More than two decades after leaving her job on the trading floor of a London bank to stay home with her three children, Lisa Endlich Heffernan has written an essay titled "Why I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom." Published recently on The Huffington Post, her piece drew nearly 800 comments and more than 14,000 "likes" on Facebook.
The comment she relishes for succinctly summing up her point is this: "When I look at how amazing my kids are, I do not have regrets. When I look at my career and passions, I have only regrets."
It's the sort of rearview calculation familiar to those of us 50 and older. But Heffernan's midlife lament lands at a moment when millions are asking themselves such questions. In an interview from her Westchester home, she described three broad reactions.
"One of the big surprises was from young women," Heffernan said. "I had a rush of comments from women on maternity leave or just back saying, 'Every day I wrestle with myself, whether this was the right decision or not.'"
They are grateful. They told Heffernan they might have anticipated one or two regrets she disclosed, but not the full nine. "My world narrowed," was one. And another: "I used my driver's license far more than my degrees," including an MBA from MIT.
Other comments came from stay-home moms in their 40s and 50s who praised Heffernan's courage for speaking up. They felt the same way.
And then, she said, "There was the hate mail" - stay-home moms who felt criticized. To them, she responds, "I do not presume to speak for one other woman on this planet." The essay was purely personal.
But of course, we are living a moment in history when these "personal" questions have been dragged into the public square for a full examination. Heffernan, who blogs at GrownAndFlown.com, believes that's because baby boomers were mostly raised by moms who stayed home or held "women's" jobs instead of managing high-stress careers. So, the change is unsettling. Also, the Internet lets us converse with thousands - instead of two or three friends, who probably thought the same way we did, as in years past.
Work-family debates also likely draw so many defensive, injured voices because they affect a much larger group today. Having a parent at home is no longer an option for most middle-class families, as wages have declined over 40 years and layoffs have ratcheted up job insecurity. In 1975, about 47 percent of mothers were in the labor force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, it's almost 71 percent.
But even as the temperature of the debate mounts, so does the importance of holding it right out loud. Heffernan's openness does a service for younger people weighing their choices. I work full time now, but I've played other roles; my husband and I stayed home with our two daughters for about three years each. We didn't plan it that way; we made it up as we went.
For another perspective, I spoke to Frederick Goodall, who blogs at MochaDad.com. He and his wife have traded off staying home with their three kids. They're younger - Generation X - and believe many of their peers see staying home as old-fashioned.
But Goodall thinks society has short-shrifted parenting. "We need women to understand - and guys too - that family responsibility is just as important as work responsibility."
The key to having a parent at home may be setting material sights lower. "You have to start budgeting for it, if it's something you really want to do," he said.
Will we be hearing from Goodall in 10 years about his career regrets? That's hard to know. But I hope if we do, we'll tell him to lighten up on himself. Easy choices these are not.