It might have been that rather ordinary morning when my mail contained a letter from the Social Security Administration, informing me that I did not work enough months to qualify for my own social security benefits. I was entitled to monthly payments based on my husband’s years in the work force, the letter explained, but not on mine.
It might have been then that I began to question in earnest, “Did I choose the right road?”
Did I deprive myself of a particular purpose in life that I was meant to reach for?
Most of my friends either never left the work force or transitioned back once their children were in elementary school. I had chosen “the road less traveled by,” to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
As many of you will recall, Frost ends the poem remarking on his choice between two roads. “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” he wrote.
To my mind, Frost was claiming that “all the difference” translated into a more beautiful, meaningful life. But in googling the poem, I came across an analysis by poet and writer Katherine Robinson, written for the Poetry Foundation’s Poem Guide.
Robinson says that a reader can’t be sure whether the “difference” evoked in the last line is “glorious or disappointing or neither.” As she writes, “the word difference itself conveys no sense of whether this choice made the speaker’s life better or worse—he could, perhaps, be envisioning an alternate version of life, one full of the imagined pleasures the other road would have offered.”
Maybe it is a good thing that we never get to see how our lives would have turned out if we had chosen another road. It could have been glorious, overflowing with greater happiness or greater purpose.
Still, I ask myself, “Why didn’t I take the other road?”
“Why didn’t I go back to work?” My mom, a working mother since I was little, raised me to believe that there was nothing to respect about being a housewife. Ironically, though, when I chose to spend the main portion of my professional life as a stay-at-home mom and Hadassah volunteer, she never once made me feel she was disappointed, or that I took the wrong road. She was truly proud of my choice to be a full-time volunteer leader in Hadassah, an organization that supports the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO) in Jerusalem. Of course, it didn’t hurt that supporting Israel was a key value of hers.
And my two daughters? When I asked them if they appreciated the fact that I was typically home when they returned from school, one of them told me, “Actually, I was jealous of the other kids whose moms worked.” Why would she say that? Because their moms weren’t home to police them or hover over them. To her mind, latchkey kids were luckier because they could do whatever they wanted after school.
One recent day while walking in New York, I was talking about my choice with a long-time friend, who knows me since our junior year of college. I shared with her that entering a new decade of life had thrust me back to pondering the roads not taken—particularly my choice not to go back to work after my children were born. (I did do some free-lance writing and editing sporadically, but the amount of money I earned would not have paid for much more than my food for the year.) I told her how I remember worrying that I would not be able to do it all well, that I simply would not have the stamina or resiliency, that I would be constantly frazzled and incompetent at both being a mom and a career woman—not to mention a wife. “Lonye,” she responded with an air of certainty, “if you had really wanted to go back to work, you would have done it. If you really wanted it, you would have overcome your fear.”
Is she right? I don’t know. I do know that I never felt any sense of superiority about being more available to my children than working mothers. Nor did I think I gave my girls a better childhood than working mothers provided to theirs. To this day, I still find it uncomfortably, embarrassingly surreal that I have not brought in a paycheck for decades, and yet, this anti-materialistic baby boomer who grew up in the sixties lives an economically secure life, thanks to her husband’s income!
Why didn’t I go back to work when my girls left for college? By that time, the dye was set. As Frost writes, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Hadassah had become my professional career. I was on track to be region president and I was happy to allow Hadassah to claim the top spot in my life without a paying job vying for my attention.
I have loved my volunteer career as a regional and national Hadassah leader. I am proud of the standards I continue to set for myself as a writer and editor for the Hadassah and Hadassah International’s websites. I feel an important sense of purpose in helping to spread the word about the HMO’s caring, innovate doctors and nurses and the grateful patients they heal. It’s been—and continues to be—a very fulfilling choice. I get to practice my journalistic art for which I was trained in college for a cause that I love. I have the flexibility that full-time working women rarely have (though that is changing, thank goodness!).
Still, there is a voice within me that wishes I had chosen to take both paths. It was an option. To those of you reading this rumination who juggle both working full-time and volunteer leadership, I raise my glass to you. I admire your verve and ability to carry so much on your shoulders.
A woman judge I met through Hadassah many years ago once told me that she was stunned to learn how many hours each week I devoted to Hadassah without getting paid. “You’re a dinosaur, Lonye,” she said. I guess I am. Nevertheless, for the time being, I do have some wonderful company.
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