In the context of gender and work, people often talk a lot about choice. We’ve long heard about women, for example, who make a choice to leave the workplace to take care of their families. Now we hear of more and more men choosing to stay home with their kids while their wives earn a paycheck (as suggested by last week’s Pew research study showing that moms are the breadwinners in 40 percent of households with young children). And increasing numbers of women are choosing to delay marriage and childbearing, or even forgo them altogether, in order to focus exclusively on climbing the corporate ladder.
It used to be that societal norms made these choices for us. In marriages, men went out to work, and women stayed home as caretakers. Single men pursued careers. Single women pursued husbands.
Times have changed, and options for many of us have significantly improved. But as a consequence of the growth in possibilities for both genders, our choices around work and home are no longer so black and white.
It’s empowering to view the decisions we make solely as a matter of individual will. And certainly, there are men and women who proactively select career or home life. But choices aren’t made in a vacuum, and most of us weigh a variety of factors when faced with decisions about how to support ourselves and how to spend the bulk of our time.
After I got married, I quit my job. My husband supports us through his career as an arborist. Am I a liberated woman who simply chose family and home-life over work? That’s what my employer insisted.
But modern marriages are typically rooted in partnership, where decisions are made jointly and take into account both parties’ well being. For the years that I worked as a web producer in New York City, my husband, who had moved to New York for our relationship, had sacrificed his own career satisfaction. Conditions as an urban arborist are far from ideal: climbing trees in the back-gardens of city buildings means there’s little or no access for machinery, let alone for emergency vehicles. And city tree work is hard to come by, which meant that my husband’s 15 years of experience wasn’t being used to its potential—and realistically never would be.
After we got married, our choice (and it was a choice that we faced together as a couple) was for me to keep working and for him to give up on a real future with a job that he loved, or for us to relocate (and for me to quit) in order for him to build a business that would be sustainable, and more enjoyable, over the long term. So yes, we made a choice for me to leave—but the choice was not so much for me to stop working as it was for my husband to be able to work.
Meanwhile, more and more married fathers are staying home to look after their kids while their wives bring in a salary. But as Hanna Rosin reports in The End of Men, three-quarters of the nearly 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession were lost by men. In a family where both parents have been working but the father loses his job, it just makes financial sense that he stay home with the kids and forgo daycare costs while his wife continues to work. And once he has been out of the job market for a while, it becomes harder and harder for that father to find employment, so a temporary fix becomes a permanent solution. That’s not so much a choice for him to be a stay-at-home-dad as it is for the family to stay solvent.
On the flip side, a number of my unmarried friends—both female and male—have thrown themselves into their jobs, and outside observers might assume they have chosen career over companionship. But digging a little deeper reveals that many of them expect to consider re-prioritizing when they find a partner. It’s just that finding a partner happens in part by chance, not design, and the timing is unpredictable. In the meantime, as sole breadwinners fully responsible for their expenses, their employment is a necessity. And so, they commit to longer and longer hours as their employers push for more. But their choice is not so much to focus on career above all else as it is to find stability and fulfillment at work in (temporary) lieu of family.
Add to this mix the single parents choosing to work overtime (because they are the sole supporters of their children), the adults choosing to work less (because they are taking care of sick or aging parents), and so on, and it becomes clear that choice is quite a nuanced term.
As much as we would like to think we are in complete control at all times, the choices we make are shaped by the realities that life throws at us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take responsibility for our decisions. Given the circumstances, I’m proud of the choice my husband and I made and I think it’s a testament to the strength of our marriage that we made it together.
But our lack of control does add a layer of complexity to the work/life conundrum, one that’s critical to consider. Employers can’t just assume that staff who take time out to care for their families don’t also have a passion for work. They can’t just assume that staff who put in extra hours day after day are so deeply attached to their jobs that they will never burn out.
Employers make choices too, and while individual choices are shaped by the world around us, organizations are in a much better position to choose proactively rather than reactively. By taking advantage of all that the digital age affords us and embracing unconventional options for staff of both genders, including flexible hours, part-time scheduling, job sharing, and remote work, employers can open new possibilities for their workers who are struggling to navigate the thorny paths that constitute modern life.
The benefits of these options would not be solely for employees. If my employer had allowed me to telecommute, my husband and I would have had a new option to consider: for us both to work—a win-win for me and my employer. Instead, the fact that telecommuting was off the table was a double strike against them: their distrust made me feel undervalued and dispensable, not exactly sentiments that inspired enthusiasm for throwing away my partner’s career to continue my own.
Of course, I could have kept my job. My husband and I could have gotten a divorce. Or, we could have lived separately during the week and only seen each other on weekends, indefinitely. My employer made it clear that plenty of people manage by doing just that. But if we’re going to talk about choice, then simply managing is not enough. Let’s demand better of ourselves and our workplaces.