Jan. 24, 2023
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In 2022 I quit my full-time salaried job for the life of a freelancer, going part-time for the first time in over fifteen years, in order to readjust my work-life balance and focus more of my attention and time on fertility treatments, and the hopes of growing my family. In 2023, I’ll not only give birth to my first child, but face big questions about what career moves to make next as a new mom. Keep my flexibility and limited hours, scraping together a couple more freelance contracts to pay the bills? Or aggressively apply to full-time roles, in the hopes of getting back to a salary and the retirement, paid leave, and healthcare benefits that entails, and figure out child care and a new balance from there?
Decisions like these are not only big ones, but what authors of a new book, Money and Love, call the hard decisions, where the possible paths you might take are not only dramatically different, but where it’s also not immediately clear which path is preferable in the long term. Nowhere are decisions harder than the ones we make in navigating the competing forces of work, family, and life. So how do we tackle these decisions?
In my experience, it’s been a rocky road of following my gut, thinking through financial consequences for both myself and my family, and trying to remember to account for my feelings and hopes. But all the while never feeling fully confident that I have indeed made the right call or adequately considered all the factors both immediately in front of me and down the road. In Money and Love, the authors set out to “give you a framework, relevant research, and exercises to help you identify your priorities and make decisions that are aligned with what you want.”
Experiment No. 34: Making Hard Decisions
We’re Trying to Solve: The stress of making big life and work decisions without a framework
Target Audience: Everybody
Category: Work and life
Estimated Time: Varies
Difficulty Level: Hard
In 2023, you, too, probably face some sticky decisions with work and care. What if there were a framework for helping you navigate these hard calls?
Co-authors Abby Davisson, a social impact leader, and Stanford economics Professor Emerita Myra Strober have created just that, based on a course Strober taught for years to help students think through their own futures. And they’ve done the research you might need to help you make a variety of decisions where love and money intersect. So whether you’ve got a question about finding the right partner, getting married or ending a marriage, having kids, juggling career and family, or navigating family caregiving in the later years, Strober and Davisson have answers—or at least the data you might need to find the answer that’s right for you. So before you make yet another pro/con list, try going through each of these steps that they call the five C’s.
- Seek clarity about what you truly value and want
Of course, when it comes to almost any question about love and money, most of us will prefer to have both. But Davisson and Strober suggest that beneath the surface, we have deeper, more specific wants for our lives that can help to guide us when it comes to choosing one or the other, and to define “our wants apart from those of others.”
For instance, in my case over the last year, I certainly wanted both a stable income and the chance to become a mom. But I faced a crossroads where having both was draining me of the energy and passion it took to commit to either fully. It took me a few months of soul searching to realize that something had to change at work, so that I could achieve the big, lifelong dream of having a baby that I’d put off for years. When I tapped into what it was I valued most at that time, growing my family and taking care of my health, it helped me see which of my preferences I had to let go of and which to lean into, at least for the time being.
As you face your hard decisions, ask yourself, what kind of life do you truly want to build for yourself, and which choice will get you closest to it?
2. Communicate your values to others who will be most impacted by your decision
Step two of the five C’s reminds us that though our personal values must ground our decision-making, it is important that we remain in conversation with the others in our lives who will be most impacted by them.
Do you have a partner, parent or kid or other important person whose own life will be impacted by the choice you make? Talk to them often about how you’re approaching your decision. In my case, my hard decisions have had to fully include my wife, whose own full-time job has become more important to our livelihoods since I left mine, and who will co-parent with me in this next chapter. If I hadn’t accounted for her feelings when deciding what to do, I might’ve ended up in a situation where despite valuing the building of a family, I’d isolated or hurt the one person I depend on most to accomplish that.
(If you’re struggling with how to talk to your loved ones about a decision you’ve got ahead, check out our past BLL resource on tough conversations and getting family buy-in for change, and the full book of Money and Love for resources to help you as you go.)
3. Expand your sense of possible choices
If the choice between one outcome and another feels too daunting, Davisson and Strober suggest you might consider whether those are indeed the only decisions you could make. Where at first we see just two possible paths, there may indeed be dozens. As Strober and Davisson say, “Are there any solutions that would allow you to have your cake and eat it, too?”
My work-life decision was made much easier after talking with people in my network and my super-supportive boss Brigid, who helped me realize quitting my job didn’t mean going entirely without income or work. I could leave my full-time job and continue to work and earn. Part-time contracts, including the reporting fellowship I have with the Better Life Lab, could not only keep me afloat financially, but keep me attached to the labor market, in order to mitigate some of the penalties women face when they leave the labor force during their child bearing years.
Whatever hard decision you face, make sure you’re truly leaving no possible option on the table.
4. Check in with trusted friends or family members
No hard decisions should be made entirely without feedback. So, when in doubt about your own instincts, Davisson and Strober say it’s important to phone a friend. Think through who in your life will be best able to listen and contribute constructively, without imposing their own values or choices onto you. Sometimes, what we need most is a sounding board and a chance to think out loud in a safe space. Other times, trusted friends and family might help us build on the first few C’s, to understand our values, better communicate with loved ones, or expand our sense of possible choices.
The best part of confiding in friends about the hard choices I was facing in 2022 was that it meant I had a ready-made group of supporters who understood how big my decision was and how much the next chapter meant to me to cheer me on during my pregnancy and my freelancing time. So open up about your process, at every stage! You never know how it will serve you, both in the short- and long-term.
5. Consider all realistic consequences of your possible choices—both good and bad
Maybe it’s easy for you to foresee and even dwell on the worst possible outcomes of any decision you might make. But Davisson and Strober say it’s important that you don’t stop there, and let that alone drive your decision making! It’s important that you account for all the possible and realistic consequences of each possible path, and to include the likely good outcomes as well as the bad.
In my own life, I have a proclivity for spiraling - usually in a negative direction - ahead of a big life change: What if I quit my job and then my wife loses her job and we can’t pay the mortgage and we have a baby?! Instead of spiraling, Davisson and Strober recommend looking into any available evidence you might have about just how likely such an outcome is. What are the odds neither of us could find another job, if one were needed urgently? How have our savings prepared us for such a bleak scenario?
And most importantly, what are other possible consequences, including the very likely scenario that both of us remain at least partially employed, and have more time and energy to work toward our intended family goals?
Take a deep breath with me. With a decision-making road map like the five C’s, at least we know that whatever happens, we made our choices using the best of our resources and the most important people and data we had at our disposal. “We all lack the crystal ball we would like for this work, but even amid massive uncertainty, you’ll make better choices after considering the possible consequences of alternative paths,” write Davisson and Strober.
And in the end, the authors remind us, many of these decisions feel hard because we still lack structural supports like egalitarian workplaces, paid family leave for all, and affordable child care. So use the roadmap, make the best decisions you can with what you’ve got, and then let’s fight for a better world where the choices aren’t quite as hard.