Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Choices We Make


n. An act of selecting or making a decision when presented with two or more possibilities.

Choices are not made in a vacuum. The choices we make are dependent on our circumstances. This should be self-evident, but it seems that the notion of "free choice" irrespective of station or context remains a popular one in our society. The possibilities we are presented with in order to make a selection are often dependent on factors beyond our control. This is what makes the notion of "choice" such a loaded, and sometimes dangerous, concept.

When we think about choice we need to think about privilege. Because the more privilege we have, generally, the greater the number of choices. I am privileged in a number of ways. I'm white, educated, comfortably off and I am fortunate to live in a country where I can vote and my rights are protected. Therefore, the choices open to me are far greater than for some one with fewer privileges. Still, there are limitations to my choices.

"I do not believe things happen accidentally. I believe you earn them" - Madeleine Albright. This sentiment goes hand in hand with the idea that we all  make choices in life. And it's up to us to choose wisely in order to "succeed."

When I was younger, I may have found these words inspiring and encouraging. Fresh out of university, the world was my oyster. I was only limited by my imagination. I was young, lovely, smart and healthy. The hardest part was having so many choices. Until then, my life had been steered in a certain direction thanks to other people's choices. I didn't consider whether I would go to university, rather - which one, which course. My choices in that area were somewhat limited due to the fact that I had to work to support myself so didn't feel like I had the choice to take on a degree that required a heavy study load. Luckily, though, my first choice was a communications degree anyway.At another point I was waylaid by illness and had to delay study for a year. I made the choice to defer in order to get better. It was a good choice. I went back when I was well and completed my degree. So far, all my choices had been fairly simple.

 Then one of my best friends got gravely ill with cancer. She spent six months in hospital undergoing chemo and radiation, and a stem cell transplant. I made the choice to get a job as a medical receptionist in a dermatology clinic next door to the hospital so I could visit her every day at lunchtime and after work. Looking back, I'm so glad I made this choice. It was another no-brainer. Important, but easy to make.

I went on to make various choices around where I worked, lived and travelled. I never considered my fate to be anything but my own making. Nothing was happening accidentally. I was earning things. I  made the most of opportunities. I moved ahead, took chances. I had choices.

Fast forward years later. My career was doing well, such that it was. Despite any real forward planning I had stumbled from one interesting-looking job to another and managed to work my way up to a fairly high level position for my age, with a salary to match. In fact, I was earning more than my husband. Then, I had a baby.

And this is where "choices" got complicated.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge again that I do have a lot of privilege. And there are many, many women with far fewer choices than me. Single mothers, women on disability allowances, women whose partners are on low incomes and who have no choice about whether to work or not, women for whom working is too expensive. I'm saying I am privileged and yet my choices are still limited. I'm just talking about me.

I took a year maternity leave. I imagined that a year was a very long time indeed to be away from work, having not been out of work since I was 15. I imagined my baby would be very independent by then, and that I would sort out some form of childcare when the time came. Oh, the naivete! But I saw other women who worked and had babies. I heard people agreeing that a year was more than enough to be away. And that I would have to get back to work at least part time if I wanted to continue having a career.

A year later, things changed. It turned out I had a high needs baby. One who was very attached to me, and my breasts. One who didn't like to be put down, let alone left with a carer. One who wouldn't take a bottle. What's more, I had spent the year researching different parenting approaches and philosophies. After a fairly inglorious trial-and-error start, it turned out I was an attachment parent. I wanted to be with my child, not just him with me. I wanted to be the one to teach him and help him grow, I wanted to be around him. Yes, all the time. This may seem extreme. But it's how I felt. I wasn't ready to let go and neither was he.

So this is where the choices become tricky. I was able to extend my maternity leave for another year, re-labelled into a vague 'general leave' category. But my  husband and I soon realised that without my salary we couldn't afford to keep living in Sydney. We could barely afford to rent in an area that was close to his work -  our hope of buying somewhere to live had faded into a pipe dream. Again, even being able to rent withing a short commute from the office was a privilege denied many. But we didn't want the "choice" of buying a house if it meant a 1.5 hour commute each way.

So we chose to leave town. We moved north and settled into a new life. Of course, for me, this meant making a more permanent decision about leaving my career behind. Because I couldn't have it both ways. See how this choice works? Luckily my husband was able to keep his job and his salary and transfer to a different office, in a more affordable city. More privilege.

Now my choices were less about getting my career back on track and more about whether I wanted to or could work at all. It would mean a new job where I had no credit or track record and a lower salary. I still didn't want to work full time and part time jobs are not that easy to come by. Choice, reframed again.

By this time I was pregnant with my second child and sick throughout. So the idea of work got shelved again. When my daughter was born, I was as attached to her as I had been my son. I couldn't think about leaving her for at least another two years. Lots of people asked me about my work plans. When describing myself as a stay at home mum brought the conversation to a standstill in certain circles, I found myself delving into my past to explain my qualifications and previous work experience, as though to assure the acquaintance that I do have an actual brain. People expressed surprise, or said "I couldn't do that" with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. It says something about the way our society views caring work when the idea that I want to be around my children a lot seems like the lesser choice, the extreme choice. It didn't seem extreme to me, and certainly not to my children.

It had now been over four years since I had had a job. My choices were getting slimmer. I had no family nearby since the move, so the only real possibility for childcare was long day care. With two small children in long day care, I would have had to earn a small fortune to break even. Suddenly the word choice seemed slightly laughable. Yes, I would tell people, I choose to stay home with my children.

Four years out of the workforce. Four years out of the loop. Four years of doing other things. It felt like a chasm. I became anxious about jumping back into the fray. Who would do all the things I had been doing to keep the home fires burning? I had friends who were working mothers who hung out washing at 5am, and did midnight grocery runs. I suppose that's their choice. And I had made mine.

I made a deal with myself. When the first child started school, the day care fees would be reduced. I'd look for a job then. But what? The part time jobs still seemed thin on the ground. And full time, with no family, seemed daunting. Who would take time off if the kids were sick? It would have to be me, since I would certainly be earning less than my husband. Who would have to leave at 5 on the dot to collect the kids? Me again, for the same reason. My husband couldn't afford to jeopardise his job.

By the time the eldest child was in school an opportunity came up for us to relocate to Canada for two years. It was a wonderful opportunity. We thought about it. It would mean a lot of adventure. Since I didn't actually have a job it seemed churlish to wonder what impact it would have on my (non-existent) career. We thought it would be a good time to go before I got stuck into anything and it became too hard to leave.

So off we went. We arrived, again with no family support and this time not even a network of friends to lean on. There was the summer, finding a place to live, settling the kids into school. My youngest is still only in school every other day. I have a work permit, so I have the choice to work. However this would mean long day care in an unfamiliar environment. If there are any places available. And with a summer that lasts two and  a half months, that is a lot of expensive summer camps. Times two. I have applied to couple of places but nothing has panned out. My availability is limited. It's just the way it is. I'm not unhappy at home. I still enjoy spending time with my children. I don't bake. I'm not a particularly good housekeeper.  When I'm not with the children I am reading, writing or tweeting. I'm expanding my mind in my own personal ways. If you care to pay attention, children give you a hell of an education as well. I find interacting with them far more fulfilling than sitting through another meeting on customer retention rates.

I have made decisions based on the choices available to me at the time. I'm happy with that. But all of a sudden, it has been seven years that I have been out of the workforce. My husband's earning capacity has long since far outstripped mine. I have broken every rule in the feminist handbook. Some would say I have sabotaged myself. I have flipped the bird to all the women before me who fought so hard for me to have the choice to maintain a career and have children. I am totally financially dependent on a man. I am a stay at home mum. Not just that, but a long-term one. How many workplaces would welcome back some one like me with open arms? How many have flexible work conditions, not just in policy but in action? How many would pay well enough to allow for before and after and school holiday care and still allow me to earn a decent living?

 For me, I could not have my children, my career and my sanity. I had to pick two. That was my choice.


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  2. I find this so relatable (that was an autocorrect - it doesn't feel quite right or even perhaps a proper word). Moving on. I too was in a job earning more than my husband when I fell pregnant unintentionally with my first child. We had a deal, six months parental leave each. His company said - you can take that six months, or you can move to a new country with a new job. We left the country - new country and I got a new job again on the higher end of the scale. Again we left. The next time was to a country I couldn't secure a work visa for so I have just had three years in South Africa exploring 'me'.

    Now back in a country again where I am awaiting the arrival of my work visa any day now - overwhelmed by the choices I have ahead. Thank you for your words on this subject.

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