The Roads Taken

The Roads Taken: Complex Lives of Employed and At-Home Mothers

By Deborah A. Kahn

When women become mothers, every decision becomes more complex and every question opens new paths: Do I remain employed? Do I stay at home? In Deborah A. Kahn’s The Roads Taken: Complex Lives of Employed and At-Home Mothers, a non-judgmental, warm and informative book, readers will learn about the stresses and challenges mothers encounter caring for children/family, self, and often, career.  And identify with their perceptions and experiences shared.  The Roads Taken comes from a base of systematic data collection and analysis of responses and comments of full-, part-time employed, and at-home mothers in 2008. The research grew from a doctoral dissertation completed in 1995 with 200 employed and at-home mothers. Fourteen years later, Kahn succeeded in getting 123 of the original participants to answer questions about changes in their work status and why or why not they had occurred; challenges they experienced; stresses related to their work status; and sources of support, wanting to learn how they guide their lives once children become part of their families. Their once-toddlers were now teenagers or college students; the mothers were now at least in their 50s and some of their marriages had dissolved into divorce or ended in widowhood. They had experienced growing a family, launching their children. These mothers had been through it all while constantly trying to meet the demands and needs of all family members; provide support and opportunities; and grow as independent adults whether in a career or not. The findings suggest that when debating employment or home, mothers examine finances, education, health, values, passion—what is important to them. Once clear about those factors, which are always imbued with personal values, they are ready to make a choice. Decisions that are consistent with their priorities and values—what the mothers feel is best for them and their family, result in more confidence, less personal conflict, and more energy to address daily demands. Life is not easy; it is hard for all mothers. Society is not supportive of either work status group. Circumstances and priorities often change over time. The Roads Taken is a balanced conversation. What makes this conversation—the “remain employed” or “stay home” debate—especially compelling is that, in part, women learn best from other women. They solve problems by asking other women how they navigate challenges and what they consider in deciding on a course of action. The centerpiece of Kahn’s systematic study of employed and at-home mothers comprises the insights from the women who were walking that path. That gives added credibility to probing, nonjudgmental questions and suggestions afforded in the book. This is the thoughts, views, feelings, and values of women who have made and/or changed their decisions over time about whether to stay at home or remain in the workplace. The takeaway here is that such matters are rarely resolved easily. While each woman makes her own decision it can now be an informed one based on the information shared by others who walked the path ahead of her. Ann Crittenden, author of If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything: Leadership Begins At Home (2004), writes: “Deborah Kahn has given us a level-headed, fair-minded, and ultimately reassuring look at the tough choices many mothers face between full-time employment and full-time parenting. A truly impressive book! The research and analysis add a great deal to our understanding of the difficult tug between work and family that so many American mothers feel. You will see yourself in this book. Read it, and you will better understand how complex mothers’ lives are, and how deeply personal is each woman’s decision about work and family. American society still judges mothers for whatever they do, but Kahn’s message is empowering. Stop beating yourself up and stop worrying about what others think—you are the expert on what’s best for you. A wise book.”