Someone wise once told me that middle age is really just the process of finishing what you started in your twenties and thirties. Opportunities come when you are young, he said, and your options seem unlimited. Every time you choose one thing, however, you’re saying no to all of the other things that might take its place, so that by the time you reach the middle of your life, you aren’t pursuing new things so much as continuing in the old. (The best illustration for this idea, I think, would be marriage: before you are married, you have unlimited options on whom you might wed, but then you say yes to one person and no to all the rest and spend the rest of your life perfecting that one relationship).
This is not true for everyone, of course, and there are times when a fresh start is necessary, but I suspect his observation is generally valid for most of us.
While some might find this insight discouraging or daunting, it is inspiring to me, and hopeful. It encourages me to choose well now, to spend my time on those things – my faith, my marriage, my family, the important relationships in my life – that are of the most value, knowing that I am building a foundation for the years to come.
On Monday, I told my boss that I would not be returning to work anytime in the foreseeable future. He was supportive, of course, and not particularly surprised; though I was officially on maternity leave with a return date in October, before I left I had been very honest with him about where my priorities would lie once Katie was born. Full-time work had never been on the table, but I had entertained the idea of incorporating one or two days a week into my life just to keep my skills fresh, my foot in the door. After much thought and prayer and discussion with Jonathan, I decided to forego the additional complication and stress that working would bring, and I joined the ranks of stay-at-home moms.
This was not an easy decision for me to make. I was good at my job, had worked hard to become so, and I enjoyed the mental challenges and professional interactions that were a regular part of my week in the engineering world. I liked being a part of a team, feeling as though I was contributing, knowing that I had a very promising career in front of me. It was satisfying to bring home half of our household income and to know that I had the potential to grow both in salary and position in the years to come. These are the surface reasons; were I to delve more deeply, I suspect I might find questions of identity, of self-worth, of pride, of fear wrapped up in the difficulty I had in walking away from my job.
(And yes, I know that my walking away might only be for a season, that I might find myself in the engineering world once again some day in the future. But still, it was hard.)
I will admit, too, to finding the entire situation somewhat unfair, to feeling the tiniest stirrings of resentment that Jonathan can hold the titles of “Dad” and “engineer” simultaneously without carrying any guilt, without having to balance caring for a crying child with getting a project out on time.
(A brief side note: this is not a lament at the state of gender equality in our society, but is simply an observation about how our particular family works. Our culture is one that, should we have so chosen, he just as easily could have been the parent to stay home with our children.)
But then he pointed out what he loses in that equation, mentioned the week that Katie screamed if she was in his arms or my sister’s arms or in anyone’s arms but mine, spoke of the smiles and the words and the interactions he will miss in his forty-plus hours away from home each week, and I was reminded yet again that nothing comes for free.
In recent years, there has been much talk of “having it all” and whether such a thing is even possible. There are the ever-raging so-called “mommy wars” between those mothers who work for pay and those who do not, the discussions of gender equality and paid family leave and laws meant to enforce one or the other or both. A woman should not have to choose, so the current thinking goes, between a career and a family. She should be able to have both, fully and completely, without either one suffering in the process.
I don’t know that I have much to add to the conversation, except to share this observation (which isn’t even really my own):
Each time you say yes to something, you’re saying no to the other things that might fill its place.
I, too, desire to have it all. I want to be able to pursue my career and enjoy the days at home with my little girl at the same time. I do. I do not want to have to pick one or the other. I want both, and I want them both fully.
But the beauty and the curse of this thing called life is our ability to choose, to make of it what we will.
I said no on Monday, and this was not easy, but at the same time, I also said yes. I said yes to spending my days with a sweet little girl, to avoiding the need to divide my waking hours between her and work, to having the time and energy and margin in my life to be available to others who might need me.
I am so grateful for that ability to say yes, for I know there are parents out there who must work in order to make ends meet when they would so much rather be at home. I am grateful that there are many, many options available to women today, that I do have the choice, that I can determine what is best for me and my family and pursue it. I am grateful that staying in my career was even an option – I know this hasn’t always been the case. I am grateful for a husband who understands and who supports me as I wrestle with this decision, as I struggle to determine what roles I want to play in this life I get to live.
I have made my choice, have shut that door, have chosen the stay-at-home route. And this is good. May I finish the things I have started, and may I finish them with excellence.