If you can stretch, you can reach.

I’m going to be 43 in about four months. And it would appear that a 37-year-old woman is now a vice president at an organization in DC that employed me for five years, before I left in 2002 for a new life with my new husband in a new city. Had we stayed in DC, there’s a fair chance that I could have been that vice president right about now.

I told my husband about this, and he immediately–and I mean immediately–said, “Well, you can get back out there if you want, you can be a VP.”

“No organization is going to hire me, nearly 8 years out of the full-time paid workforce, to manage a huge budget and direct several people.”

“Well, maybe not right away, but you’d show them you could do it in no time.”

(He’s a good egg, my husband.)

“I guess,” I hedged… “But I like being home for the children after school and in the early evenings. I think that’s important.” He agreed.

I renewed again my commitment to myself to find the perfect part-time job, once we know where we’ll be living for any length of time. We were expecting to be here for no more than three years: the children were very young when we moved here, and I didn’t pursue outside full-time work as a result. Flash forward five years, and here I am, blogging.

Flashing back: when our daughter was three months old, I was able to return to my job and bring her with me–she was the perfect office mate. The implicit understanding: I’d eventually put her in full-time child care and go back to working full-time. Things didn’t turn out that way. (I ended up resigning about a month after finding out I was pregnant again, and about a month before I miscarried.) I was home full-time then, with one baby girl. My husband traveled… a LOT… so it was probably for the best that I was home. And then we had a second baby. Five months later I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. One month later we moved…

It gets old, this particular corporate wife story.

But there’s context–there’s a backstory–that matters, not to me, but to every corporate wife. I am very happy to have been reminded of it in this, one of the best things I’ve read in a while, “Why Gender Equality Stalled.” For the first time, I’ve read the words that perfectly articulate my current professional/personal state of “choice.”

So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more…  [W]hen they explained their “decision-making process,” it became clear that most had made the “choice” to quit work only as a last resort — when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns…

When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by.

Have I undergone a “values stretch?” Does “adjusting” expectations equal “watering down” expectations? (As an aside and as a serious freaking question: Isn’t that what marriage requires?)

I don’t know. I can’t imagine working the number of hours I worked in 2004, before our daughter was born, in 2013, with her and her brother around. I wouldn’t see them as much. My husband wouldn’t see them as much. They’d be just as lovely, just as wonderful, just as healthy, just as loved. But we wouldn’t see them, be with them, as much.

When I was considering resigning from that job in 2005, I told my colleague, who also happened to be my friend, who also happened to manage human resources, that I was struggling to find the right full-time child care setting. My job was not a part-time job–it was never an option. (He did not know that I was pregnant at the time. I needed a near perfect setting.)

He said, rather glibly, it seemed, “All you need to do is find a child care setting that costs a certain percentage less than your annual salary. Then, working is worth it.”

Incredulous, I snapped back, “But that’s not why I became a mother, to just put our daughter in child care for the right amount of money. That’s not what makes it worth it to me.”

I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. I still feel like a jerk for my part in it. For sounding so… righteous. Ugh. My friend and his wife? They had their son in child care, for the right price, so that they could both work, so that they could afford to live the life they wanted to live. Maybe I was a little defensive, pregnant, at work, discussing my employment, with my five-month-old baby playing on the floor next to me. Or maybe I was just too lucky to speak with any compassion or forethought.

My point, then and now, is three-fold: (1) I have always wanted to have children and be with them as they grew, for as much time as possible. (2) I put myself through grad school to contribute to the economy and make the world a better place. (3) I want a job that is flexible, allowing me to do what I’m best at, part-time, so that I can be the kind of mother I want to be.

I just want the labor market to want what I want. Am I greedy? I don’t think so.

[L]et’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.

It’s a “values stretch” of another sort, I guess. A good sort.

3 thoughts on “If you can stretch, you can reach.

  1. This is a very common occurrence, no matter what new labels the “experts” put on it. For all of us, money and time are limited resources, and generally time spent at work increases money available, but is time taken away from family. So each couple or person makes their own decision, and it reflects their values. Your colleague from 2005 left out the critical factor of feelings, which are intangible. I share the 3 values you describe and have been out of the labor force for almost two years now.

    1. So good to see your comments again, Mark! I think corporate husbands like you–and the values you share–are a critical factor left out in too many discussions of work-family policy.

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