When Will Men Not-Apologize For Choosing Their Careers?

by Nancy Birdsall

In a recent New York Times opinion column, Lara Bazelon announces: “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids.” Though she loves her kids “beyond all reason,” she “prioritizes” her work because “I’m ambitious and because I believe it’s important,” and because without her work “a part of me would feel empty."

Bazelon believes that she is expected to choose her kids and is not sorry she did the opposite.

She is not apologizing for her choice. She assures the reader that it’s not a financial imperative; though she’s a divorced mother of two, her former husband is a terrific father; the children are well cared for by him, and by others when she has to be out of town.

Yes! Well said. But let me pile on with two thoughts.

First, I await eagerly this kind of non-apologia from a father. I dream of the day when a father with a profession and a career feels the need to explain to the world that he prioritizes his career over his children — because he’s ambitious and likes what he does.

At the moment, even young fathers who, with changing societal expectations, might find the work-life balance stressful, have no reason to write such a non-apologia. Even the most modern of fathers need not not-apologize! On the contrary, the most modern of professional fathers can now take pride in leaving the office early to coach their daughter’s soccer team – while the modern professional mother still worries about missing a meeting to rush a sick child to the pediatrician.

I dream of the day when a father with a profession and a career feels the need to explain to the world that he prioritizes his career over his children.

Why this difference? Because tradition assigns fathers, but not even single mothers, the role of breadwinner above all. It is the relatively few fathers who don’t work but stay home with kids (including even gay stay-at-home fathers) who might feel the need to not-apologize for prioritizing childcare!

Second, Bazelon explains her choice using a compelling example, which, on second thought, undermines it. Bazelon is often out-of-town because she’s a lawyer who takes on the cases of imprisoned clients who are victims of prosecutorial and police misconduct. The courts set their own schedules, and her clients’ needs and critical court dates mean she has sometimes missed her children’s birthdays and even family vacations.

But I, like many unapologetic professional women, at times picked job over children, even when job demands were less dramatic. For much of almost 20 years working for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, I was away on international trips. Yes, I tried to minimize travel by “hiding” in the small research units some of the time, and the rest of the time choosing to concentrate on close-by (relatively) and jet-lag friendly Latin America rather than Africa or Asia. I was lucky to have those choices, but I made them more for my own benefit — the joys of being with the kids — than for their benefit. I knew my children were well cared for and loved and that I, not they, would pay the cost of a sometimes-absent mother. I mostly felt fortunate that with a good husband and adequate family income, I could afford to make that tradeoff.

I was trading off two kinds of personal satisfactions: between meaningful and often gripping work and spending more time at home with my children. Sometimes that was painful: missing the play, or concert, or game, where I would have basked in the pride of seeing my children perform. But I’m an economist. I was internalizing the sometimes-high cost of missing a performance or a birthday party and choosing where on the “indifference” curve between two kinds of satisfactions to put myself.

Thinking of the tradeoff, I’ve come to recognize that I was ambitious, though, like many women of my age, I still have trouble saying so. Ambitious not for power or money (though good money made my choices easier than for the great majority of women), but the chance to exercise my skills and put my increasing experience to work in my mission-driven profession of reducing poverty and inequality in the developing world.

That’s the kind of tradeoff that I hope my daughters and grand-daughters — and their husbands and partners will have the chance to enjoy — a time when fathers also will not have to not-apologize that without their work a part of them would “feel empty.”

Nancy Birdsall is the founding president, and president emeritus of the Center for Global Development.