On the fear of possible future regret

After reading this New York Times article, about women returning to the workforce after a break, a friend of mine posted the article to Facebook, highlighting this quote:

"After career breaks averaging two and a half years, 89 percent said they wanted to return, the study found. But only 40 percent managed to find what they regarded as a good full-time job in the sector of their choice."

She added her comment:

"Remind me never to quit working."

As someone who "quit working" 18 months ago, I will admit that the quote and her comment struck fear into my heart. What if I decide I want to go back and I'm one of the 60% who can't find a "good full-time job in the sector of [my] choice"? Is she right? Should I have never quit?

I've been thinking about this quote, and her comment, all day. Something about it has been bothering me, and I think I finally figured out what it is. There are two things, actually. Here's the first:

Wouldn't it be a shame to miss out on something you yearn to do, out of fear that someday, if you decided you wanted to go back, you wouldn't be able to?

You only get one chance at this life. Is fear of possible regret a good enough reason to make a decision as big as how you spend your days?

If you love working and don't have a sense of yearning to explore something different --- whether it be more time with your children, or a creative passion, or an entrepreneurial pursuit, or a philanthropic calling --- then you probably shouldn't quit working. The working world is meeting your needs, and that's probably where your highest and best contribution to the world lies.

But if your heart is calling you toward a change --- a new path, a different type of contribution, an alternative way of spending your limited time on this earth --- then I would hate to see you turn away from it out of fear. I'd hate to see you slog away in a working world that isn't fitting quite right anymore, just in case someday you might regret leaving.

What if you do quit, and you never regret leaving, and you realize that not quitting would have been the far greater mistake?

"Well, maybe," (I hear the objection as if it’s a separate person inside my head, though of course it’s just the part of me that is skeptical and afraid,) "but the quote says 89% want to return, so there's only an 11% chance that, after an average of 2 and half years, I'll feel like it was the right decision."

At this point, the data hound in me wants to examine the survey closely. How did they select the sample? Exactly what questions did they ask and how were they worded? Did the 89% all say they wanted to return to the same type of job they left? Or did some of them want to return to the working world but in a different way? Maybe some of the 89% wanted part time work upon returning, and that's why only 40% found a "good full time job". Was there a difference between the people who left voluntarily vs through a layoff? Was there a difference between women who were away only a short time, vs those who took much longer leaves? How about between women who left early in their careers, vs later? Did their feelings depend on how they spent the time not working? Or the ages of their children? I could go on and on with my questions.... and I'm sure we could pick apart this survey and find an alternative, more optimistic interpretation. But I don't have the data, and I don't want to bother with that anyway. Because...

Here's the second thing that I want to say about this quote, article and comment. (And it makes me feel vulnerable to say it, but I will forge ahead because I think it’s so important.)

It discounts the value of what was done in the time taken away from the traditional working world.

What if the time spent not working was valuable in some way? What if a contribution was made that would have never been possible otherwise? Is that worth something too, and might it even be worth the risk of possible difficulty later on when trying to re-enter the workforce?

In my case, I’m using this time to help one of my children through a challenge in a way I could not have done while working full time. I’m pursuing my dream to write a novel that brings joy to children and encourages them to be lifetime readers. I’m volunteering at the school and on its PTO board. I’m focused on being a more present and engaged mom and wife. I’m investing in friendships that I would have never had the chance to make otherwise, which are providing a broader sense of support and community for me and my family, and for them. I’m taking more time to stay healthy and pursue my varied hobbies, which makes me a more pleasant person to be around, both at home and in my interactions within my community. I don’t “work” anymore, but I sure do work hard at being my very best, and making my best possible contribution to my family, my community, and hopefully to the world around me.

Will that be enough? Am I enough? Will it -- will I -- be valued? These questions haunt me, and they also keep me motivated. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that my time is spent in valuable ways. If I succeed, then that will be worth something. It’s valuable. And it’s not surprising that gaining something valuable requires a price to be paid. Everything valuable has a price tag. The question is whether the price is worth what was gained. I’m willing to bet that it will be, and I’m willing to take that risk.

Friend, I don't think I will be the one to remind you to never quit working. I can't say whether someday quitting the traditional workforce will be the right or wrong choice for you. But I can remind you to do this: Listen to your heart, and do not let fear of what might or might not happen be the primary driver of your decisions.


  1. Laurel, wonderful and inspiring post. Thanks so much for sharing those heartfelt ideas.

  2. Only you can live your life. Thoughtful post.

  3. Laurel, thanks for this post. It is so encouraging to hear your point of view on the topic, and to hear what it feels like for you!

  4. Very thoughtful post. All your questions are valid, and I, like you, find myself frustrated with articles and "surveys" such as these. These decisions are so personal--and a big one you didn't mention is money. Maybe they wanted to return to work not because they wanted to work because they needed to? What constitutes a "good" full time job? So many questions. But, I think it's clear that your contribution to the world is immense and valued. I never doubt that.