Is There Work After Life?

Erin Callan wrote a popular New York Times Op-Ed essay, “Is There Life After Work?” in March 2013.  As I read it, I realized my experience was similar—but reversed.

A former CEO at Lehman Brothers, Erin Callan, was successful beyond what many could comprehend. Yet she questioned whether her career cost her too much personally.

“You can have an amazing career with great success, even in a male-dominated field that I did,” Callan said. “But be careful what you wish for and the choices that you make.”

“Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I’ve done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can  now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone. Even at the best times in my career, I was never deluded into thinking I had achieved any sort of rational allocation between my life at work and my life outside.”

I appreciate Callan’s candidly sharing her experiences as a working woman, her offering honesty and guidance to other women.

It’s so important that as women, we share our experiences, learn from each other. 

As a divorced, former homemaker, I’m all too aware of the challenges of the opposite choice. During the 20 years Callan was busy working, I was home raising children. I ended up divorced and desperately in need of a career.

Wrapped up in raising a family and maintaining a household, I lost sight of  my career prospects. My (now) ex-husband had a demanding career in IT. He worked 70-80+ hours per week, and traveled frequently. Realistically, somebody had to take the kids to the doctor, mow the lawn, pay the bills, grocery shop, etc. I was happy to assume those roles. Out of respect for how hard he worked and believing it was in the best interest of the family, I picked up the slack.

The thing is, Erin Callan could have shot for balance—and failed. She could have tried to have children, and not conceived. She might have had children and ended up divorced.  It’s easy to look back, to wonder at how our lives could have been different had we made different choices.

There are repercussions, no matter what choices we make. 

I’m 44 years old and the parent of a high school senior and a college student. I’m currently single. Bringing another man into the family fold would require compromises I’m not willing to make at this time–though someday I’d consider it an enormous blessing to add the right man to the mix.

As for my career, there is just starting to be one! I’m not 25–I graduated from college 20 years ago. I can’t begin to explain how tirelessly I’ve worked these past 7 years to build skills—and I’ll never catch up, or regain that lost time.

The financial repercussions of my choice are daunting. I do not (yet) own my own home, my retirement will be impacted, and I live frugally in an effort to build a solid financial future.

When my children were little, I enjoyed every minute with them. I’ll always be grateful for that part of my life, for the wonderful memories. But in choosing to stay at home and raise children, I gave up professional opportunities. I knew it then. And I’m paying for it now.

Yet, I have no regrets. I did the best I could with the information I had at that time. If I could go back, I’m not sure I’d make different choices.

Which brings me back to Erin Callan.

She is a remarkable woman, who had a remarkable career. And like the rest of us, she made choices. With every choice, there is a cost.

“I don’t have children, so it might seem that my story lacks relevance to the work-life balance debate. Like everyone, though, I did have relationships — a spouse, friends and family — and none of them got the best version of me. They got what was left over.”

As a single parent, I’m spread thin. My children, friends and family also get what’s left over. Sometimes there is nothing left over.

Perhaps Erin Callan should look back at her accomplishments with pride. Maybe a biological child wasn’t in the cards for her. Maybe her role in society was bigger than that. Maybe her story is bigger than that, as well. I believe she remarried and has stepchildren in her life. Maybe she doesn’t have the family she envisioned, but she is blessed with a family.

In hindsight, we can all think of adjustments that might have made our lives better. Perhaps I might have made choices that would have allowed me to have better career options now. I’ll never know for sure.

While Erin Callan considers whether there is life after work, I’ll continue looking for work after life.

“I do think there could have been some modifications that were reasonable that would have allowed me to have a better, more fulfilling personal life, “ said Callan.

Maybe. And maybe not.

Please feel free to comment, share your choices and experiences. As the mother of a college age daughter who will soon embark on this journey–I’d love to hear what other women have to say, what advice they can offer to the next generation…

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Amy Lauria

Amy is a Cleveland area writer, marketing/communications specialist and artist. A single mother with a daughter in college, a son in high school, and too many dogs--she's trying (hard) not to screw the parenting thing up! Amy loves being outdoors, cupcakes, vacations, glitter, sports, art, reading, shiny objects, biking, refinishing old furniture, hanging with family and friends, and walking her dog(s) on the beach.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Beautifully said. I always thought that working part-time was the right balance. But when I went to jump back into full time after the kids were all in school I was surprised at how far behind I was from my colleagues. You have a wonderful talent for writing and maybe, like me, you have been on a unique career path for many years, even if it didn’t always feel like one. It doesn’t come with a corner office and high heel shoes – but life experience is the best training there is for our job. And looking back, the best advice we can give our children is that there is no “right answer” – it takes a lot of the pressure off decision making when you know that life changes, situations change, people change and priorities change. I think the best skill we can teach them is how to adapt and take care of themselves along the way!

  • Very much appreciate your taking the time to comment with kind words, wisdom. You are exactly right. I think it’s key that we, as women, respect each others choices regarding family/career–that we support each other, even when our choices are different.

    Looking forward to checking out your blog!!

  • So good to see different points of view and differing experiences. Ive also just read “Is there life after the office?” by Sam Baker, who suggests it takes a year of regrouping to decide what really matters to you personally, after a major life changing decision.
    My experience is somewhere in between – I worked full time while taking the lion’s share of family responsibility, without seeking promotion to a higher level as my then husband was climbing steadily up the promotion ladder in his own field. My job, although demanding, had some flexibility of hours which allowed me to be there for the family when necessary.

    I agree there is no ‘right answer’ in finding your freedom. There still seems to be pressure to be busy, have a purpose and have something to show at the end of the day. As I approach the time I will step back from full time work to explore other options, I intend to explore some creative things I used to love before my life got so busy. It might take several different experiments before I find my next direction, but Im going to resist the temptation to take on ‘projects’ to fill the void. It might include knitting, writing, babysitting grandchildren, at times becoming bored and maybe even lonely, but I feel it’s necessary to allow the vacuum to fill itself without me contriving and pressuring myself into something that may still not make my soul sing.

    • Trish… it’s so true! There’s pressure to be busy. My life has changed so much since last fall when I wrote that blog post. I keep saying “I want to be bored!!” Both of my kids are off to college this fall and I just want to spend some time doing nothing. Or at least doing things that I want to do. Thank you for your perspective.

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