Reflections on Career vs. Family

A few days ago a friend praised me for being so involved in #1’s and #2’s lives. She, a mother of two who had put her successful career on hold to raise her children, complimented me on having achieved a wonderful balance between spending time with my progeny, helping around the house, and a successful career.[1] I smiled and thanked her for the kind words but felt uneasy about them.

Since then I have been wondering: Do I have a successful career?[2]

Judged by external categories such as opportunities for financial improvement or professional advancement, my current job could be described as dead-end career. Judged by internal criteria such as likelihood that I will achieve what I had hoped to when I began, my career is at best a modest failure.

I have a job, yes, that contributes ca. 50% to the family income. Barring any horrible missteps, I can count on modest salary increases that will hover right around the cost of living. In other words, judged by my income, my career has peaked, or rather plateaued.[3] I hope I like my current standard of living because any real opportunities for advancement have long since passed.

I decided to participate as fully as possible in raising #1 and then #2. Because my career allows me more flexibility than the Mother’s, I have spent and continue to spend much more time with our progeny. Like all decisions, mine came with various consequences, both intended and unintended. With a sense of poignancy I have come to realize that one of the unintended consequences was career stagnation.[4]

Too often absent from the discussions about work-life balance, about the merits or costs of dual-income or single-income families, about the importance of having a stay-at-home-parent, about leaning out or leaning in, is any robust discussion of the psychological toll that imposed career stagnation takes on professionally motivated or ambitious parents.[5] Clearly, the partner in such a relationship as well as any children will end up suffering collateral damage.

I have made peace with my choices. But I lament that our society forced me to make those choices. Until we change the value structures in our society, however, too many parents will have to choose between successful professional lives and successful family lives.

  1. There were two unspoken comparisons in her statement. First, in comparing me to herself, she privileged career status. Second, in comparing me to her husband, she privileged spending time with the family. In the way she constructed the comparisons, I came out looking great. But if she had applied just one standard—either career or time with family—I would have, at best, come out even—she spends more and no doubt higher quality time with her progeny and her husband is infinitely more successful in his career by almost any metric than I can at this point ever be in mine.  ↩

  2. Of the three facets of life—family, household, and career—I am least comfortable with my career.  ↩

  3. In real world dollars, incomes in my profession have been steadily falling for the past 25+ years. So perhaps a better description is: my career has gone into gentle decline.  ↩

  4. My experience is not special. Most women who have chosen to become mothers and have taken on considerable childcare responsibilities have experienced (suffered?) various forms of career stagnation. See, for example, “The Glass Ceiling Is Self Inflicted.”  ↩

  5. Unfortunately, retrograde, essentializing gender categories—e.g., referring to a nurturing instinct as somehow more important in women or invoking ambition and or bread-winning as somehow more important in men’s self-definition—often mar these discussions.  ↩


One thought on “Reflections on Career vs. Family

  1. Really appreciated your male perspective, which I don’t often read about regarding this subject. So often, the conversation about work v family life is focused on women–a really important discussion obviously-but I think that men struggle with this too is important to add to this mix.

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