Finding the Smart Time to Return to Work

This is the kind of advice that flies in when you're a working woman pregnant for the first time:

"Infants don't really notice if it's you or someone else taking care of them -- go back to work right away, and take a break when they need you to help with their homework."
"When your kids are teenagers -- that's when you really want to stay home. You know -- big kids, big problems."
"I don't know what you'll be like but the night before I had to come back to work, I realized I couldn't leave my baby. It's better to stay home when they're so vulnerable, and go back when they starts school."


In other words, welcome to the maelstrom of motherhood. Lots of good advice, but you've got to make your own decisions.

To help out, here is the collective wisdom from On Balance readers:

1. Don't let anyone else decide for you or guilt you into the wrong choice. Good moms come in all forms -- at home, working, part-time, temporarily off the track, insanely ambitious.

2. Unless you know you don't want to work again, don't quit your job at first. If your current job doesn't jive with your new motherhood, try to cut some kind of part-time deal, at least in the beginning, or change jobs. Or resolve to look for another position in a few months, once you've settled into motherhood. You'll have the advantage of being currently employed.

2. Take as long a maternity leave as possible. A few extra weeks or months out won't hurt your career trajectory in the long run, but more time at home will give you a better feel for how you might like the stay-at-home life over time.

3. If you think you'll like staying home, give yourself two years to try it. Two years is long enough to see if you want the at-home life; and if you don't, two years at home is fairly easy to explain without raising employers' eyebrows. Plus, good infant care is hard to find and expensive; the daycare availability improves greatly when children hit two.

4. Consider the tremendous benefits of good daycare as you make your decision. Studies show kids learn more during their first five years of life than any other time, and daycare can be very stimulating. Plus you will get your child on a schedule, which will make mornings and weekends easier. You can meet lots of other parents in the same boat at day care, as well as those dashing in and out of work at the same times as you; parent networks are key. Your child will have a super immune system by the time he/she goes to kindergarten. Once you get used to paying for daycare, as the cost decreases and disappears when/if they go to public school, you can funnel that money into a college fund.

5. Don't quit work until you have a sense for how much children will add to family expenses. Make sure to include a realistic assessment of your shorterm and longterm financial situation. Children can be expensive in unexpected ways. Having enough money doesn't solve every parenting dilemma, but not having money exacerbates almost every problem.

6. Consider the "quality vs. quantity time" argument. When do your kids need your focused attention? When do they need you around 24/7 in the background? Some working parents report being more attentive when they get home because they only have a few hours together. The argument is that if they had been home all day, trying to multi-task the whole time, children wouldn't get much undivided attention even though they were with a parent full time. Children's needs change over time, and every child needs his or her parents at different stages. Accept that you may have to adapt your work schedule to your child's unique needs.

7.If you stay home when your kids are little, it can make sense to go back when they are in elementary or middle school, particularly one with a good afterschool. And you can make a logical argument to employers as you "explain" your absence. Say you stayed home "for family reasons" and now that the kids are in school you are raring to go.

8. Take a break from work when your children are teenagers. Some parents feel that is when they really need to be home to stay close to any experimentation with sex, alcohol or drugs, and to guide them in school as they prepare for college or work after graduation.

9. Listen to the catch-all from my first ob-gyn, an older mom with three kids: Life is long. You can quit or go back to work anytime you want. Chill out and enjoy the journey.

10. Last but not least: none of this great advice ever mentions anything about what you need. Don't forget that a happy mom and an economically stable household matter -- a lot -- to kids of all ages. So if you want to stay home, but you're on the verge of getting a significant promotion, suck it up and go back -- you can quit later. If you earn a good salary but think you can survive without it for a few years, stay home, keep your skills fresh, and trust that you will be able to go back when you want to or need to. Make sure you put yourself on the Top Ten list.

Next week: Send me your Tips for Planning A Great Summer For Your Kids -- Without Driving Yourself Crazy so I can include them in next Monday's Top 10 Tips.

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  May 19, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Top Ten Tips
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Comments

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here is the first comment.
this was getting lonely.

Posted by: ok | May 19, 2008 7:57 AM

Many of these are good, but I liked this bit from number 4: "...Your child will have a super immune system by the time he/she goes to kindergarten..."

Translation: have a back-up plan, because your kid is going to be sick a fair amount of time.

I understand that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data" but when our kids were in a large day-care center they were constantly being exposed to all kinds of interesting germs and were sick a fair amount of the time. I'd have to go back and look at the records, but when we had three in the da care center I'd guess we had one or more home sick close to 20% of the time.

(And yes, I do still have the records. I'm a geek!)

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 8:14 AM

ArmyBrat: my oldest didn't go to school til he was about 2 1/2 and he never gets sick. I think it mainly depends on the kid. My younger one doesn't get sick so much, but compared to the one with the big immune system.

The older one would go to school, and then everyone in the house would get sick, just not him *sigh.

Anyway, I think it's easier to go back and forth than people realize. My career isn't the be all and end all, my kids are.

We'll see what happens in the fall (and I'm sure I'll be pretty happy when they go back to school) but I'm pretty happy being home with them again. I think employers see people taking breaks quite a bit these days, for various reasons, and it's not an issue.

I do think that most employers want you to be beholden to them, so if you don't absolutely need the income they can feel threatened. I think this is partially what happened at my former job. It has nothing at all to do with you or your job performance, but it seems that employers reluctantly want to do things that benefit employees for these reasons.

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 8:20 AM

atlmom: "I do think that most employers want you to be beholden to them, so if you don't absolutely need the income they can feel threatened."

Very, very true. I remember a personnel meeting with my previous employer. We were discussing bonuses, raises, etc. Things were thrown out like "Joe just bought a new house. He's not going anywhere. We can lowball him this year." "Jane just had a kid. She's been thinking about quitting. We really, really need her. Better give her the maximum raise." etc.

And I've now seen those discussions happen every place I worked. Yes, even the Feds. I guess it qualifies as "smart management" or something.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 8:37 AM

We're in an odd situation right now. My daughter's math teacher took maternity leave in January, and was supposed to come back in March. She burned up some additional leave and finally informed the school in mid-April that she'd decided to stay home with the baby. The problem is that if she'd been honest with the administration from the beginning my daughter's class would have been assigned a certified permanent replacement and instead they've had a long-term substitute who doesn't actually have the certifications for what she's teaching. Previously I was really gung-ho on supporting every mom's right to stay home, but at the moment many of us are feeling like our children are suffering as a result of the current system. I wish I could be more supportive of this womans' choice but my child still has to take exams. I've never experienced this particular part of the juggle before. Have any of the rest of you?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 8:54 AM

Wow, 8:54! I would think something as extended as maternity leave (3 months!) would have merited a certified teacher anyway. I'd get on the school about that practice.

Posted by: atb | May 19, 2008 8:58 AM

Wow, 8:54! I would think something as extended as maternity leave (3 months!) would have merited a certified teacher anyway. I'd get on the school about that practice.

Posted by: atb | May 19, 2008 8:58 AM

atb - a family friend is a long-term sub in the Clark County (NV) public school systems - she has done several maternity leave gigs = I don't think school systems always look for a specialist. If she is lucky she gets to arrange planning/strategy with the teacher going out. This summer she is in a year round school - kindergarden - yikes - talk about disruptive! She has met with that teacher and she will be setting up the routine per the teacher's normal pattern to ease the transition.

Posted by: Product of a Working Mother | May 19, 2008 9:06 AM

Oh, the irony:
"1. Don't let anyone else decide for you or guilt you into the wrong choice."

Followed by:
"So if you want to stay home, but you're on the verge of getting a significant promotion, suck it up and go back -- you can quit later. If you earn a good salary but think you can survive without it for a few years, stay home, keep your skills fresh, and trust that you will be able to go back when you want to or need to."

Really, Leslie, can you NOT violate what you say just a few paragraphs earlier?

Posted by: Ryan | May 19, 2008 9:19 AM

ArmyBrat, along with those discussions of how to manipulate moms and dads by salaries comes the discussion of how to stick it to people without children. After all, nothing they do counts compared to the obligations of those with children. They should be thrilled to stay late/come in early/travel more. I've sat in on those discussions as well. And that extends to those in the military as well.

Posted by: babsy1 | May 19, 2008 9:20 AM

Really? We should send kids to daycare so they give their immune systems a workout? Ick!

Posted by: Kattoo | May 19, 2008 9:23 AM

Ryan and others who might be thinking the same, totally valid thing: I don't necessarily agree with all of these points. Readers sent them in, and although I disagree with some, they do seem to represent a lot of people's views.

So take what you need -- and leave the rest!

Posted by: Leslie | May 19, 2008 9:24 AM

I understand that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data" but when our kids were in a large day-care center they were constantly being exposed to all kinds of interesting germs and were sick a fair amount of the time. I'd have to go back and look at the records, but when we had three in the da care center I'd guess we had one or more home sick close to 20% of the time.

(And yes, I do still have the records. I'm a geek!)


Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 8:14 AM

Anecdote. Both of our kids were in daycare from 10 weeks through year 4. Neither was sick more than 7 - 8 days a year. The judgment of the other parents who use that center is the determining factor of whether it's a breeding ground for illness. If you use a center where the parents are inclined to stay home with their sick children rather than pump 'em full of Tylenol and drop them off anyway, your kids tend to be exposed to less.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 9:26 AM

re: teacher who didn't return: you never know what happened - she may have been wanting to return, then after a period of time, decided not to return. The child is still expected to learn, and if they are not learning - given that it is THREE MONTHS of maternity leave, I suspect, then I would, as suggested above, have been a little more involved and requested someone else be teaching that class. I know it's not even easy to find a full time math teacher (let's not go there, re: pay vs. pay elsewhere) but the school has a responsibility to teach the child - however, the parent also has a responsibility to ensure that that is happening.

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 9:27 AM

there is probably no right time to stay home. I imagine it depends on the family and the particular kid. But your day care options are far superior for younger children then older kids. I am not sure you could find great child care for a HS student.

My daughter's teacher went on maternity leave a month ago. They hired a certified teacher who used to teach on a military base. I gathered her husband was in the military and she was between jobs when this came up. So far it has worked out well. I don't think all long term subs are bad.

Posted by: foamgnome | May 19, 2008 9:34 AM

babsy1 - paranoid much?

Actually, I didn't notice the manipulation of childless people in those meetings. They were generally assumed to be more flexible/mobile, so if anything more attention was paid to them.

E.g., if Barbara is a talented engineer and we need to keep her, and if Barbara is childless (and even more so if she's single), then Barbara is free to leave whenever our competitor comes calling. That's because she's probably more willing to take a risk, and the consequences to her in case of a failure are lower than for those with others to support. So keep an eye out for headhunters sniffing around, and do whatever it takes to keep her happy. Unless she just bought a house or is about to and can't take the short-term risk. :-)

Except for those who've just had a kid and are making the stay at home vs work outside the home decision, most people with kids are considered to be less likely to jump because it's a bigger risk to them if they do (more mouths to feed) and they are perceived to be less willing to take that risk (bigger consequences in case of a failure).

I don't know if that's true or not in general, but every employer I've had has presumed that to be the case.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 9:48 AM

don't think all long term subs are bad.

Posted by: foamgnome | May 19, 2008 9:34 AM

Duh.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 9:48 AM

I just got to read Thursday's bad mommy posts, and you guys are hilarious! My poor daughter was sent to school on picture day last week with 2 giant claw marks on her face, courtesy of me trying to grab her as she slipped of a picnic bench because I wasn't paying attention. I can't wait to see the pictures.

Posted by: atb | May 19, 2008 9:48 AM

Armybrat: My DH gets headhunters calling/emailing all the time - opportunities all over the country. He will ask do you want to move to XXX? And I always say: YES. And then I never hear about it again.

He recently did tell me that he would feel guilty if we all moved and he took us somewhere and it didn't work out cause we didn't like the place, or the job didn't work out cause it wasn't what he expected. I never looked at it that way (i.e., it wouldn't be his 'fault' we would make the decision together).

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 10:05 AM

OT to atb: yeah, my little one fell this weekend, so he went to preschool with a black eye today. And I always get told how wonderful and good he is at school, so they really don't have much idea about his active streak...

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 10:09 AM

"I do think that most employers want you to be beholden to them, so if you don't absolutely need the income they can feel threatened."

SO true! My husband jokes that his boss came by his office one day and commented on the lack of decoration on the walls. One of my husband's coworkers turned to the boss and said, "didn't you know? His wife's a partner in a law firm -- he could have all this stuff in a box and be gone in 15 minutes."

My husband's been in the reverse position, where he was stuck because he brought home the vast majority of the money. And he MUCH prefers the kind of freedom and relative power he has now. :-) Well, that and he has really good bosses.

Oh, and Leslie: you know I'm not a nitpicker, but it's "jibe," not "jive."

Posted by: Laura | May 19, 2008 10:10 AM

Laura: "My husband's been in the reverse position, where he was stuck because he brought home the vast majority of the money. And he MUCH prefers the kind of freedom and relative power he has now. :-)"

Yup, that's the position I'm in now. DW works in the school system and makes a lot less than me. I've been chatting with a couple of friends recently about going out on our own and starting our own small company, and it would be fun to give it a shot. But my own personal risk algorithms say that I just can't do it right now - one kid in college, two in high school - it's not worth it. And my bosses know that, too. :-(

A friend of mine's in the perfect position, work-wise. He started up a company a number of years ago and sold it about three or four years ago. When all was said and done he walked away with 25 megabucks, so he never has to work again. But after six months he was bored, and decided the easiest thing to do was come back to work. So he works here. Senior management holds the guy in awe because of his business success, so he's pretty much untouchable. And he rarely if ever gets the crap jobs because he can simply say "go ahead; tick me off. Watch what happens."

And re: atlmom's comment - if I were to jump, DW and I would talk about it and it would be a joint agreement. But if a small company were then to fail, I'd still blame myself, despite knowing that DW agreed and supported, etc. Can't help it; it's just the way I am. I suspect your atlmom's husband is the same way.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 10:21 AM

Laura: When I went back to work, it was partially so DH could quit his job and start his own thing.

So when he was about to do just that, he got called for an interview. Went on said interview, really didn't want the job, didn't care much, whatever. So of course he got the job and a large raise.

So he took it. And now he's not as worrieda bout ever finding a job, given the way the headhunters keep calling him - which gave ME the freedom to quit my job cause he doesn't have half the stress he used to being the only breadwinner.

So, then, when *I* quit and told them I would work for them part time, they pretty much couldn't figure out a way - I think partially cause they were pretty pissed about it (*I* can't work part time, why should *YOU*?).

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 10:23 AM

Armybrat: yeah, I'm sure, I even said to him that I would never blame him, personally, I would look at whatever it was as a learning experience, that things would work out, we'd be fine, etc. But sure, whenever it's 'we moved cause of me' I can see that there's a lot of pressure on whoever the move was 'for.'

Move could be physical or emotional (i.e., start up company) - does anyone out there watch Medium? Where the dad (engineer) had the idea, and wanted to use the kid's college fund for that - and the mom was unsure about it. Pretty interesting. She didn't want to do that, and finally came around. Some interesting themes in there.

Posted by: Atlmom | May 19, 2008 10:30 AM

More on-topic, I really appreciate no. 1, for just about any issue. I just got back from 4 days with my sister and her new baby (month-old), and it was basically an extended flashback into how unsure you are of everything -- so desperate to do everything "right," but not knowing what that is in the face of conflicting advice; thinking you're missing something and if you only had the right answer the baby will stop crying, and so since the baby won't stop crying you must be doing something wrong, etc etc etc. By far the most valuable advice is to figure out what works for you, and stop listening to people who push you to do more/different than you can handle.

She's had a rough start -- baby hasn't learned to latch well despite multiple visits with different lactation consultants (where's Frieda when you need her??), then got bronchiolitis and spent a week in the hospital. So they've really only had about a week of relative normalcy. And so many people are telling her different things, which makes it even harder for her to learn which way is up. For ex., one nurse told her she needed to nurse the baby, then top her off with a bottle, THEN pump to keep her own supply up. So she was exhausting herself trying to do that Every Single Time the baby wanted to eat (yes, that's right -- 1.5 hrs of feeding/pumping, for a baby who's eating every 2 hrs). Somehow, I became the voice of reason -- I told her what we had been through and basically gave her permission to quit trying to live up to other people's ridiculous expectations. Which is weird, because she's not weak-willed or some nervous nellie. But when it's all so new, and the "experts" are telling you something's important, you're going to do whatever it takes. When I told her that I thought the nurse's expectations were laughable, you could actually see the stress drain out of her.

And, wouldn't ya know, as soon as my sis decided she was just going to breastfeed OR bottlefeed/pump at any given feeding, the baby figured out how to latch on, and started eating like a piglet. :-)

Posted by: Laura | May 19, 2008 10:33 AM

No ArmyBrat, I'm not paranoid. You just made my argument. Just because someone isn't raising children doesn't mean their out-of-work life is less demanding/less meaningful/less worthy of consideration than those with children. I've seen singles and multiples (married with or without children) pitted against one another in every job I've had. It breeds resentment, not good working relationships. There still are tacit policies in the military that the single people deploy more often than those with families.

Posted by: babsy1 | May 19, 2008 10:57 AM

babsy1: but really, what I've seen is that typically, people with kids are older, and have more perspective.

Certainly, my old boss would allow me to say: sorry I'm late, drop off for kids at school, or I'd leave in the middle of the day for an hour and say: i'm reading to the kid at school or whatever.

I just did, did not ask permission. as with leaving at 5 every day.

My coworker would work nights and weekends to get things done, even though she wasn't quite asked, she was asked to do certain tasks, and rather than say: you know, you have to let me know which thing is the most important - I can't do all this right now, remember you assigned me XYZ also? She would just do it. Part or all of it was that she is 10 + years younger than me. So she doesn't have the experience, she doesn't have the guts to do all that.

Part of it also was I wasn't necessarily looking to move up, I make a lot of money, am a desirable employee, didn't want the extra stress of staying late, etc, so I didn't care.

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 11:09 AM

babsy1, sorry I forgot the :-) on the original "paranoid" remark. That was meant to be tongue-in-cheek if it didn't come out that way.

I think atlmom makes a valid point, and getting back sort-of on-topic, it relates to Leslie's point 10. You need to figure out what your own priorities are and live that life. If you let anybody else drive your entire life, you're going to suffer.

At one point working for the Feds, I had a boss who was out of control. Everything was a number one priority; rush-rush get this done today; no you can't drop anything else I've already assigned you. So the key technical staff got together and went in to see him. We listed all of the projects he had assigned and told him that he had to identify for us, in priority order, the top 10 and we'd make sure those were done. We didn't have the capacity to do more than that; they'd slip or he could go back to his management and say he just didn't have the resources.

His response was to give us back a "top 10" list with 14 items on it. And as we could have predicted, there was a 14-way tie for number 1 on his priority list. We thanked him, because that meant that he had just given us carte blanche - we could work on the tasks in our own priority order. (That was because no matter what we did we were running a risk that we'd be working on the wrong thing the next time he cared about something. Since he wouldn't choose for us, we'd choose for ourselves.)

It can be liberating when you realize that at work and in life. You can't do everything "somebody else" wants you to do. Make your own choices; set your own priorities; do what you can and live your life.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 11:26 AM

I think figuring out what your priorities are is absolutely key.

The thing is that you won't really know what your priorities and needs are until you get into the whole parenthood thing, so don't shortchange yourself by locking into one path early on.

Posted by: RoseG | May 19, 2008 11:34 AM

ArmyBrat: Sounds like you worked for my former boss. Well, then you all had the right attitude, it seems. Realistically - what I did was what I wanted, and the more I did the less he wanted me to do - cause if I was shown as competent, it might mean that they didn't need *him* (he was very keen on always saying yes and always doing everything and knowing everything - which meant while anyone in the company would go to him cause they always knew that he would do it - it also meant he was never getting promoted...).

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 12:11 PM

Not working was never an option. I did take six months maternity leave, then part time until my daughter was two years old. A woman who takes a substantial amount of time away from her career is taking a risk--if her husband leaves her, will she be able to adequately provide for her children? Didn't work so well for my mother...and a lot of women of her generation.

Posted by: pepperjade | May 19, 2008 12:17 PM

I know this is unpopular here. However, I try (and have discussed this with DH) not to make decisions based on fear. It's a horrible emotion. So many people live their lives with fear. Rather than taking charge of a situation.

And I know that so many people will answer: well, what if THIS happens or THAT happens or whatever? Well, I have faith in ME, that I could handle any situation that comes around to me - that I could do what it takes. If it's better for the family for me to be home with the kids, then should I work? If we have decided that this is the best decision, all around, then should my fear hinder my family?

I would prefer to live my life knowing what I know - and not worrying about every horrible thing that might happen - and part of that would be not trusting my DH to do the right thing - I would prefer not to live like that. So let's say the worst happens - well, then it does, and I'm prepared for it. In the meantime, I won't fear it or anything else - it's a waste of time, in my opinion - and makes me not have the relationship with my DH that I want to have.

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 12:38 PM

I agree totally, AtlMom. This should be part of the #1 tip on the list: don't let fear play a part in your decision. Caution, prudence, etc, are fine. But fear can cloud your judgment as much or more as guilt does.

My motto: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Posted by: Leslie | May 19, 2008 12:59 PM

So true AtlMom - being unemployed last year taught me first and foremost that I can bounce back (no matter how bruised my ego feels) and that I seem to plan far better than I realize.

Posted by: Product of a Working Mother | May 19, 2008 1:18 PM

I'm one who thinks that a little fear can be a good thing. You certainly can't let fear run your life; you can't let it paralyze you. But a healthy understanding of what some of the possible consequences of your actions are is necessary to make good choices. And a little "fear" helps you fully understand consequences.

(It's possible we're just using different definitions of the term; what I'm calling "fear" you may be calling "caution".)

Posted by: ArmyBrat | May 19, 2008 1:34 PM

"However, I try (and have discussed this with DH) not to make decisions based on fear. "

Amen, hallelujah and you can say that again about 100 times. I have come across people who I feel have lived their entire lives in fear (as opposed to caution, AB makes a good point) - and I can see what their lives have been as a result, and it is so sad. I'm not at the point yet of having to make the work/work part time/don't work decision, kids are still a few years away for me, but the one thing that will NOT make that decision for me, or any other for that matter, is fear.

Posted by: tsp 2007 | May 19, 2008 1:41 PM

ArmyBrat - thanks for the explanation. I think fear is healthy. It's what drives us to save, get life insurance, make guardianship plans. Being afraid of your boss is a different subject though. I have had jobs in which I feared the boss, mostly that the boss didn't any interest in giving me credit, or in helping me work to my abilities to help the organization. In those cases, I ended up leaving, and was the better for it. A little fear can help you realize when you need to move on.

Posted by: babsy1 | May 19, 2008 1:41 PM

I don't equate fear with pragmatism--I am one of the toughest women you could possibly meet. A lot of women in my position have fared far worse. We are not destitute because I had a contingency plan. But...I grew up impoversihed because my mother believed a man would always be around to take care of her and her children. At 42, she was divorced for a third time, had three kids (two of us under age 5) and no job skills...and no marriage prospects.

I believe in risk management--and I was unwilling to risk my daughter's future to stay at home and take time away from my career. I made the right choice for us, clearly. Big, fat child support checks are nonexistent for us. I am solely responsible for my daughter, and we are doing just fine.

A "fearful" woman would not have done so well. A strong woman lands on her feet and keeps on moving, not missing a beat. My mother used to brag, "I'm a survivor." After my divorce, I told her, "I am a winner."

Posted by: pepperjade | May 19, 2008 2:12 PM

"A "fearful" woman would not have done so well. A strong woman lands on her feet and keeps on moving, not missing a beat. My mother used to brag, "I'm a survivor." After my divorce, I told her, "I am a winner.""

I've been happily married to the same person for 51 years.

I believe that makes *me* the winner.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 2:25 PM

I don't think it's whether or not your marriage was successful that makes you a "winner" or not. Obviously that is wonderful and you are very fortunate and have probably done a lot of work to make that happen. But to me, it's how you deal with the curveballs life throws you that make you a winner--and basing your actions and decisions on pragmatism and what's best for you and your family, rather than by fear, are what matters most.

Posted by: tsp 2007 | May 19, 2008 2:39 PM

Brava, Pepperjade! Strong women are strong because they have to be, and guess what, they succeed. As to being married for 51 years, my hat's off to you on having chosen well. But some of us win on our own merits.

Posted by: babsy1 | May 19, 2008 2:42 PM

I've been happily married to the same person for 51 years.

I believe that makes *me* the winner.

Posted by: | May 19, 2008 2:25 PM

You don't get points for inertia.

Happy makes you a winner, whether you find happiness married, divorced, never-married or as a eunuch.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 2:52 PM

I would be unhappy as a eunuch!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 3:02 PM

I agree with your views on motherhood so much. So much so that I plugged you in my own column here. I hope that's okay. If not, um... oh well!

http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/family/sex/youve-got-e-male

As far as my take on the work deal, I have to say that while moms have to do what moms need to do to be happy (as that makes happy kids) sometimes we don't have choices. We have to go back to pay the bills. Sometimes we do have choices. Example, IMO, Gymboree is a privilege, not a necessity of raising healthy kids. If staying home with the kids and being debt free means not charging a bunch of extra classes - fun as they are - then so be it.

To me the real kick in the pants is that even though sometimes we don't have a choice about our decisions (example: having to work or not being able to afford additional classes to stay home) we do have the choice to be happy about what we DO have. And making the choice to make due with whatever we need to do in order to survive motherhood - and raise happy, conscious children, has to be a good thing.

Best of luck to you, Leslie, and all you moms out there! We're all doing the best we can.

And damn, this went longer than I expected.

Posted by: Andrea Frazer | May 19, 2008 3:20 PM

Being happy is in the eye of the beholder. I can easily imagine happy eunchs! But only you can decide what makes you "happy" and when you are "happy." I myself find that happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. Definitely worth striving for, but only as one of many satisfying emotions and states of being.

Posted by: Leslie | May 19, 2008 3:45 PM

To babsy: "As to being married for 51 years, my hat's off to you on having chosen well. But some of us win on our own merits."

How is that NOT on my own merits? It's partly having chosen well; it's also an h-e-double-hockey-sticks of a lot of work to make it work.

The "choosing well" part gets you the first 2 per cent of the way there; the rest is work.

It ain't luck, sister.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 3:50 PM

"it's also an h-e-double-hockey-sticks of a lot of work to make it work."

That is so very true--and I wish that my case had simply been "a little more effort and it would have worked." I am dumb-struck by divorced people who tell me, "We just drifted apart" or "I was just not happy anymore." My own situation was full of trauma and drama--physical abuse, alcoholism, fiscal mismanagement. So yeah, when I got rid of the albatross around my neck, I did come out a winner. I was happier, I had more money, and I didn't dread coming home to the house I was paying for because my mean, drunk husband wanted to start a fight. Other women stay in these situations because they are afraid they cannot make it on their own because their self esteem is so shot out.

Posted by: pepperjade | May 19, 2008 4:10 PM

The "choosing well" part gets you the first 2 per cent of the way there; the rest is work.

It ain't luck, sister.

Posted by: | May 19, 2008 3:50 PM

I disagree. The choosing well gets you MUCH MUCH further. I chose someone who has a similar life outlook, similar values, similar lots of things - so these would not be contentious areas of life. Not to say we don't have disagreements, we do - but it's difficult enough after 'choosing well' that not choosing well, well, that would be why people get divorced, I think.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 4:54 PM

The "choosing well" part gets you the first 2 per cent of the way there; the rest is work.

It ain't luck, sister.

Posted by: | May 19, 2008 3:50 PM

Choosing well assumes that a partner is like a canteloupe or a thoroughbred. In other words, choose well (like I did) and you'll be happy with what you have when you get home.

People are not produce or horses. They, and their wants and needs do not remain static. You are only half of a marriage. Work as hard as you want and you cannot make the other person love you, stay in love with you, or want to remain with you.

Saying it's all about work suggests that if you work a lot at it, you are all but guaranteed happily longevity. What a bunch of hoohah.

Work doesn't guarantee a successful marriage.

Choosing well doesn't guarantee a successful marriage.

Stop patting yourself on the back so much. Seek wisdom and accept what you cannot control.


God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 5:20 PM

To anon @ 5:20 - that's pretty fatalistic, isn't it?

Choosing well doesn't guarantee a successful marriage; it only gets you part way there. I agree.

Hard work on the part of one partner doesn't guarantee a successful marriage. I agree.

So what does guarantee a successful marriage? You don't say, but you seem to imply "pure dumb luck". I disagree.

"Pure dumb luck" gets you no farther in a marriage than it does in a career. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company didn't get there by luck, any more than someone married for 51 years to the same person got there by luck.

It's choosing well. It's hard work. It's noting when your partner is changing. It's reacting to those changes in appropriate ways. It's deciding when it's time to work hard and advance the marriage (or career), and when it's time to get out of the job (or marriage).

The person who's successfully married to the same partner for 51 years is just as successful in her chosen path as is the person who made it to the top of the Fortune 500 company.

Which is not to say that the person whose marriage didn't last that long is unsuccessful; any more than the person who did not become CEO of GE is unsuccessful.

But the poster above who considered herself the winner for being married for 51 years is, in my book, a winner.

To quote the previous poster, it ain't luck.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 6:14 PM

Posted by: | May 19, 2008 6:14 PM

As long as we are talking about implications, I didn't appreciate the implication that because I didn't stay in an abusive marriage, that I was not a winner. Some women stay married to abusive men for decades--I would not call them winners. I don't equate marital status with winning or losing; some people are happily divorced and some people are miserably married. Is the miserably married person the winner? I certainly won't consider Silda Spitzer a winner or successful if she remains married to a self-centered wh0re-monger who put her at risk for STDs, including AIDS. I will consider her a winner if she gets a big, fat divorce settlement.

I do equate the ability to correct a bad situation with winning.

Posted by: pepperjade | May 19, 2008 6:37 PM

pepperjade: well, it's not about winning or losing or keeping score. You had strength and courage to get out of something that you knew wasn't working - and rather than keep making the same mistakes over and over (and having your child watch it all) you decided you would have the strength to do what you needed to do - to make you happy.

Just cause you are married 51 years proves pretty much nothing. You could be miserably married - it's not like none of us have seen that. Really - I mean, just because it's longevity doesn't mean a darn thing. Plenty of people stay in toxic relationships for way too long cause it's the easy thing to do.

Posted by: atlmom | May 19, 2008 7:44 PM

"You don't say, but you seem to imply "pure dumb luck". I disagree."

Of course you disagree. We all do. Set up a straw man, then blow it down. That doesn't take much rhetorical poise. Does it?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 7:56 PM

"But the poster above who considered herself the winner for being married for 51 years is, in my book, a winner."

Interesting moral compass, as someone used to say around here.

Your "book" is the same one that tells kids that the key to success is self-esteem rather than actual talent and diligence. I'm glad she considers herself a winner, but, by golly, that and a dime doesn't make her any more of a winner than Hillary Clinton, for example. Maybe she is a winner. On the other hand, maybe her husband has been tied up in the attic or in a mental health facility for the last 49 years. Who knows? One thing is certain: she is not a winner simply because she tells us the one fact she wants us to know, and declines to tell us anything else relevant to that designation.

I need to know alot more about someone than that they have been married for 51 years in order for them to be a winner, in MY book. For example, is she kind? Is she generous? Is meeting her partner's needs as important to her as having her own needs met? Has she been a good child to her parents and siblings? Does her spouse consider her a winner? All of these things go into making someone a winner -- to me -- not simply racking up another year of marriage.

In the end, she may be long-married and a winner or she might be a loser regarless of her evident good health or young age at taking her vows. We don't know enough to applaud or denounce.

Posted by: MN | May 19, 2008 8:05 PM

what atlmom said.

Posted by: MN | May 19, 2008 8:06 PM

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