In 2003, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Lisa Belkin about the “opt-out revolution” — highly-educated women with prestigious jobs who left the workforce for full-time parenting. Was this, it seemed to ask, what our feminist foremothers had fought for?
The article was trashed from here to the moon with good reason: it focused on the wealthy elite who are able to leave the workforce to be stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) with no major dent to the family’s way of living. Pre-recession, some of these women assumed they would be able to transition easily back into the workforce. Others threw themselves into volunteering, putting their skills as go-getters to work elsewhere.
Now, Judith Warner from the Times Magazine has followed up with another piece about women (not the same group of women) who “opted out” of their high-powered jobs to be SAHMs … with varying degrees of personal happiness and professional success 10-15 years on.
The article, simply put, scared the crap out of me. If you were already set on staying in the workforce, whether by choice or necessity, the conclusions from this Times piece probably won’t be a surprise for you. But as someone who wants to become a SAHM at least temporarily someday, the article is a cold shower of bad news. All of the women featured had struggled in their marriage somehow, usually because their partners at some point began to resent being the sole breadwinner and the women resented the implication they were in charge of all the household chores. Some reported struggling with their self-esteem because stay-at-home parenting was not as immediately rewarding as paid work.
Perhaps scariest is how most of these women found it quite difficult to transition back into the workforce because — thanks to the recession — things had changed while they were gone. Story after story depicts a woman who accepted a lower-level position at decreased pay. One woman and her husband eventually divorced, putting her back on the job market with something like 10 years blank on her resume; she ended up having to borrow money from her sister. (The ex-husband is anonymously quoted in the piece lamenting, “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself.”) All of them wanted to stay at home and raise their children, but not all of them wanted to take on 100 percent of the cleaning, cooking, pickups/dropoffs, laundry, etc. as well. I got the sense that there could be another article entirely solely focused on equality within these marriages, pre- and post-opting-out.
To be fair, there are aspects of this new opt-out article that are as eye roll-inducing as the first one: all these women are well-educated, high-earners, so it is difficult to see how their worst case scenarios are really not that bad — Oh, no! A sad white lady who now lives “near a gas station” after her divorce! The horror! Additionally, every single one of the couples interviewed for the piece are heterosexual — interesting for an examination of traditional gender roles, but not so realistic to how folks are coupling up today.
But ultimately the piece does a thoughtful job of exploring how lots of different areas — financial security, personal fulfillment, gender roles, etc. — were affected by opting out and later transitioning back in. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if some feminists who push the idea that staying in the workforce is always the only right choice are feeling very pleased with themselves right now. However, Lisa Belkin herself (the author of the original opt-out piece) has since lamented her own reporting, writing on Huffington Post (emphasis mine):
Looking back over 10 years and a lot of reporting, I have come to see my mistake when writing “The Opt-Out Revolution.” I confused being pulled toward home with being pushed away from work. True, I spent a lot of time describing the way that Sally Sears, a local Atlanta TV anchor, was refused flexibility when she asked for it, and how Katherine Brokaw, a young lawyer, left her partner-track job at a law firm after working 15-hour-days, seven days a week, while still nursing her 4-month-old. I did not fully understand, though, that what looked like a choice was not really what these women wanted most. Had their workplaces been ones that adapted to a world in which workers no longer have other halves (read: wives) focusing on home so that they can focus on the job, and where technology could be used to free employees from their desks physically rather than tethering them metaphorically, and where the “ideal worker” was understood to have priorities outside of the office — in other words, if they’d had a third path — they might well have taken it.
Let that be a lesson to you, New York Times Magazine. A better follow-up piece would have been one that explored the myriad ways that parenthood and work continue to be incompatible in a country without mandated paid maternity leave. Or parental leave. Or paid sick leave, for that matter. Or affordable childcare options. As Lisa Belkin alluded to in the quote above, a choice isn’t much of a “choice” if it’s the only real option you have. I’m less interested in the few elite women that can’t go back to their $500,000-a-year jobs (seriously, that’s how much one of these women earned) and more interested in the women of the 99 percent.
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