Why we decided to “throw away our promising careers” and work part-time

After the birth of our second child, the two of us waved a white flag and started working part-time. We surrendered the notion that we could maintain two full-time health careers and still be effective parents and loving spouses. Not to mention sane and happy human beings.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Doors were opening to professional women, to two-career marriages, and to flexible work arrangements. Ours was the generation that eagerly embraced that in-your-face motto: “Who says you can’t have it all?” And that was our game plan. But, late in the first quarter, we discovered we simply didn’t have the time or energy to do it all, full-time, all the time.

It was hard to admit. But not as hard as working all day, rushing home to cook dinner, take care of the children, and put them to bed, then squeezing in more work before crashing into bed ourselves. And, even then, not getting the blessed, uninterrupted sleep we craved, but waking throughout the night to answer calls from work and cries from the kids. Only to rise early the next day to repeat the cycle. Again. And again. All the while feeling lonely in our marriage, guilty as parents for short-changing our children, and utterly and completely exhausted.

Something had to give, so we decided that, over the next two decades, one of us would work part-time. We also decided that, to be fair, we would share the “burden” and the “sacrifice” equally.

We use the terms “burden” and “sacrifice” because that’s what it felt like at the time. We were  fully engaged in our careers and, frankly, were shocked to discover that parenting demanded so much of our time and energy. We had naively assumed that children would fit conveniently in the cracks and crevices of our time. Instead, they competed for our time and our energy, and they threatened our sacrosanct careers. They got hungry, became sick, and woke up at the most inconvenient times. Didn’t they realize we were climbing the ladder of career success, and we couldn’t come down to kiss every hurt finger or hug every hurt feeling?

To our surprise, it turned out not to be a burden or sacrifice at all. In a very short time, the two of us were fighting, and it wasn’t over who “had” to work part-time and stay at home with the children. Rather, it was over who “got” to work part-time and stay home with the children. It turned out that our children were as interesting, engaging, and challenging as our careers. With the extra benefit that, most of the time, they loved us back. Careers don’t always do that.

We learned that parenting wasn’t a burden or sacrifice, but a gift that enriched our lives a thousand different ways. Our kids turned out to be more interesting and amazing than our jobs. They were the stuff of life itself. Yes, our jobs could be interesting and amazing, too. But sometimes they were just jobs.

We also learned, to our surprise, that parenting enriched not only our lives but also our careers. True, it required that we devote fewer hours to our professions. But the time we did spend at work was more productive and more enjoyable because we weren’t so tired, stressed, and distracted. And the quality of our work improved because our children gave us a better understanding of what life was all about: work and play, health and happiness, families and friends, citizenship and service. Parenting also helped us develop a number of very practical career skills such as emotional intelligence, social intelligence, communication, and conflict resolution. Not to mention essential values and virtues such as tolerance, patience, sacrifice, sharing, kindness, forgiveness, tenderness, and love.

Over the years we’ve been reluctant to share our story with colleagues because it’s a subject that almost always takes the air out of the room. Everything goes quiet, but we know what they’re thinking. That we wasted all that education and all those years of training. That we threw away promising careers. That we weren’t tough enough, or didn’t have The Right Stuff. That one of us betrayed the feminist movement, and the other was an unindicted co-conspirator. And that we gave up all that potential income.

Sometimes we wonder if our story also stirs up feelings of pain, grief, and remorse as they realize we are right in at least one respect: You cannot have it all. To use a domestic metaphor … Life gives you a 10-inch pie and, no matter how hard you try, you can’t will into existence a bigger pie or a second pie. You can only slice that pie so many ways: if you cut a bigger slice for one thing, that means a smaller slice for another. In other words, there are inflexible limits to what we can do, and hard choices we have to make.

Never for a moment would we presume to tell others what to do. All we can say is: Make those hard choices based on your values and priorities. Not on the expectations of your boss and your colleagues, and not on the culture and customs of your friends and family. Then, when you’re living out those values and priorities, you’ll be sane and happy. And when you’re old, you’ll have no regrets.

Warren Holleman is on the editorial staff, Pulse — voices from the heart of medicine. He blogs at Work Well.  Be Well. Marsha C. Holleman is family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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