Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Quantity Time

March-April 2003

Four years ago, when my first child was two years old and I was six months pregnant, I left my law career to become a stay-at-home mother. Initially, I was uncomfortable in my new role because I pictured at-home parents as one-dimensional characters, focused solely on children and house. I feared becoming a cardboard cutout of my former self.

Gradually, however, I have become acquainted with fellow parents who do not fit my stereotype. They are dynamic, energetic people with wide-ranging passions and interests. Many define themselves as "stay-at-home" even as they hold important leadership positions with volunteer organizations or pursue nontraditional careers in writing, music, and art. The following stories show how some Harvard alumni have made the transition from their chosen careers to the domestic front.

 

It's 4:30 in the morning in Berkeley, California, and Ayelet Waldman, J.D. '91, sits at her computer, writing during the few quiet hours before her children awaken. By 7 o'clock, she'll begin her other morning rituals: feeding her baby, making breakfast and lunches for her two older children, and running carpool.

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Ayelet Waldman
Photograph by Patty Williams
Five years ago, the former Los Angeles public defender chose to focus on parenting full time. The decision to leave her legal career wasn't easy. "My mom ingrained in me a disdain for the stay-at-home moms. She called them the 'Ridgewood Tennis Club,'" Waldman says. "I grew up thinking parenting was not a full-time job. If it was a full-time job, it was because you couldn't hack it. I went to Harvard; of course I could hack it." But Waldman found that she was "crazy being away from my daughter so much. I'd call my husband and he'd be at 'Mommy and Me' while I was at the Metropolitan Detention Center."

She left her job at the height of her success, following a string of dismissals and acquittals. When she told her boss about her decision, Waldman remembers the woman saying, "You're kidding. See you in two weeks." She wondered if she might indeed be back that soon, because the transition to full-time motherhood was plagued with self-doubt and insecurity. The fact that she could win a murder acquittal was no guarantee that she'd be a good parent. "We put such a premium on being intelligent and accomplished," she says, "and we've chosen to do something where intelligence and accomplishments don't matter. In fact, maybe they hurt."

Her public-defender days had habituated Waldman to constant ego gratification. "I was very, very confident and secure," she says. "I was doing the right job for me and I was really good at it." Now she's never so confident. She admits thinking, "A monkey could do this better than I can," when her initial time at home with daughter Sophie was as difficult as she had feared. The aspirations were lofty, the results hard to measure. "My goal," she says, "is to shape someone who's going to be a good person. When your kid grabs a toy away from someone else, you don't feel so great. You start to think, 'Who knows? Maybe I'm the mother of the next Ted Bundy!'"

But Waldman reasons that quantity time wins out over quality time. "Quality time doesn't work with kids," she says. "If kids had to decide between spending one hour a day with an attentive, loving mom, and 24 hours with a bitterly suicidal mom, they'll pick the suicidal wretch every time. They want you 24/7."

Yet after two years of focusing exclusively on her children, Waldman realized that the experience was pretty evenly distributed between joy and tedium. She was confident that she had made the right decision, but found herself "bored out of her skull" without the stimulus of her career. Life as a stay-at-home mother became considerably more comfortable when she found a creative outlet. "I would never have written a novel if I weren't home with the kids," she says. "I needed to do something during naptime. What was I going to do? Quilt?" She fashioned a female detective in her own image—Juliet Appelbaum, a former public defender turned stay-at-home mom, who begins solving mysteries to counteract the boredom she finds in "entertaining someone with a two-minute attention span for hours on end." Nursery Crimes and The Big Nap are as much about the humor of parenting as they are mystery novels; they tap into Waldman's daily routines, joys, and frustrations. Her first foray into what she calls literary (as opposed to mystery) fiction, Daughter's Keeper, to be published this fall, also draws on her parenting experience. Ostensibly about the drug war, the novel explores the relationship between a mother, her daughter, and her daughter's baby in the midst of a drug conspiracy and the subsequent trial.

Waldman hardly anticipated her current success as a writer when she decided to stay home with her children. And she still considers herself a stay-at-home mother first, a novelist second. She is firm about limiting her writing to three hours a day, while her kids are at school or sleeping. The rest of her time is spent juggling play dates, folding endless piles of very small laundry, and managing her own career and that of her husband, Michael Chabon, author of the bestselling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Career management often takes place via headset phone in her minivan while she runs carpool. (She reasons that's safer while driving than turning around to deal with sibling fights, or reaching back with food. "How many deaths are caused by juice-box maneuvers?" she asks.)

When asked to reflect on the trade-offs she's made in giving up her legal career, Waldman points to an obvious one: money. Although her family lives comfortably, she misses the satisfaction that comes from contributing financially. Not so long ago, she considered herself a major breadwinner. "I never thought I'd make less money than my husband," she admits. "I feel like I'm not pulling my weight. My dream is some day to make more money than he does."

At the same time, Waldman acknowledged her good fortune in being able to choose to stay home with her children. All of the parents I spoke with realized that financial constraints take that choice away from many of their peers. In discussing the difficulties she faced when she gave up her career to stay home, Audrey Kadis, M.B.A. '77, noted, "These are really upper-income problems. There are plenty of people who couldn't make the choice I made."

 

Harvard seems an unlikely training ground for stay-at-home parents, so—having recently received my own class's fifteenth-reunion survey—I set off to find out whether other classes had compiled information about those of us in that category. Fifteen years out seemed a likely enough timeframe for anticipating that reunioners might have small children. Interestingly, the evidence was slim, but I did learn from the class of 1984's survey that only one-sixth of the alumnae with children identified themselves as "full-time homemaker/child-care giver." In contrast, the U.S. Census reports that more than 40 percent of married couples with children under six years old had one parent at home. The disparity is not all that surprising. Harvard prepares its graduates to change the world, not diapers. So it is with a little awkwardness and surprise that some graduates decide to stay home with their children.

Audrey Kadis believed she would successfully manage both children and career. She was in the vanguard of women who attended business school, and fully intended to be a successful player in the corporate world. After graduation, she became a consultant with Touche Ross (now Deloitte, Touche) in Boston, working long hours and traveling often. Three years later, she and her husband, Jack Kadis, a corporate executive, had their first child. Desiring a fulfilling career but unhappy with her job's time and travel demands, she looked for work that could accommodate her parenting needs.

Unfortunately, the most interesting jobs required the longest hours and most travel. In trying to perfect the balance between work and family, Kadis spent years bouncing between nine-to-five jobs that "were as interesting as watching trees grow" and more interesting 60-plus-hours-a-week systems-management jobs. Then she spent one morning at Children's Hospital in Boston with a friend whose son was having surgery on what proved to be a benign tumor. The occasion was an epiphany. "That night, I told my husband, 'I don't want to work full time,'" Kadis says. "I don't want someone else raising my children. Life is too fragile."

Yet when she sat down to tell her children that she would be home full time, taking over their nanny's role, her seven-year-old daughter Jessica exclaimed, "You can't do that, Mom! You have no experience." There was truth in the girl's outburst. For a year, Kadis's children complained that she didn't perform as well as their former nanny. "She would do things like organize a teddy-bear picnic," Kadis says. "She'd send out invitations and take a group of kids to the park. I never did stuff like that." Instead, Kadis says, "I loved to take my kids to the library and to classes at the Science Museum." They also spent time together volunteering for soup kitchens and nonprofits such as Greenpeace and the AIDS Action Committee.

Kadis stayed home for three years and, like Waldman, she found creative outlets for her talents. She set up an arrangement with the AIDS group that allowed her to base her volunteer schedule around her children's school schedule, so she could contribute meaningfully to an organization she cared about. In just six months, she raised $50,000. She found it ironic that at her fifteenth business-school reunion in 1992—surrounded by classmates with high-powered jobs—"All anyone wanted to talk about was my work [for the committee.] It was perceived as having huge social value."

When her children went off to junior high and high school, Kadis decided to go back to work. She joined Fidelity Investments in a "stressful and intense job" that required 50 to 60 hours a week, including regular weekend commitments. Meanwhile, family demands continued to compete for her time. "I still had two children, I had all the bills, the doctors' appointments, and everything else that comes from running a household," she says. Nevertheless, she stayed for three years, until her brother became seriously ill with AIDS and she left to be able to spend more time with him. "When you have a high-powered job and children," she explains, "things work for you only when everything else in your life is running smoothly."

Now, with her youngest daughter set to graduate from Yale this year, Kadis has accepted another demanding position. She manages the Adopt a Family program of the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund, an organization that raises money for the families of victims of terrorism, spending three days a week at the organization's office in New York and working from home in Boston the rest of the time. She reports that she is "working from the time I get up until the time I go to bed, and I'm so happy."

 

Mothers do not crop up often in the leadership ranks of corporate America. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, reveals that, among corporate executives earning $100,000 or more, 49 percent of the women were childless—versus only 10 percent of the men. A more informal assessment comes from the class of 1984 reunion survey in which two-thirds of the female graduates, but only a quarter of the males, indicated that having children hurt their careers at least a little.

An alumnus who chooses to stay at home with his children, like Dennis Findley, M.Arch. '85, of McLean, Virginia, is a rarity. When he made the decision, Findley, an architect who "dearly loved" his work, was as surprised as anyone. One evening during a dinnertime talk with his then-pregnant wife, Bonnie Barit, a senior manager at Hewlett-Packard, he blurted out, "What would you think if I stayed home?"

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Dennis Findley
Photograph by Laura Wilson
Yet after voicing the question, Findley waffled for months about the choice. But as a frustrating search for nannies went on, he had a growing sense that his impact at home with the couple's twin boys would be stronger than anything he was accomplishing at work. When the twins were two and a half months old, he gave notice at the architectural firm in northern Virginia where he worked.

Not everyone applauded his choice. Family members worried about the effect his decision would have on his career. Former classmates took the news with polite surprise. On weekday afternoons, strangers at the mall gave him odd glances, as if caring for his children during a typical workday was aberrant behavior. His own inner conflict influenced his decision not to tell his boss why he was quitting; instead, he said he had outgrown his job and wanted to explore other opportunities.

Findley went public in 2000, when he let a Washington Post Magazine staff reporter trail him for nearly six weeks to write a story on his life as a stay-at-home parent. "Harvard is what makes the story so fascinating for people," he says. More than 30 papers in Japan picked up the story, he adds. "It was big news: 'Harvard man giving up career for kids!'"

Ironically, that cover story opened doors for Findley in the architectural world and elsewhere. Phone calls came in from homeowners who were interested in hiring him to design residential space. A local preschool and a newly formed private school invited him to join their boards. He says that he includes the Post story in his portfolio because it "graphically explains what I've been doing for six years, as opposed to leaving a blank hole on my résumé."

With his sons now in school full time, Findley has begun a home-based practice that will allow him to resume work on his own terms—part-time at present. His goal for the next few years is to enlarge slowly to a full-time practice that will allow his wife to stay home with the children. In the meantime, he continues to attend professional seminars and enter architectural competitions as he has done all along. And every afternoon, without fail, he is there to pick his kids up from school.

 

The uneasy balance between career ambitions and family is something most parents grapple with, whether they work or stay at home. Elizabeth Abate '87 of San Diego, a former marketing writer in the high-tech industry, has spent time both as a working parent and a stay-at-home parent. Currently at home with her two sons, she ran into an old friend at her reunion last spring and they chatted about the friend's career, which was going very well. Then her friend confided, "I never expected to be at my fifteenth reunion unmarried and with no kids." Abate countered, "Well, I never expected to be a stay-at-home mom at my fifteenth." Her friend laughed and said, "Together, we have the perfect life!"

The trade-offs between parenting and careers are inevitably frustrating. "I wouldn't pretend I've done a good job trying to manage this," says Kadis. "I have no magic answer for parents who have little children. Whatever you do, you feel torn. If you went to Harvard, you're smart and an overachiever and you have high goals. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. Then, you find it's not so easy." She is certain about one thing, however: "If you're going to have kids," she says, "you owe them time."

 

Former attorney Marlissa Briggett '88 is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Massachusetts, and the mother of two.