According to Wikipedia a scientific control is an “experiment or observation designed to minimize the effects of variables other than the single independent variable. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements.”
I found myself engrossed in the individual stories – all of the women profiled were very clear about what they gave up and what the cost was – also what they gained and enjoyed. For a variety of reasons, however, the losses were looming large in their minds. There was a lot of implied “what iff’ing” going on – as if the alternate path was knowable.
I think it is human nature to compare ourselves and our decisions with others and that comparison often leads us to feel dissatisfied with our lot in life. That comparison can feel particularly acute if one made the explicit choice to be on their current path and is observing the benefits others are accruing from the alternate choice. We notice the benefits of their choice and the weaknesses of our own more readily than the inverse.
I am no exception to the tendency to “what iff.” Could I have maintained my career opportunities if I traveled less and missed fewer school events? How would that have affected my children – would they have noticed or remembered? Fortunately I don’t find myself “what-iff’ing” my children’s general well-being being bettered by my not working – seeing who they are and what they are doing I feel very blessed.
As many of my friends are approaching the freebird aka empty nest state, I see a big range in satisfaction among those who opted out. In some cases without regrets and looking forward to new activities professional and/or volunteer to occupy what used to be parenting time, in other cases with decidedly more ambivalent feelings. The decision to stay home when kids were little and their job had little flexibility v. now that kids are older and their peers are in high-level and perhaps more flexible roles than expected may put that decision in a different light.
But the truth is that it is impossible to truly know what the alternate course would have yielded. Life is not a science experiment where all variables but one can be held constant. With a decision such as working outside the home v. staying home full-time or even the possibilities in between, the variable is clearly not independent. It impacts all of our relationships in immeasurable ways. Even the financial impact cannot be known for certain.
The most interesting part of all this to me is that there is any element of surprise. I notice a sense of unreality filtering through the NYTimes interviews. Almost as if there was an expectation for a “storybook” outcome – actually for both the opt-in and opt-out path takers. Perhaps this contributes to the regrets and potential dissatisfaction.
More choices and more options for working parents are sorely needed but those options will still come with tradeoffs unless there is a built-in day-extender.
There is always a road not traveled. By definition that road is not known and it is natural to be curious what it would have been like. But the story does not (hopefully) need to end at midlife. I believe strongly that regardless of past choices and the inherent challenges there is the opportunity to set new goals and forward objectives and embark on a different road.