future Self and making a Lifetime To Do List.
I miss my career.
I got my first job at age 12 and have always been a worker. I left my last position begrudgingly because it was—and still is—the best thing for our family. As my husband’s career took off, requiring more and more of his attention, it fell to me to take responsibility for everything else. I am chef, driver, shopper, scheduler, comforter, homework monitor, social secretary and a zillion other things that somehow feel like not much at all.
I don’t want to complain. I know I am beyond lucky. My family is amazing. I have two wonderful, smart children and a husband I love. We have a beautiful home, and even a summer home. I know I should just be grateful for all that I have.
Still, something is missing.
I take care of myself through exercise and yoga, but feel a sense of purposelessness. I miss that old sense of accomplishment I derived from my career. I miss making my own money. I miss colleagues and intellectual stimulation. At this point, I know I can’t go back and work 40-plus hours in an office, but I would like a better balance. Is there some way to find a happy medium? I have volunteered for years, but am bored with that. Do you have any other suggestions?
I have been where you are.
I, too, spent the first few years of motherhood feeling ambivalent at home after “begrudgingly” leaving my legal career to raise my children. I, too, regularly told myself—despite the misgivings and occasional frustration I felt—that this was “the best thing for my family.”
You don’t want to complain. Neither did I. Neither do legions of other smart, educated, formerly ambitious women who—for myriad and complex reasons, both personal and political—have traded in their briefcases for diaper bags.
Economists routinely wonder: If women now receive more college degrees than men, are entering more and more jobs previously unavailable to them and are delaying marriage and childbirth, why are they still underrepresented in the top ranks at work? Why, after a half-century increase of women joining the labor force, did our numbers begin to level off in the 1990s?
This column is not the place to explore this question, but I have my theories. The demands of work (longer hours, an expectation of constant availability) and the demands of motherhood (helicopter parenting) both ramped up at the exact same time, leaving many women of sufficient means feeling not much “choice” at all.
This “choice” to stay home to care for your family is often described as a luxury, and of course, it is. Far too many women have no choice at all. The lack of family-friendly policies in this country is a travesty.
This column is not the place to talk about any of that, either.
This column is the place to talk about you.
You recognize how lucky you are, yet still feel adrift. You yearn for “a better balance” and wonder if there is “some way to find a happy medium.”
The very short answer is YES.
I am writing to you now from my own “happy medium.” After years of trying to figure out my next act, after a long process of trial, error, searching, yearning and discovery, I have arrived in a time and place of true contentment. In a former life, I allowed my career to be all consuming, then thought motherhood had to be the same. Now, “a better balance” means some combination of mothering and coaching, writing and volunteering. It means meditating, exercising, walking in nature, taking on new projects and challenges and playing an active role in my community. It means making time for my marriage, nurturing my friendships and generally taking care of my family and my own well-being. My best days somehow involve them all—from the mundane tasks to the more meaningful, soul-satisfying experiences.
Designing your own “happy medium” will require introspection, reflection, honesty and patience. As you proceed, I invite you to try the following:
Question Everything You Think You Know Start by questioning any beliefs or assumptions that may be adding to your sense of woe. For example, you say you “can’t go back” to work full time. Is that true? Why can’t you? What would happen if you did? Similarly, you say staying home is “the best thing” for your family. Are you absolutely certain? How so? Is it at all possible that the opposite might be just as true, if not truer?
The bulk of what I do as a coach is help people get out of their own way. I do this by asking questions, providing a safe space for people to investigate their thinking and identify any long held beliefs or subconscious stories that might be dictating how they conduct their lives. The end result is often a sense of freedom, and greater lightness of being.
At the moment, Dissatisfied, you sound stuck between a desire for more and a belief that you can’t have it—and shouldn’t even want it. What thoughts might be contributing to this dilemma? Perhaps you are buying into a story, like “a good mother puts her family first.” Perhaps you have convinced yourself that wanting more makes you “ungrateful” or “selfish.” Perhaps other people in your life have more traditional notions of how you should be using your time, and you have internalized these ideas. On the flip side, do you have a story about what it means to stay home? Do you equate non-working with laziness, or financial dependence with weakness? Any or all of these might be causing you unnecessary pain.
Take some time to get clear on your own guiding beliefs and personal dictates. Start by mining your thoughts—your go to phrases or reflexive attitudes—then question them. Thoroughly.
Attach Value After questioning everything, try reconsidering what you deem valuable, and from where you derive pride or satisfaction. Should you decide not to return to work anytime soon, recognize that this is an informed and worthy choice—and own it. Learn to value the mostly unseen, under-appreciated work that is the foundation of family life. When your full time job is motherhood and household management, there are no formal reviews or opportunities for advancement — and there is no paycheck. There are, however, endless opportunities to attach value. Take a closer look at everything you do. What would it cost your family to hire a “chef, driver, shopper, scheduler, comforter, homework monitor, social secretary” and those “zillion other things” you do?
Beyond the financial cost, what are the immeasurable-but-arguably-priceless things you provide on a daily basis? What are they worth to your family? What are they worth to you?
I would encourage you to document your time. Write down all that you do in a given day, from morning to night. Include everything—not just the chores and tasks, but the more subtle moments where you answer a child’s questions, provide a hug or a smile, a favorite meal or an apology. What lessons are you passing along? What investment are you making in your family’s future? What are you most proud of?
Accept Imperfect Choices I don’t know if you or your family are truly better off under present circumstances, or if you should consider going back to work. What I do know, is everyone wants “a better balance.” Whether it’s the stay-at-home-moms who miss feeling stimulated and accomplished, or the over-worked men and women, who feel stressed, burned out and pulled in too many directions, we all want “a happy medium.” The most satisfied among us accept that everything is a tradeoff and that choices are often imperfect.
Like you, I had invested a lifetime in that image of myself as hard-working, smart and independent, and I had never even considered the possibility of staying home. I grew up with a working mom, and had always planned to be a working mom. Then, within three short years, I lost my mother, got married, had a miscarriage and finally had a daughter after a precarious pregnancy.
I wanted to work, but I didn’t want to miss a moment with my daughter—let alone go back to a job where I would rarely see her awake. My baby would only be a baby for a brief moment, a blink. Missing that, for me, was no longer an option—and I was lucky enough to have the choice. Staying home was far from perfect, and sometimes I still grieve that young lawyer so full of verve and ambition. Sometime I envy my friends and former colleagues who made the opposite choice, and are amazing, admirable mothers themselves. But life dealt what it did, and I had to trust that I could eventually find my way back to a career, whereas whatever I might miss at home—cooing over my baby on her changing pad, being the one to scoop her up after a nap, elicit those first belly laughs and all the rest—was a one-time, limited opportunity.
Accepting the tradeoff, the impossibility of having everything I wanted at the exact same time, took much of the sting out of the choice I made.
Summon Your Future Self Imagine for a moment that I have a crystal ball, in which I can see you, years from now, gainfully employed and thriving in a new career. Imagine that your children are grown, you have taken a long pause to raise and care for them, and you are now back at work doing something you enjoy. Close your eyes and picture it. Take a deep breath and savor the image. How does that feel? Does it ease the pressure a bit? Lift your spirit?
Sometimes, it is not our day-to-day reality that causes us angst, but the fear that it will always be thus. If, however, you could rest easy in the knowledge that when the time is right, you can and will resume your independent, money-earning, intellectually stimulating life, how might you feel better?
How might you approach this time at home differently?
Lifetime To Do List One of the greatest pitfalls of full time work is how much darn time it consumes. You started working as a child, and continued until quite recently. But what do you love to do? If I asked you to compose a Lifetime To Do List, all those things you just might want to accomplish before you die, what would be on it?
Could you possibly tackle any of them right now?
This is your chance to get creative, discover your inner Renaissance woman and grow. Is there a language, instrument or dance style you’ve always wanted to learn? Another form of volunteer work? A degree you wish to pursue or subject where you might take some classes, just for the love of learning something new?
From the way you phrased your query, I would be willing to bet you will in fact work again someday. If that is the case, why not look at these years at home as an opportunity—a gift of time you don’t want to squander?
Practice Patience, Embrace Process Leaving the workforce—whether for motherhood, retirement or otherwise—is one of those catalytic events that can send the best of us into a tailspin. It brings up a lot of existential questions about identity, values, status and security, not to mention remorse or regret about our life’s choices. In short, it is the ultimate transition. Practice patience and embracing the process. Motherhood is one long transition, whether you are at work or at home or some combination of both. As your children grow, your family dynamics will evolve. Your role at the center will be both constant and ever-changing. Patience will be your best friend. Embracing process over end-results just might be a game changer.
I wish you the best of luck with it all.