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Leaning Out

By intentionally taking a step back from a career she worked hard to start, Alice Dreger estimates she has cost her family $750,000. Was it worth it?
(Photo: Kostsov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Kostsov/Shutterstock)

I’m a lot like Sheryl Sandberg, or at least her public persona. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m a hard-driving, productive, leadership-prone woman who believes it is critically important for women to be confident, unashamed of their talents, and serious about careers they want. I have worked hard to achieve the CV I have, and I have enjoyed it.

But the truth is, I intentionally lean out of my career. A lot. I do this because there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I want people to remember me for?” it isn’t anything I’ve published, any TV appearance I’ve made, or anything like that.

I’d like my son to remember that, almost every morning, I snuggled with him for 15 minutes before we finally got up together. I’d like him to remember that I had the door open and a hug ready for him when he ran home from the school bus, almost every day. I’d like him to remember that I took up the clarinet, and started lessons with him with his teacher, so we could play duets together and so that he could be my secondary teacher. I’d like him to remember all the after-school walks we took to the river. I’d like him to remember how happy I was when he had a snow day and could stay home with me.

I’d like my mate to remember all that, and to remember that I became a gardener, reluctantly at first, and that I did so because he loves planting but hates to weed. I’d like him to remember all the dinner parties with friends I arranged for us. I’d like him to remember the house concerts, like the one last night.

I’d like my neighbor to remember that when her beloved stepmom died, I dropped everything and ran over to her house, 100 feet away from my writing cottage. I’d like her to remember the times she helped me with my work and gave me the energy to continue.

Ironically, leaning out has given me a vastly more interesting career than I would have otherwise had.

I’d like my dad to remember that I scheduled a bunch of extra visits to help out him and mom, and that I made him Polish porkchops like his mother used to make. I’d like my mother to remember that I made her apple fritters.

I’d like my agent to remember the four hours we spent together talking about being wives and mothers and writers.

I’d like all the strangers who called me to talk about their medical traumas to remember that I took a few hours or a couple of days to listen to them and write down their histories for them.

I’d like my editor at Penguin to remember laughing when I told him that the local power company would probably pay him to give me my manuscript back, because as long as he was working on it, I’d keep working on my investigation of the power outage they bungled, because I felt like my town might benefit from that volunteer work from me.

I’d like my walking partner to remember our walks and all of the flowers and dogs we stopped to greet.

I’d like my late friend’s husband to remember that when his wife died, I came over to cry to pieces with him and their kids, and to help write her obit.

If I leaned into my career, I would not be doing all these things. I would not have time. I would be at work doing what my career path rewards.

So, when I take stock of what’s been important and meaningful in my life, well, it’s a lot of that stuff can’t ever show up on a CV. In fact, it’s a lot of that stuff will necessarily get in the way of stuff that could otherwise show up on my CV.

I leaned out starting a decade ago, in 2004. That’s when I quit my tenured position at Michigan State because I could not manage that job and motherhood and co-running the Intersex Society. When I asked myself what mattered, the job came up last. I was lucky; my spouse is a doctor and we live in a cheap town. I could quit. So I did.

My friends at Northwestern gave me a little job to keep my name in the game, and that has been hugely helpful to what I do in my work life. That it is part-time and long-distance has been even more hugely helpful to my home life.

Ironically, leaning out has given me a vastly more interesting career than I would have otherwise had. I wouldn’t have a book coming out with Penguin that is about all of the work I've done, the work that happened because I quit a full-time tenured job.

My university income sucks for my level of career. I have no benefits through Northwestern. I don’t have tenure or any chance of it at Northwestern, because I’m not on a tenure-track job. I have a one-year renewable appointment that expires in 2017. The mate and I calculate that my leaning out has cost us, so far, about $750,000. Shocked?

Well, let me tell you what I do have.

I have is a fantastic relationship with the guy who has let me cost us $750,000, and I have an ability to support his work as a medical educator and physician. I have a libido. I have a strong relationship with my extended family. I have friends and neighbors who call me when they need me and help me when I call them. I have two triathlon “completion” medals and serious plans to do an Olympic-length triathlon this year. I have a contractor who enjoys muddling with me over lunch with a new plan for hours. I live in a neighborhood full of rainbow flags I helped put up, in a house now known as “the flower house” in town, because I’ve worked the garden so long with the mate. I have a friendship with a squirrel named Fred, and the other day, I had a northern flicker at my suet feeder, because I keep the feeders stocked every day, the birdbath cleaned and watered every day.

Best of all, I’ve got a kid who feels like he can tell me, as he did last year, “Maybe don’t go away so much?” to whom I can listen. (I cut back even more on my travel schedule, and have learned, as Sandberg would approve, to ask my talk hosts for more expensive flights that get me home much faster.) We are working on a Bach trio with our teacher. I’d like to get to the point where we can play “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” together, before he goes to college.

I also have a dream that some day men will think, agonize, write, read, and talk about the work-life balance as much as we women do. But I’m not going to struggle to live their vision of “success” while I wait for them to try and understand mine.