The science behind high-powered women leaving their careers

The first thing I see when I look at this photo is my son’s mustache. It’s wispy but pronounced enough to show in a photo. I told him a few weeks ago that it’s time to shave.

He said, “Mom. You’re embarrassing me. Don’t talk about my body hair.”

So I didn’t bring it up again but about a week later, he said, “Mom, I think I need to start shaving.”

I said, “Okay” and we bought a razor. I told my husband we need to pick a time.

My husband said, “Okay. Whenever.” It wasn’t a big deal to him, but it must be a big deal to me because I keep putting it off. I don’t want this time—right before puberty—to end. I don’t want to lose my goofy, unkempt little boy.

I remember when my brother was getting his economics Ph.D. at University of Chicago. I used to think economics was so mathy and difficult. But he talked all the time about how unpredictable people’s bad decisions are. (He sent me this book to read, which I couldn’t read, but I liked having it on my shelf.) By the time my brother graduated I was much more conscious about how we all make irrational decisions (like we buy when we should rent).

Then I was giving a speech at a national marketing conference and by some miracle I got there early and listened to the guy before me, Dan Ariley. He studies how people make decisions. He tries to predict when we will behave irrationally.

His speech was great. He talked about the study of how we can literally miss a gorilla in the room. He showed how if there are too many choices for jam flavors we won’t buy any jam.  And from Airley’s writing I have concluded that I have loss aversion. Loss aversion means that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain: Finding $100 feels pretty good, but losing $100 feels absolutely miserable.

You can apply this to making a career vs kid decision if you add the endowment affect. Behavioral economists use this term to describe how we place more value on what we have than on what we don’t have.

What’s interesting to me is that when women have a big career, they are less likely to say they plan to give it up when they have kids. Because they have the big career and they don’t have kids.

But when women have the kids, and the kids are growing up very fast and the women perceive that they are losing something, we start to value the kids more than their career. This is exactly my experience of kids vs career.

When my kids were young I did what research told me to do: breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and so forth. But I spent most of that time worrying that I was losing my career and tried to find ways to keep that from happening.

Then, suddenly, when the kids were six or seven, I noticed that my sons were growing up very fast. I saw that I missed a huge amount of time that I could have had with them. That time was gone and I couldn’t get it back. I also realized that I didn’t really have a huge career any more. I couldn’t keep up with twentysomething guys who slept in their office. But I did have two kids growing up right there, in front of me. And I didn’t want to lose that.

When I scaled back work to move to the farm, I worried that I was losing my mind. But in fact, I was acting the way behavioral economists predict I would act. And, not surprisingly, I was following in the footsteps of many powerful women. Women who love their jobs and the money and power that goes with their jobs do not quit work when they have kids. They try to hold on to work. I have noticed, though, that most of those women drop out as they become more attached to their kids.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Michelle Obama, Brenda Barnes: these women had huge jobs, kept them when they had kids, and then when their kids were older and more independent, the women quit their jobs because they realized they were losing their time with their kids.

This is why most women who agree to having their husband stay home with the kids end up regretting it as the kids get older. We women scale back our work drastically to protect what we have: the opportunity to watch our kids grow up. And we are not so scared to give up the chance to get what we didn’t have anyway: the big career before we had kids.

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84 replies
  1. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Penelope, as a childless early-30-something woman who prevaricates over whether or not to have kids, I will admit I usually hate your posts on women and work. But this one made a tonne of sense to me. Thank you.

  2. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I think part of the reason is that kids get more interesting and fun to spend time with as they get older. Infants require tons of physical work and drudgery. Toddlers are complete terrors. So to pawn off those first few years on daycare is appealing. I have a 1-year old and a 3-year old and work full time. I’m trying to manage my career so I can take it down a notch as they get older so I can spend more time with them.

    Also – it’s Ariely.

  3. greta
    greta says:

    I don’t have kids yet or the big career but I absolutely love reading your take on that section of life which I’m heading towards. You help take away a lot of the pressure which is thrown at women like me in their mid twenties to work towards certain aspirations. Seeing how questionable it becomes are once you reach that stage makes me worry a lot less about what I’m doing now to head there and makes me just want to enjoy myself and head the way I see fit for myself!

  4. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Always on point! Thanks for that. As a woman in my late 40’s with colleagues and friends with teenage and/or adult kids, we all agree that the advice we wish someone had told us was this: the mid and teenage years are not only the most complex time for kids, but also when the kids really need you. It is also best for your career (you have a great reputation established) when you can most easily dial back work and lose less momentum.

  5. karla
    karla says:

    I’d like to see America rally around every working woman who has a baby and encourage her to take off the first two years (ideally five) of that baby’s life so baby and mom can bond. The result will be a healthier baby, physically and mentally. Mom needs to have a good support network in place too for her own well being. What are ways that today’s workplaces–rural, suburb and city–can support this?

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Ugh. No way. What you’re proposing is a one-size solution that just doesn’t work for everyone. I would have just about died of ppd if I had to stay home full time with my infant during that first year. And I’m not making light of ppd. All day with an infant/toddler just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, to say the least. And five years off? Per child? Away from the career I love? No way.

      My child is in excellent physical, mental, and social health now despite my going back to work full time very early on. I think your heart is in the right place, but your suggestion takes an extremely narrow perspective on what is good for babies, kids, women, parents, families, communities, society. And I think such a narrow perspective, as well-intended as it is, is very harmful to women and society. How about a more flexible attitude and approach to coming up with solutions that parents can adapt according to what best fits their circumstances?

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        “Mom needs to have a good support network in place too for her own well being.” Maybe it’s tautological but that does seem to be the key factor in avoiding postpartum depression. I don’t think karla is advocating staying home for 2-5 years with *just* you and the kids. That definitely sound incredibly boring, which is why she is calling for all of America to rally around this idea of supporting Moms with new kids, not just tolerating them.

        • Julia
          Julia says:

          For women who have spent up to two decades shaping an identity based on their career, ppd and however else that phase might be thought of, support network is incidental compared to the loss of that identity. Karla’s post directly said that America should encourage every woman to stay home with her baby for 2+ years. She’s not alone in making this assertion, it’s all over the Internet. It’s dangerously narrow in its view of women.

          • Melissa
            Melissa says:

            @Julia – “Loss of identity” seems really fuzzy reason to me. Like, people who stop focusing on their careers lose their identity in the eyes of other people? Is that when it’s painful? Your colleagues give up on you because you’re a mom? Shouldn’t that call for some kind of cultural shift?

            Telling people that they don’t have to stay home with their kids just doesn’t seem very revolutionary. I’ve heard it pretty much my entire life and now I don’t see how working to pay for daycare is all that awesome. It does seem like a good way to get people to buy more crap they don’t need, so eff that noise.

            At least Karla is proposing a way to support moms that we don’t have in this country, especially since she’s calling for “today’s workplaces” to step up.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            Responding to this from Melissa:

            ” Like, people who stop focusing on their careers lose their identity in the eyes of other people? Is that when it’s painful? Your colleagues give up on you because you’re a mom?”

            No, that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m so baffled that you don’t understand what it means for someone to have an identity strongly related to their career role that I don’t know how to respond.

          • Jessica
            Jessica says:

            Identity strongly related to a career.

            I’ve met these people you speak of and for the most part they ONLY have a career. No network (real), no real friends, very few have family and or married (how can you have a relationship with someone when you don’t have one with yourself).

            People lose themselves in work and kids all the time for various reasons (but mostly because they are not prepared independently). It would be helpful to our society to have beneficial support systems at the minimum, such as allowing a woman to stay home for the kids 1st year.

          • Julia
            Julia says:


            Having an identity strongly based on or tied to your career doesn’t mean you don’t have a relationship with yourself, doesn’t mean you lose yourself in your career, and there is not a correlation between having a strong career identity and spending excessive hours at work. Identity is a good thing. Identifying with a career role you’re proud of is healthy and isn’t the same thing as shutting out everything else in life. If those are the ONLY people you’ve met who have a strong career identity, you don’t know many physicians, artists, academics, teachers, scientists, healthcare providers, nonprofit managers, etc, etc, etc… Systematically “encouraging” women (and not men) to take 2 to 5 years (+ for more than one kid) out of a career that is so central to their identity is harmful to many women and no, the research is not unanimous that SAHMs are good for children. There are many benefits for children raised by a working mom.

            In your second paragraph you say that

            “It would be helpful to our society to have beneficial support systems at the minimum, such as allowing a woman to stay home for the kids 1st year.”

            That’s a reasonable proposal and entirely different from arguing that society should “encourage” women to stay home for the first 2 to 5 years.

      • Tatyana
        Tatyana says:

        I do not think that Karla was proposing a one-size solution to all child-and-career problems. In my understanding, she was simply offering a solution to to how to fill the gaping call in modern American work culture. Women who want to have children and earn a living in some fashion are forced to make a hard choice to either miss their kids growing up or give up their income, and as you suggested, their professional identity. There is ample research to prove that mothers are the best care takers for children under 3 years old. Other countries had employed social programs to allow all women who want to stay home for the first few years of their kids life to do so. As this practice was put in place it also woven itself into the culture which removed fears about staying home and made it easier for women to return to work because companies were gently forced to adjust to cultural pressure.

        • jessica
          jessica says:


          Identity is important, and I do believe valuing a false identity such as a career (something self-prescribed) over raising a child is problematic to the child. A career does not make a person. I have a huge network, and it’s pretty clear cut. Many (most) high level working women I know stopped working when their kids came along. They are not that fussed. Children are work and they seem to find as much pride in raising the next generation as they found in their previous role in an office, hospital, or art studio. Many of the things you listed can be done part time or on the side and do not need to fill a whole day while the child is being raised by a non-primary caregiver. Priorities in life change and it takes courage, (maybe more so for some, than others) to embrace them.

          I don’t know how 1 year is irrelevant. We have to start somewhere.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            whether a woman stays home with the kids or not is a very personal choice and very situation dependent. Many high powered women (which I always find a really odd choice of words anyway…) do not stay home with the kids, many others do – both choices are equally valid. But one thing is sure – you cannot do a science, engineering, or similar career “on the side”. That is why many female scientists and engineers I know who want to continue working have a stay-at-home husband.

            And it is not the money or the need for a bigger house which drives them – it is a deep love and passion for their work.

          • Julia
            Julia says:

            Jessica, you make the assumption that everyone shares your worldview and if they don’t they are just wrong. Thank you for negating my identity (?) because your opinion of how women should live is simply the true and only way.

      • Celeste
        Celeste says:


        I’m with you through this whole discussion. I stayed home with my third child for nearly a year because my industry suffered greatly in the recession. She and I are alive today only because of the help of a therapist who truly understood me and said, “Get child care. Now. And get back to work. Now.” I did, the fog lifted, and all was much better. Some people are meant to be home with their children. More power to them. Some are not. I am blessed with a wonderful network of friends and family, a wonderful husband, three nice kids I wanted who are growing up beautifully, while I stretch my mind in other ways during the workday. When I was home, I was not the best mother I can be either for the baby or the older kids.


  6. Holden Seguso
    Holden Seguso says:

    I’m sending peaceful visualizations your way. You are one heck of a strong woman and, you don’t need to hear this from me but I’ll say it anyway, you’re are doing a spectacular job. The love you have for your kids is obvious, it can be felt in your writing, and it is just as obvious to your kids. They will grow up knowing what a wonderful mother they had. Thanks for the article and I pray your worry bug becomes squashed by your love bug even further into the future. Looking forward to more posts and have a great day! Until next time :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Holden. I hope my worrying abates as well. I like comments like yours. They help. Really. It is nearly impossible to imagine what good parenting looks like if you coming from a broken home. This blog does so much for me, but one thing it does is give me feedback about what good parenting looks like.


  7. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    There is the third option: no high-powered career and no kids. There are more options than A and B. I would not want young women out there thinking they have to choose between a high -powered career or having kids, if you do neither you are still a worthy human being.

    • Laura
      Laura says:

      I agree with you. There so many shades of grey between high-powered-career and no-job. As they are between no-kids and 20-kids. Statistics and generalisations exist so the scientists can be busy with something, not that I should live my life according to them.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        actually science is not what is depicted here as science. There are a lot of studies to figure out how humans function and if one of them finds that a certain percentage of women leave their careers once they have kids – that does by no means imply that women always want to or should or have to make this decision in order to leave happy lives. It is an observation and while it is interesting to speculate about the underlying reasons, very few scientists will tell you that it is meant as a prescription on how to live your life.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      For me to read this blog, I have to translate “high-power career” to the specifics of my life. I don’t work in the corporate sector or entrepreneurship, but I do have a job that I love and that I strive to excel at. I guess I’m not sure why anyone would be reading this (career and education) blog if they have neither career aspirations or children.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        I read this blog not for kids or career but because I’m interested in what people are thinking, it can be stimulating, and especially because people talked about how great a writer Penelope is and I’m trying to figure out why.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          I’m glad you read this blog, Zellie. I read so many things that ostensibly have nothing to do with my life. I learn from it all. The Auto section of the New York Times. I used to read that when I was in my 20s. I’d force myself to try to understand what the writers were saying because I knew if I could understand that then my world would be broadening.

          Maybe, for some people, my blog is their Auto section :)


      • Pirate Jo
        Pirate Jo says:

        “I guess I’m not sure why anyone would be reading this (career and education) blog if they have neither career aspirations or children.”

        Because it makes us feel smug.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I think you are discounting how much that message has been twisted to imply that having kids is a stupid thing to do. They ruin your career, wreck your body, and add unbelievable stress to your life. I was born in 1981 and this is pretty much what people in my socio-economic class were raised to believe.

      I finally realized that was bullshit and that I have a right to have a kid and that it’s not stupid to respond to my biological imperative. Penelope’s posts provide practical advice for how to get it done, as well as the necessary reminders that it’s impossible to have a high-powered career and kids without gobs and gobs of money. But that’s okay. You can still have a good life.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        You have summarized this crazy dissonance I feel about having kids. I adore them. Yes infants and toddlers are so much work but it’s not like it was unexpected. So why do I feel like I made the “uncool decision “?

        I spent my first sixteen years of life in a culture that celebrates having children. Now, I’ve lived eleven years in America and there’s a different message. I couldn’t put my finger on it but yes, children are treated like a pest.

        It’s so odd.

        Once you have them and if you have money then there’s almost like a child-worship thing going and everything revolves around the child.

        I’m having a hard time forging my own idea of what’s successs and good parenting and a good family because I have to dig deep into my assumptions and know whether they are my true desires or just voices from my cultures. I feel like I get whiplash sometimes. But here we are trucking along.

        My children are the bomb though. And in this sea of american culture voices I feel like I made a great decision by moving right next door to my mom where we can live life more in line with my original culture and just….rejoice in these early years when everything is difficult and funny and they’re chubby and cuddly and sweet.

        I really like you Melissa.

        • Jessica
          Jessica says:

          God yeah, over the American culture of ‘children suck’. It’s narcissistic and rediculous. Unfortunately, this belief influences policy.

  8. Dale
    Dale says:

    My wife is a stay at home veterinarian. All six of my kids were/are home schooled. I have a college graduate, a college sophomore, two high schoolers and two middle schoolers. I envy my wife’s experiences with the kids, but for the system to work, we all have to do what we do best, not what we want to do. For me, that’s making money, for her its teaching the kids and nurturing them while working part time. Feeling unfulfilled leaves a hole in you but when you see the results of your sacrifice, then its all worthwhile.

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      I think this is what you miss in all these posts about women quitting work. All of your arguments here could be applied to fathers. I think a ton of Dads look back at their kid’s childhoods and wish they could have been there more. Its just more socially acceptable for women to quit work for the kids than men.
      Women and men wish they could quit their jobs to be there for their kids. Someone needs to earn money – now what? I wish we could start from there – not just assume that current gender roles are the solution.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        For me it’s taking a hard look at the assumptions of how we have to live. Start there.
        Do we need a lifestyle that costs $$$ or can we achieve same results with less? What about joy? Can we draw the same amount of joy with a less costly lifestyle? What about quality of joy? What brings the deep long lasting joy versus the fleeting thrill of a superficial purchase?

        We spent about $120 to get stuff for a barbecue for my birthday on May 31. My brothers and their girlfriends, my parents, our babies, and a mini bonfire were it. It’s been 13 days since then. I still feel a little high from the bliss I felt by sitting under the weeping willow wrapped up in a poncho staring in the fire while I talked to my soon-to-be sister-in-law.

        $120 well spent.

        We are a super low income family. We’ve earned many times more in the past. We have been as happy and as stressed.

        We have travelled what a bit and seeing people live their lives differently and with different philosophies has helped us tremendously.

        I’ll tell you that we can make it, barely, but we could make it by my husband working part time and me working part time. Wouldn’t that be something?

        We can make friends with high spenders because we can’t keep their pace of happy hours and expensive trips at the drop of a hat. But we have our tribe. And believe me, as I type this my chubby little 8 month old asleep on me, I feel blissful. Earlier today I was fuming, mad at my husband. None of these are money related things. They’re people and weather related things.

        • Rachel
          Rachel says:

          That is actually sort-of my plan! Be (relatively) money poor and time rich once we have kids. Right now we live on roughly 60% of our income and are investing the rest. Ideally that will allow both of us to work part time if we want to.
          But still, someone will have to work. And right now, it looks like it will make the most sense for me (the woman) to do more of it. P always freaks me out with her psuedo-logical explanations of why that is a terrible idea.
          Do you ever read Mr. Money Mustache? He has a great philosophy of living well on very little money.

          • Karelys
            Karelys says:

            I think P’s explanation is just explaining what currently is. Some people may be able to step out of the societal expectations for the genders but not everyone and not so easily.

            Many of us want to think we’re different, special. But we’re not.

            I was a working parent while my husband stayed home. Lots of frustration. I thought I had fooled myself. Turns out, we had different expectations and thought we were in the Same page but weren’t. I’m the stay at home parent now until I find a job. After having gone through the Ups and downs now I know how to name what I want and ask for it. And now I know for sure I don’t care to be the breadwinner as a woman. It’s just money coming in. But we had to peel away all the assumptions about money and power balances we had. Not that it can’t be done. It’s just that you need to intentionally focus on that type of growth and work on it daily. And communication…super important!

  9. Katie
    Katie says:

    A friend just sent this to me to read. We are kindred sisters as Anne of Green Gables would say. I quit my career job when my kids were ages 3, 5 and 15. Best move ever for our family. When you say this: “But when women have the kids, and the kids are growing up very fast and the women perceive that they are losing something, we start to value the kids more than their career. This is exactly my experience of kids vs career.” This is why I quit! The value of my kids and their moments out value any title on a business card or paycheck. I have started my own speaking and consulting business which I define around my kid’s life now and our family commitments. New fan and follower here from the prairies of North Dakota!

  10. Linda
    Linda says:

    That science fits with my path. I had a great career in corporate America making better $ than my husband. At first I was glad to not be encumbered by my kids 24/7. But after the birth of my 2nd child, I felt that I losing out on a good connection with my kids. I began to think about what I would regret more in the future when I looked back on my life: less time in my career or less time with my kids. I also really hated a lot of the people I worked with. I decided to take a year off from work.

    What’s the science going forward for those who took a path less traveled? Taking that year off was such a great decision for me that I just kept looking for more less traveled paths! It’s been 9 years now. We live overseas, and I homeschool my kids. Hands down it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I am as enthusiastic and ferocious about it as any entrepreneur. I am incredibly grateful for the time I have spent with my kids. I am also grateful that I got to experience having a traditional “career” and can use those skills and confidence to tackle homeschool co-ops, volunteer work, part-time start-ups and all the craziness moving countries every year brings.

    I thought I was dedicated to my former career but now I know it was such a farce compared to real, whole-life dedication where I get to call all the shots. Or maybe I just never want to work for anyone else but myself again.

  11. Chris
    Chris says:

    I think this post missed the most important piece of information that you should have provided. When you wait until your late 30’s to have kids, your daughter gets her period after yours has stopped and you get a hairy upper lip before your son starts shaving. Nobody tells you that, do they?

    • Dale
      Dale says:

      The age “issue” is a non-issue. So many parents are “older” and have loving superior relationships with their kids your premise seems unjustifiable. Kids what love, understanding, discipline, time and attention. They don’t care about the superficial unless someone else makes it a problem.
      My 2 cents worth.

  12. Denise Canellos
    Denise Canellos says:

    Your goofy, unkept little boy will just morph into a goofy, unkept teenager, and you will probably be more than happy to see him morph again into a young adult.

    For those of us who opted to scale back on work to spend time with our kids, who now are almost grown, the question is how to scale back up when they are off to college? Or should we scale up again? Start up something new?

    What are your thoughts on that stage of life Penelope?

  13. Satya
    Satya says:

    Dan Ariely is great. I just read his book on Dishonesty. It helped me see all the little ways I lie to myself, like pretending I’m an exception to what commonly happens to women like me with personal ambitions and small children. I used to think I could make it all happen if I just worked hard enough. Apparently not.

  14. Susan
    Susan says:

    This is all precisely why I freelance.

    It’s true I often feel I’m not 100% there for my career or kids, but oddly I’ve found the balance to work for my family. I make a healthy part-time income working about 10 to 15 hours a week with a 3 1/2 year old and an infant. I do give up things like evenings out, sleep, more time to pursue hobbies and just lounging. But for me, being able to write and work in social media is a creative outlet that happens to pay well.

    It helps my husband is vested in my goals and interests – which is easier for him to do since I pull in a decent income. But still, I need his help to keep the precarious balance going.

  15. Susan
    Susan says:

    Forgot to mention I saw the writing on the wall around 26-years old when I worked in advertising and all the women in the office were miserable working late and never seeing their kids. I systematically worked towards a more flexible freelance lifestyle knowing I would either have a family or choose to travel more if that didn’t work out.

  16. michelle m
    michelle m says:

    this really hit home for me. my daughter is five and just AMAZING. I travel often for my career and it is getting increasingly harder to be away. it was tough when she was a baby but right now is the TOUGHEST-SHE IS JUST SO AWESOME- ARG!

  17. Beth Wiseman
    Beth Wiseman says:

    You are making the classic mistake of taking your own experience and applying it to all women. You also use the example of women who gave up their career – e.g.: Michelle O’bama, when obviously, they’d already made tons of money, could continue to to do so if they wanted, but really, their husbands could make plenty to raise a family in comfort and style. Their “big” careers meant they had connections already (i.e. – high paid husbands, plus their own savings thanks to the “big” career) that would sustain them if they wanted to become full time moms. The women alone earned way more than the average earner in America – I mean, these women were set, regardless, so they had a choice. Also, you may have been broke, Penelope, when you decided to forego the career path and take up with the farmer, but really, the farmer could support you and your kids – maybe not in the style to which you’d been accustomed, but certainly in the style to which most of America and your present Wisconsin neighbours are accustomed. Yes, women step out of the fray to spend time with their kids but mostly and especially, if they have a choice. And your experience of success was something that sustained you in the lean times, whether you acknowledge it or not. (Beware the solipsism) Many women (and men) don’t have that experience and/or education you had – all they know is lean times. And our society still has a hard time with stay at home dads, which makes the woman’s decision to stay home easier, and is also a relief to the dad who is concerned for his kids but knows a choice to become a stay at home dad is a death knell even worse than his wife’s decision to stay home.

  18. Beth Wiseman
    Beth Wiseman says:

    That’s not science, that’s solipsism – ieapplying your own experience to everyone. You say: “This is exactly my experience of kids vs career.” I also question: “when their kids were older and more independent, the women quit their jobs because they realized they were losing their time with their kids.” – no, the women you referred to realized they had more money than god so they had an option to stay home. Tell me those gals fired their cleaning lady once they quit work. Did not happen!

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I had a hard time relating to ‘when the kids were older, they became more interesting’ and thus quit their jobs.

      I found my kids interesting since birth! And Michelle Obama seems pretty bent on having a cohesive loving family (doesn’t she get into arguments with B about his inability to be around much?). Even she sends her kids to school. I can’t imagine the stress she lives day in and day out as First Lady (that’s a huge job in of itself).

  19. Amy parmenter
    Amy parmenter says:

    This is extremely interesting…but sad to me because I don’t have kids or a big career.

    I do have a great husband though. So there’s that.

    But I still wish I had kids.

  20. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    Penelope- I am a fan-truly! I love your perspective and agree with you a fair amount of time – obviously I come back to follow you!

    But let’s be honest- not everyone is in your position- living with someone who must own his farm? Be in a better financial position than you? As Beth above referenced before?

    Since I am a fan, I recall you referencing time and again, your tax issues, your high debt- you say you and the farmer are not legally married? Which may be a choice for other reasons, but I suspect (I have friends in the same position) that he may not want to be attached to your debt.

    No doubt you work hard- VERY hard. But others of us do not have the reality-based choice of leaving a job, with benefits and a regular paycheck, and a solid place to live.

    My husband works very hard but had to switch careers, endure layoffs and has only been able to find contract work for the last five years. I have a full time job with benefits- Thank God!- as we have had a major health crisis (3 surgeries) as well as getting my daughter braces.

    I do work at home, and have been there for her- as my husband also travels. But when push comes to shove- bills have to be paid- thank goodness I could work- and I am grateful I had my job.

    I also work/counsel people in their later years- I am very disturbed by women who quit and get themselves out of the work market, then are unable to get back in. Be prepared ladies! Husbands die, get laid off and leave you. Providing a baseline of food, clothing and shelter- no mean feat in this economy- is a responsible gift to your children, as well as spending time with your children.

    Penelope, I would like to respectfully ask you to address this? Homeschooling can work for some people, but how to you address the financial issues for people/women who do not have other sources of support?

    And I do notice that many of your readers are in rural/not urban areas? Obviously cheaper to live there! But not many jobs…..

    It’s not for everyone…. ladies think of your children’s future… and your own.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Ellie, on my education blog (link in the top navigation) I write a lot about how it’s cheaper to a honeschool than send kids to school. There are also a lot of guest posts from people who homeschool with a lot less money than I have.

      When I had my first kid my husband and I were both unemployed and we were living in poverty for at least a year while I figured out how to make money. And I have paid out of pocket for health insurance for the last 15 years. It’s hard, but possible. Periods when we had no money we had no insurance.

      More importantly though, it’s so easy to say that money is what keeps you from living jhe life you want. But I don’t believe that to be true. It’s something we tell ourselves so we don’t have to make hard choices to get what we want in life.


      • Jessica
        Jessica says:

        Money =\= happiness. I do think standards help…that whole 70k research (even that’s probably high). I can say for sure I would not want to be poverty stricken in NY, though. I would not be happy.

        And to be fair, to keep things going for my kids we shell out quite a bit (700 per 8 week class). There are very few programs for kids here that do not cost $$$. No they don’t have to take the classes, but they like them and we support them.

  21. jim
    jim says:

    Well written and thought provoking, as usual. But as some of the other readers have mentioned, there is scant attention being paid to men that want to be stay-at-home. Yes it seems to be more socially acceptable for women to make this choice, if they are given one. And I know the usually response to men is that men “mostly always” want to work full time rather than stay home.
    Maybe. Or maybe they want the same choices women want but to date there hasn’t been the discussion about it.
    My point being we are all individuals and whether it is “okay” to want certain things has no connection to whether we, as individuals do want them.
    Perhaps you could write a post about this soon. And in so doing not fall back on generalized research and pat answers that is so common.
    Just a thought.

  22. Cathie
    Cathie says:

    I stayed at home for ten years or so and went to work when my youngest was two. I regretted that for years, missing his preschool years, but now I’m close to retirement and wish I had more time to put into my business, an experience that has been quite challenging and rich for me. I have discovered I’m an entrepreneur almost too late in life. It’s all good, I suppose. I love what I do, and I really love the relationship I have with my kids. I also think it is a good role model to excited about your work and life.

  23. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    Loss averse – wow! Thank you for enlightening me. You seem to be saving my marriage while explaining the “ir”rationale behind my career decisions.

  24. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I have been a reader for many years and frankly, I disagree with most of what you say. However, this post is brilliant and spot on. I am a 30-something who runs a multi-million dollar company, with my 2 year old growing up at lightspeed. I watch from the other end of my phone, through Facetime and photos texted to me by my husband and her babysitter. I never wanted to give up my career to stay home, but it all changes when you’re sitting in your office and your husband sends a recording of the baby crying just so you can pump breastmilk. Time is our most precious commodity and I know it’s cliche, but at the end of my life am I going to wish I had more money or that I was able to spend time with my kids? I know the answer for me. However, I have to live with the decisions I have made and I don’t see a way out for me at this point.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Can you not sell the company? Is everything out of your control? Can you not step away, raise your child, then pursue something else?

      You’re not giving up a career to stay home (what is with this phrase, we are barely home). And even if you are, so what? life changes! Things change! Being flexible is a good thing. You chose to have a daughter to raise. I think that trumps, ummm…everything else, until that responsibility is fulfilled.

      More money doesn’t buy happiness, great relationships do.

  25. Anna-Marie O'Brien
    Anna-Marie O'Brien says:

    I grew up in poverty and managed to put myself thru school/grad school and landed the career I had wanted, making close to 6 figures. It was great. Then I had two babies in two years and about lost my mind. Just when everyone was “leaning in” I said NO, and leaned the hell out. I demoted myself, took a pay cut, work 20 hours a week in a career I still love, and don’t regret it one bit. We can have it all, for sure, just sometimes not all at once. I’m lucky I have a supportive husband – not just financially, but supportive in spirit, in our mutual values about how we want our family to operate. I watched my mom about kill herself working menial jobs just to provide food for the two of us, I was raised by babysitters and from the time I was 8 years old, I was left to my own devices. She didn’t have a choice, but I do. I didn’t want my kids to be raised the way I was. I’ll step back into my career in a few years. I’ve got the rest of my life for it. But for my kids, there is only right here, right now. Thank you, Penelope, for always nailing it.

  26. Josephine S
    Josephine S says:

    Thank you. Agree. By the way, it is Dan Ariely. Some of his excellent books are Predictably Irrational, The Upsite of zirrationality and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

  27. Juliana
    Juliana says:

    This article really rang true for me. Last week, I was asked to give a talk at a conference for women in tech. They want to “prevent falling prey to the statistic that the majority of women leave the tech field mid-career.” The fact is I have a one year old and a pretty good gig that allows me to work from home three days a week. But my “mid-career” is totally stalled out, due to wanting to spend time with my child and other interests I’m pursuing. I don’t want to put in the hours at a start up that might mean interesting work.

  28. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Penelope, this is exactly what I was feeling. I left my job this year to homeschool. I spent ten years trying to get a child, and I immediately went back to work once we brought him home. I can only say that I think I was sold a lie. I couldn’t have it all, and he certainly couldn’t either. I could have a career and he could have me stressed, half attentive, and exhausted, or I could make a huge change. I chose the change.

  29. tara dillard
    tara dillard says:

    Infertility, no children. Tried.

    Gave me my career. Know, for sure, if I’d had kids I would not have the career I do. I work evenings & weekends designing gardens, or flying somewhere to give a lecture.

    Studied historic landscapes across Europe for 2+ decades. With kids, money/time for this would have been impossible.

    Money/time. No kids, but the duo is unavoidable. Time is my most valuable asset. Can make more money, cannot make more time on this Earth.

    More, not having children, none of my peers could come out to play with me, for decades. Nor did I have friends foisted upon me because their children played with my children.

    From early 20’s my friends were women 50 to 80’s, with lives incredibly lived. Friends sparking my brain in myriad directions. Without them, I would not have the career I do. Their mentoring about life invaluable.

    Of course I have friends now, men/women, that I’ve found my age who are childless also, 50+. We have all noticed how women/men with children are so wildly different from us.

    A terrible fact of having had so many older women friends, they have all passed. They are alive in my work. Most of my clients know this.

    Do I regret the choice Providence had for me, no kids? Not at all.

    We all have the same lessons from life, the teachers and timing is different. Sadly, some never hear the lessons. Bless their heart.

    Time. It is the choice I make.

    I watch you choosing your kids, and thrive. Congrats !!!

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

  30. Ann
    Ann says:

    I’m in my late 40’s with two kids at home entering junior high. I have done more in my career than I ever dreamed possible when I entered my field and now after 22 years with my employer, I want out. I want more time with my kids. I don’t want to continue to make money for 75 year old men who I share so few values with.
    I’ve felt pressure to stay because I make more money than my husband, but I think it’s time to go. Every time I travel I am sad that i missed a meal with them, or, a performance or a homework assignment. My husband is great, but it’s not the same for them or for me.
    Thanks for making feel so not alone. Your push may be just what I needed.

  31. Beth Wiseman
    Beth Wiseman says:

    It can take a village to raise a child, and nothing wrong with that. Kids also learn by example – ie. having a paid job. Money is power, and I don’t mean the power to run major corporations, or start ups, but the power to say, “I’ll by a red Mazda3, vs a blue Mazda3, and “I’ll by a tiny home on the east side of town vs the west side of town”. Everyone needs to make money – i.e. needs to work, to live in a capitalist society, OR rely on someone else who makes money – but we all know “someone else” can get sick or die or decide they’re gay and leave you, or sell everything to join an ashram in Tibet, etc. You always need a fallback position that involves being able to make a living. Pay daycare workers and domestic staff a living wage to reflect the importance of their work (interestingly, those workers are mostly female and grossly underpaid, as are teachers in the US) and get on with your productivity whether it be homeschooling or making money. But wait, is not making money actually productive? According to capitalism, no, according to parents, whether they homeschool or not, money’s not the be all, end all…but, wait…doh….You can take it from here, Penelope – and I wish you would!.

  32. Beth Wiseman
    Beth Wiseman says:

    ” Working moms have more successful daughters and more caring sons, Harvard Business School study says”

  33. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    But why does it have to be one or the other? Kids or work? Can’t a person have both? I could never imagine being a full time mom even though I admire the women who do it. I would go stir-crazy.

  34. Heather
    Heather says:

    I have three kids and I’ve always worked full-time, although the older the kids get, the less I want to. It was easier when the kids were younger, but now they really are awesome to hang out with and I love talking to them.

  35. Stanley
    Stanley says:

    I still advocate that family should come first before your career. I think the writer is trying to balance issues here and that is exactly needs to be done. I think Heather did a nice job.

  36. v
    v says:

    some people like parenting more than others. some are better at it than others. some kids need more nurturing, some want more independence. if we are lucky, we get the right fit with at least one parent or grandparent (if they are around). since you are the adult, try to be the most sensitive to what your child needs. your needs come second. sorry!

  37. Kim
    Kim says:

    What you decide to do if you are blessed to have kids,i.e.,work or not work…first of all, it IS NICE TO HAVE THE CHOICE. I believe this national conversation/debate pertains to women who have many economic privileges. Many people don’t have this choice and for that matter, our national policies, etc. still assume that families look like they did in the 50s. If anything, we need more support for families with single or both parents in the workforce. This part needs to be more a part of our discourse, b/c we need a lot of changes. Second, if you have the choice to stay home or work outside the home or virtually in whatever capacity, I believe you need to understand what your motives are…is your ego in the driver seat or is your heart/soul. What I mean by this, there is an ego stroking around success in the workforce that will not be matched in a daily life as a parent. In addition, I believe as women and men, it is all about be working to be a good and present parents and having systems in place to be present, whatever you choice is. Anyone, despite their outside of the home work status, can be checked out from being present to their kids or their life for that matter. Last, parenting has magical blessings amidst the chaos but only if you are present and understand the type of selfless decisions you will need to make by choosing to be a parent. I think there is a tension created by what success looks like in Western capitalism that can lead us astray in how we execute both in our work choices and choices to become parents…I think this out-take from Goleman’s and the Dali Lama’s book speaks to this.

  38. Anita
    Anita says:
    Michelle Obama left her career to support her husbands run for president. This is my favourite article about her. The early days of Michelle and Obama were much more honest. In interviews She would snark at him. It was as if she could barely contain her annoyance with his big career”I’m going to be president”. With what she wanted to be up to in her own life.
    I noticed that was squashed very quickly once he became a serious contender. As first wife she was all over ‘Good Housekeeping’ in poofy skirts holding tomatoes and advocating her healthy eating platform. Not too scary. The ‘machine’ had learned from Hillary Clinton and we can’t have THAT happen again.
    Michelle Obama: smart, educated, driven woman was turned into a cooking healthy food for her family, pink dress wearing, housewife. It pissed me off.
    Michelle Obama advocates education for women in third world countries. She’s making a huge difference behind the scenes for women. At home in America, she jumps rope and plants gardens. She probably puts in more hours as First Lady than she ever did at her huge job. But it’s more important for it to look like she’s ‘just a housewife’.
    My Canadian Two cents …

  39. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Hi Penelope,

    My husband would like to know the name of your brother and what year he graduated from UChicago Econ PhD? My husband will graduate from the same program in just four short months, has just accepted an Assistant Professor position, and I’m googling posts about women leaving their careers. I describe my career as “high-pressure” and I do not love my job, though long ago, I used to think it was my dream job!

    I think staying home with your son is a fine choice. I used to be disappointed in my mother as I grew up for never showing up to my school events, to watch me accept awards or to watch me play soccer or cheer for my high school football team. She worked a minimum waged job as a single mother, so she was always too exhausted for anything else. However, simultaneously, I’ve always been very proud of my mother. She was able to show me true, unconditional love and attention at home when she was not working. And I worked hard at school to make my mother proud. I think I turned out just fine. :)

    I know that mine and my husband’s lives are about to change dramatically, and I’m contemplating on leaving my career to go back to school before we start a family. I can’t predict my future, but I’m betting that I will stay at home with our children for the first couple of years and then work on reviving my career through my amazing network of friends and colleagues. I would definitely want to work for a company that values work-life balance as I want to be present for most of my future children’s extracurricular activities. Lastly, I want our children to see both of their parents lead life-long careers.

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