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I Never Wanted to be a SAHM

Photograph by Getty Images

Way back in 1987, when I rocked the big hair and braces at my high school graduation, if someone had whispered in my ear, “Pssst. You don’t know it yet, but you’re gonna opt out of that whole career thing — a career you loved and were great at – to raise some little ones,” well, let’s just say in addition to not believing them, I just might have kicked them in the shin, too.

My 18-year-old self and my 28-year-old self would never have yearned to raise children at home over having a career. Truth be told, my 38-year-old self would not have yearned for that either. But, by 38, I had some more life under my belt and realized that we don’t always have control over the decisions we need to make regarding work-life balance.

This month, Harvard Business Review published an in-depth study focusing on why women’s careers stall after they begin parenting. The study was geared towards high-achieving women — 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates. Natch, some hardcore smarties.

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Long story short, only 11 percent of those questioned said they left the workforce to raise children. Most of those left reluctantly. But those who did remain had some serious wake-up calls that they never dreamed of as 18-year-olds or as hungry, aggressive, freshly minted B-school grads. Primarily, those revelations were that the responsibilities of housework and childcare were not equally split at home — women still do more than men there. Secondly, their husband’s career took precedence over their own.

Yep. It seems even the brightest and most traditionally successful women are not immune from the drudgery of laundry, dinner and taking the backseat to a man.

I am not a Harvard B-school grad. I trained as a clinical social worker at a large Midwestern state university (no one would confuse me with being high-achieving). My life experiences required me to leave my career and become a stay-at-home-mom. These circumstances contribute another piece to the puzzle Harvard is examining. That piece to the puzzle is what I think of as, you know, my life.

In March 2007, my 20-month old-daughter, an only child at the time, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. Over the next two and a half years, she would go through six months of high-dose chemotherapy, 12 weeks of out-of-state radiation treatments, four tumor resections and a stem cell transplant.

Those are just the highlights.

It turns out, a toddler fighting for her life absolutely, positively requires a stay-at-home parent. It didn’t have to be a mom, per se, but it did have to be my husband or me. Given the disparity in our salaries, the decision was clear. My career was effectively over. Done. Finito.

Eight years later, I have not returned to that career. As it turns out, it’s hard to counsel 60-years-old worried about the death of their 90-year-old parent, when all you can think about is your 4-year-old daughter, dead in the ground.

Now, mind you, this is not a “Woe is me, look what I sacrificed to cancer, on top of the death of my child.” Not at all. But it is a window into another reason women opt out of the workforce. For my husband and me, it was purely economic.

Despite having an advanced degree and more years in at my then position than my husband had, he out-earned me two times over. With his little measly undergrad degree, albeit from a much finer alma mater with greater name recognition.

Not only did we not sit down and decide who should be the stay-at-home parent for our daughter, we never had the conversation at all. It was just a given, an understood, an inevitability.

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Gender equality in the workplace or the home has not been achieved. Somehow, the Harvard Business Review thinks this is news. It’s not. It’s life. Now what are we going to do about that, ladies?

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