Why Women Leave

Me, when I used to be a teacher

Last year, I read Lean In. I am a mother with a Ph.D., so a discussion about women in the workplace touches on sensitive issues for me. I keenly feel the decimation of my career–or, on an optimistic day, the delay of reaching my professional goals–so I don’t really need anyone to remind me that I took my nine years of higher education with me when I left the workforce. And I agree that it is a terrible shame.

But, I always feel that the discussion about women leaving the workplace occurs in a vacuum. It doesn’t take into account real life. Yes, in theory, I would have a tenure-track job, and I would be awesome at it. In my time at home, I’d also be a wonderful mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. And then I’d do some community service for good measure. In theory, my kids would go to an affordable, safe, enriching full-time preschool, and I would have no guilt about leaving them there. And in theory, I would make at least half as much as my husband, and his job would come with the flexibility to pitch in on all the extras having kids requires.

That is not reality.

In her book, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that life’s demands are complicated. But, I always feel that the conversation is one-dimensional. It lacks the curveballs that life throws us, and we all, men and women, have them. Nothing goes just as planned, and for many of us, we find ourselves on journeys that carry us away from traditional employment. I always want to know when the discussion about women deserting the workplace includes women who are battling cancer. Or caretakers of elderly parents. Or military wives whose husbands move every year, limiting their ability to find employment. Or mothers of sick kids. Where do we fit? Because women leave the workforce for all sorts of reasons, and it is simplistic to discuss us as one monolithic mass of disappointment.

My first love before I met my husband and before I had my babies was reading. I devoured books as a child. I grew into a grammar nerd, and by far the best hourly job I ever held was as a grammar editor when I was just 18 years old. I always admired teachers and how honorable the intention of teaching is. A great teacher really can change a person’s life. Both my parents were teachers, at different points in their professional lives, and I think in my heart of hearts I always believed I would combine my three loves–learning, writing, and teaching–into a career. And I did, for a short time. I was going to be a professor, before I had preemies.

I never made a conscious decision to leave, and I have never made peace with the fact that I am gone. Never. So, to the woman at the academic conference who said ugly words of judgment and to the people in the grocery store who see me as a sweet, young, little mama–I am more than either of those characterizations.

Women like me may yet return to the workforce, but in the meantime, do you know what we’re doing? We’re giving back to the world around us. We’re getting well and taking care of our parents and holding down the fort and watching over babies in the hospital. These jobs are not easy, and the pay does not come in the form of dollars. But, is everything in this world about money? Sometimes, the hardest jobs are the ones with no paycheck and no vacation days.

I was handed a set of circumstances, and I would not exchange them for someone else’s. No matter how discouraged I may get, I am never sorry for the choices I’ve made. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose those two tiny babies: the ones who didn’t ask to be born and who suffered greatly in their first days and weeks.

Lean in? What I want to know is: when I can lean in, will the workforce accept me? Will it accept all of us who left for our own very good reasons? Or will we be asked what we’ve been doing for the last four years because a resume can’t define where we’ve been and why we left?

We still have prejudices in this country about what constitutes work and what makes a good employee, and I think any discussion about leaning in should also include the issues of affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, part-time employment, and flexible hours. We could do more as a country to retain good employees. And we could keep more women in the workforce. But, first we’d have to address why women leave.

And that answer is complicated.

Speak Your Mind

*

%d bloggers like this: