By Barbara Brotman
A few months ago, I got a terrifying email.
Ellen Morton, who lives in Woodstock, Ill., didn’t intend it to be frightening. She was just writing to ask if I could help her find a column I had written years ago about a woman who had decided to quit her dream job to spend time with her two children.
I had written it as a woman about the same age, with two children about the same age as hers, with my own dream job, and my own angst over whether it was costing me time with them that I could never get back.
Morton had read it from the same vantage point. A mother of two sons yearning for more time with them, she had been agonizing over whether she should quit her job.
Until she read my account of the woman who had just done it.
“Your column pretty much single-handedly convinced me to give it up,” she wrote now.
That was what was scary. You want a column to have some impact. But that was a little too much impact for me.
What if quitting her job had been a terrible mistake? What if she had missed her professional identity? What if she had tried to resume her career, only to find that she had lost ground and salary she could never recover?
What if her decision had cost her children money for college? What if it had left her short of money for retirement?
I’ve gotten one other email like that, from a woman who wrote that one of my columns had prompted her to quit her job to spend time with her daughter.
They both terrified me.
They needn’t have.
Like my other reader/friend, Morton, 56, was writing out of gladness. It had been a wonderful choice, she told me when I called to talk.
She wasn’t enjoying her job writing for and editing technical journals, she had belatedly realized that she hated writing, so she never missed it. She had loved the time with her sons. Her family’s finances were fine.
And I shouldn’t have such a swelled head, though she was too gracious to put it that way. The column had just crystalized thoughts she was already wrestling with.
“I was low-hanging fruit,” she said. “I was very susceptible to being persuaded.”
And now she is part of a book.
She was looking for the column because she was writing an essay for a new book in which various women describe their winding paths through life.
“At My Pace,” self-published and available on Amazon, is a response, with no criticism or judgment intended, to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” said Jill Ebstein, 57, a marketing consultant and mother of three who conceived it, edited the essays and wrote one of her own.
“I felt like there was a need to expand the conversation, because so many women were feeling marginalized or a little bit left out,” Ebstein said by phone from her home outside Boston.
Not all women pursue a single-minded, focused route to success, she said: “You could be one of those people who has a much more winding path, one that starts and stops, yields and changes direction.”
The book is about women who have not only leaned in, she wrote in her introduction, but “who have also leaned out and sideways.”
They are a particular group of women, she is quick to acknowledge, well-educated and financially secure enough to be able to make such choices. Her contributors are drawn from her social circles and by no means represent a societal cross-section.
But for those of us who have wondered what an alternative path would look like, or have considered taking one, their descriptions offer some answers.
They started businesses. Wrote poetry. Earned Ph.D.s. They became teachers, social workers, consultants, writers, clergy.
Their lives weren’t always easy. Some were forced onto different paths by widowhood or divorce. New jobs could be elusive; new businesses sometimes failed.
But they made their ways forward; and in essay after essay, express joy and no regret.
“Yes, I’m lightly compensated monetarily,” Morton wrote, “but well compensated in terms of impact and reward.”
After she quit her job, she volunteered at her sons’ schools, took on increasingly demanding volunteer jobs and discovered a talent and taste for leadership.
She now works part time as executive director of a synagogue and as a writing tutor for special-needs college students.
“It’s been pretty darn delightful,” she said.
So I’m off the hook.
But my nervousness about my debatable responsibility for Morton’s choices is a reminder of the anxiety I once felt when contemplating my own.
Every time I talked to a woman who had quit her job to spend time with her children, my stomach knotted. When I interviewed the woman I wrote about in that 1999 column, at several points I cried.
But I kept to my career path. And I ended up as glad in my decision as the women in Ebstein’s book were in theirs.
Ebstein hopes the book encourages women to stop judging one another, or themselves.
“It’s really about celebrating our choices, because we’re all different and that’s good,” she said.
Morton, Ebstein and I are about the same age. Our children are in their 20s. We made our choices about work and motherhood. Now it’s on to other choices, those that look past our work lives to our next adventures.
Comparing notes on those should be a lot more fun.