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Why I Chose Family Over Career in My 20s
07.11.17
Collage by Ana Tellez

In the fall of 1982, my classmates set off for college. I got married. I was 18 years old and had wanted to go away to study. I’d gone through the process of applying to schools, and had been accepted to my top three choices.

Eventually, I attended a local school — NYU. I had my first baby at 20, and when I was 24 and pregnant with my second child, I decided to change my major from studio art to elementary education because I couldn’t be around the chemicals in the dark room or the turpentine smell in the art studio.

By the time I was 34, I had five children. It took me six years to complete my undergraduate work, and an additional six to get a graduate degree. At the time, I didn’t totally understand the far-reaching ramifications of my decisions — that with every choice I made, there was something lost and something gained. In my case, raising a large family took precedence over developing a career. I dabbled here and there, but my part-time jobs didn’t translate to a serious profession. I thought there’d be time. I believed I’d get to it one day. But what’s in our future is as imperceptible as the earth spinning on its axis.

The years between thirty and fifty are a blur. My father used to say, where did the time go? I’d roll my eyes, thinking you don’t become that old in the blink of an eye. But I was wrong. It happens fast — super fast. The toughest part is, I never thought it would happen to me. Does anyone? Lately, I’ve been struggling, trying to figure out where all the time went. I’m not sorry about the decisions I made, just curious.

Sometimes people make choices based on what’s easiest. Sometimes people choose out of fear. Sometimes people don’t choose at all, but like the Rush song “Freewill” states, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

So why is that instead of heading off to college, I bought a wedding dress? Why did I opt to stay home to greet the school bus at the end of each day instead of getting a job in the city where I could meet people, make money and further my career?

In a Ted Talk called How to Make Hard Choices, philosopher Ruth Chang explains that we can uncover our own hidden power and learn something about ourselves in the process of making a hard choice. Who we are, or who we want to be, rests in how we assess certain values such as beauty, kindness, justice, family, education and success.

In every hard choice I’ve faced, about this job or that, this life dream or that one, I always, always, always picked the one that included love.

What I’ve learned about myself recently is that in every hard choice I’ve faced, about this job or that, this life dream or that one, I always, always, always picked the one that included love. Love is what I valued most. That’s why I got married when I did. It’s why I had so many children. It’s why I put so much time and energy into cooking elaborate meals for friends and family. I valued relationships more than career success, and it helps to know my decisions weren’t random. Granted, our choices may be limited, affected by outside factors like money, access or whether you’ve met Mr. or Mrs. Right. (Does anyone even say that anymore?) But given the option, what do you choose when there is no right or wrong, when one choice is not necessarily better than another?

Lately, I’ve been contending with the losses, the things I don’t have due to the choices I made along the way. It’s been a bit daunting to start focusing on my career at fifty, doing what most twenty-year-olds are doing — plus fitting in time for bone scans and colonoscopies.

What do you value? And how do those values instruct your choices?

Our ideals may change as we grow. I’m taking the time now to invest in other things that I value. Since my instinct is to choose the thing that will bring connection, I work hard to make space for other things of importance to me, like creativity and a fulfilling career.

I’m living by the old adage: It’s never too late. I just have to learn to be okay when the woman I’m working next to can see clearly without reading glasses, and probably didn’t use her mascara wand to cover some grays. But there’s no time to feel bad about my neck, or anything else. I have too much to do. And the clock is ticking.

Collage by Ana Tellez

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  • Ap4rna

    Beautiful article. I have anxiety and fear about the ramifications of my decisions, choosing career over family or vice versa now in my twenties, and it’s interesting to see this perspective of an older woman (who clearly has accomplished a lot in life, and made choices that align with her values).

  • Emily R

    Some of us didn’t choose a career or family. My jobs okay, and I’m single. Neither has really panned out as I imagined. I don’t know too many folks who chose one over the other, we are all just muddling along.

    • Laura Guarraci

      Agreed, along with that I also think it affects us negatively to think in terms of only career and family. There are a whole lot of things out there that you can make a priority in your life in order to be fulfilled that are neither. Like joining a punk band in Prague, for instance.

      (I haven’t done that but damn, I kinda wish i had..)

      • Cynthia Schoonover

        Exactly. I really enjoy sewing and machine embroidery. Both allow my creative side to come out.

    • Katie

      Totally agree with this! I am not ‘career focused’ just because I’m single (I like my job but it’s not my be all and end all) but also wouldn’t want to be labelled as not being as focusef career if I were to build a life with someone or have a family. Why is it either or?!

    • Sarah Bauer

      Thank you so much for this comment. I think the whole ‘choose career or family’ mentality sets a lot of women up for feelings of failure or inadequacy. The vibe seems to be that we have to be a success in one or the other, or we suck, which is a huge stupid distraction when you’re coming of age and trying to figure out who you are and what you love.

    • Emily

      Agreed!

    • ESW

      You know what encourages me? Norman MacLean didn’t publish A River Runs Through It until he was 70! So, I figure, I got time.

      • BScrivner

        He was a professor at U of Chicago from 1930 to 1973, so he wasn’t exactly twiddling his thumbs.

        • ESW

          Ha absolutely – and it is not as if ARRTI was the first time he had picked up a pencil to write. Still, it gives me a bit of hope to think that my greatest achievement might be ahead of me.

    • Cynthia Schoonover

      There are many days when I just muddle along.

  • Genevieve K.

    I went through my 20s thinking you could have it all- family and career. It’s a lie for many of us by a society that doesn’t truly understand women. I’m in a male dominated field and my choices for family have hurt my career and my choices to spend long days working have hurt my family. It’s disillusioning to find that you’ve been sold a fairy tale that doesn’t exist. I’m glad someone is talking frankly about choosing one over another, that’s real life and we need to hear more of it.

  • Beth

    Beautifully written and I so relate to it. I was married at 22 and am now planning to put my career on hold to have and raise children at 27. Of course I could always use childcare, but it’s important to me to be the primary caregiver to my children. We really don’t get a lot of time to live, which makes prioritizing what we care about most and acting on those things so very crucial.

    This really shows how the idea of “having it all” is a myth – sacrifices will always have to be made from big life decisions.

  • Adrianna

    My mother married at 19 and had her first child by 22. She wanted to be a “stay at home mom” but wasn’t privileged enough to make the choice between home and work.

  • TerryMH

    I’m the same age as this writer and appreciate her point of view. If you had asked me in my twenties, I would have said, I value career over family, no question. I didn’t have children until age 35 and shortly thereafter started my own business. It failed. So for the last ten years I’ve essentially been a stay-at-home mother, a role I never imagined or desired for myself. While I kept busy with volunteer work and small creative projects, I know the high-powered career dreams of my youth will never be. And while I mourn this loss, I realize objectively that my kids were probably better off with a mother who was not stressed-out by a demanding job. Now age 51 and the kids almost out of the house, I struggle with what comes next. Its difficult figuring out identity at this juncture and how to remain relevant in the work world.

  • A

    Why do I feel like it’s mostly women who are constantly asked about choosing career or family and balancing the two

  • Kim @ takeeachday

    I’m trying to do both. But I’ll admit it’s easier with a stay at home husband! This is a good food for thought article!

  • Leslie Price

    I feel compelled to weigh in here not only because I edited this essay, but also because I helped craft the headline. The intent wasn’t to highlight “family vs. career,” but rather to illustrate — from the point of view of someone in their 50s — how values inform the very difficult choices one makes during his or her life. These choices could also be related to where we live or other major decisions.

    • Toronto CS

      Reply to Leslie, I think you did that. It’s an interesting essay because the author does talk about how she chose something rather than her life being a series of random events. I just wish the author could be in a happier place at the end, proud of what she’s achieved with a husband and five kids. At the same time, if someone is not entirely content with what they’ve done, I’d rather read about that authentic experience than some sugary feel-good babble.

    • BScrivner

      But if her husband had dropped dead on the street or decided he was tired of working or wanted a divorce, what was the author’s Plan B? It’s great she could afford to have 5 kids and not have to work outside her home, but being prepared to earn a living is a good idea.

      • Leslie Price

        I think it’s a little more nuanced than that? She writes that she did work, and is prepared to work, but that she didn’t “lean in” (for lack of a better term) to her career as much as she did her family.

    • Corie

      I didn’t knowingly make a choice either. I thought I was doing both — family/career. But most of my jobs were short-lived. In retrospect, I see that all the decisions I made along the way were influenced by what I valued most, even though I might not have been aware of that at the time. This was not an article about choosing family over career. It was about how we choose anything (living in Arizona as opposed to New York, or going to law school as opposed to medical school). Our deep values, whatever they might be, will inform these decisions.

      • Fred Levine

        If I might offer another perspective, instead of thinking of either or (career or family) consider elevating your “utility” to the consideration and realize, by being a parent, spouse, daugher and concerned friend, you have already succeeded.

        Being useful in all the ways and demands that these roles entails, when considered and put into its proper place marks a meaningful life. A life of contribution for those in one’s life and the social at large.

        Maybe begin to realize satisfaction and fulfillment and enjoy life as it is. Now and in the future.

    • This is how I read the article. I think it’s a very good perspective to read from. I’m at a pivotal point in career, location, and relationship. Lining up decisions with values and not “the right fit” or “best option” rings truer to my identity anyway. Thanks a lot.

  • Mun

    What an incredible article. Making a choice based on love and be at peace with it. It’s not easy to choose the road less taken but I do admire those who were brave enough and marched on as that was right for them.

  • Jeanie

    My sister’s path is like yours. She chooses family, but I can tell she’s always longing to be an artist. It feels like she always chooses her family over herself. I’m 28 and will probably wait until I set up some passive income before having kids.

  • L.C

    Thank you so much for the article. I am going through something similar right now: last year I was madly in love and completely dissatisfied and depressed with my studies at university. So I got married and left the country with the love of my life, hoping to start again and do something new. Now, after a year, I am almost 24 and completely desperate, feeling like I will never achieve a degree or career, although my married life couldn’t be better. I freak out sometimes with all those “female related” issues and with the remote possibility of having traded my career for love and regretting in the future.

  • Do things in love. Don’t have regrets. Cherish your present. Be excited about the future!

    Meg @ its.megramsay.com

  • Toronto CS

    Like the author, I valued (and continue to value) love and relationships more than just about anything else. My kids are teenagers now and when I was younger I wasted a lot of time wondering what I would do when my kids no longer needed me. A lot of books and people seemed to delight in saying that stay at home mothers would struggle after the kids left.

    But so far I have loved my kids becoming more independent, because I feel like I have my teenage self back — while having confidence, independence, and (a little) money. I have time now to go out with friends, have deep conversations with my kids, exercise, have sex with my husband, and publish my novel online (to good reviews)! I have no regrets at all for focusing on my kids when I was younger. I don’t feel I need to “catch up” in any formal career or achieve anything in particular. In fact, I finally feel like myself, just being able to fill my life with good stuff.

  • Emily

    I really enjoyed this article but it also terrified me – I’m 28 and feel like I’m only just starting my career… I’m nowhere near ready for a family and I find it so frustrating that I feel like I’ll have to choose? My partner said he’d want me to be a “stay at home mother” – but why should I? I’ve worked hard to get where I am, I don’t want to sacrifice it? I also don’t know if I want kids, but also a bit worried that by the time I realise I do / might, it’ll be too late? I think we’re sold something that isn’t unachieveable – career AND a family – unless you’re loaded and can afford staff / nanny / PA etc., to run your life?

    • ESW

      I think it is important to ask your partner why he would want you to be a SAHM. Is it because that is what his mother did? Because he does not want to share the childcare responsibility equally? Because I think you can be a fantastic mother and utilize a quality childcare facility.

      • Emily

        An interesting comment, thank you. I think it’s because his mother was, and he said he “doesn’t want someone else raising his children”?? Also- unfortunately I appreciate your comment about a quality child care facility, but I’m not sure we’d be able to afford it…

  • rachel

    You never know–even if the gal sitting next to you at work is in her 20’s, she could be getting colonoscopies, bones scans and reading glasses too! I mean I’m 26 and have osteoporosis so aging is certainly not limited by chronology 🙂 Good luck with your career goals!

  • Amy Putman

    This article is fantastic. I had a mini ‘aha’ moment…I feel unfulfilled because after all these years of working hard, getting promotions etc I really feel my job/career adds no value to my life. Time to get more honest with myself, re-evaluate my values and make different plans!!!!

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    I’ve never been career-minded. When I had our first child, my husband said he would support my decision to continue working or stay home. Well, while I was on maternity leave, I figured $1 an hour. Not worth it. I went back to work and handed in my resignation. This was 35 years ago. I never looked back. I had our second child and did not return to work until she started kindergarten and then I taught part time in a private school. I did not work full time until my youngest started high school. The years at home were the best for me and my girls. I helped my husband in his business at the time. I’ve been teaching full time for almost 18 years and now I am planning for my retirement. Every woman has to make her own choices and should not feel guilty for them.

  • Lisa

    great essay. loved it and have had a similar life. married at 19 and six kids later i found myself divorced and a single mom. finished my undergrad degree then got my masters and have been in my ‘career’ as a high school teacher for 6 years now. thanks for sharing.