mommy wars

The Real Lesson of the ‘Opt-Out Generation’

Ten years ago The New York Times Magazine declared a revolution when it introduced us to a handful of highly educated women who had decided to, in the story’s titular phrase, “opt out” of their jobs. These women, once driven careerists, had been beaten down by the inflexibility of the American workplace and made a strategic choice to devote their considerable talents to being full-time mothers. This week, the Times revisits the revolutionaries of 2003, this time dubbing them the “opt-out generation,” which now wants back into the workforce. Faced with divorce, financial hardship, lack of fulfillment, or all of the above, these moms are anxious to get their careers back on track — and most are finding it’s far from easy.

It’s not surprising that the struggle to reconcile children and career continues to transfix us. What’s shocking is that, even though the recession has made the workplace less flexible and more hostile to everyone, this dilemma remains one that is boiled down to women’s choices. When it comes time to cobble together solutions, most couples still seem to foist the burden of finding a solution onto mothers alone, rather than making realistic joint plans for raising children, paying bills, and seeking professional fulfillment.

Even women who don’t yet have children but want to be mothers someday don’t see this as their problem. A new survey from LinkedIn shows that 69 percent of childless women don’t think that starting a family is going to hurt their career. According to the survey, “Sixty-two percent of respondents defined success as having the right balance between work and personal life today, nearly doubling the number of respondents who defined success in these terms five to 10 years ago.” It sounds eerily similar to what one of the women told Lisa Belkin a decade ago: ”It never occurred to me that my choices would be proscribed. I could have anything I wanted.”

If anything, things have gotten worse for working women at all economic levels — even the upper echelon, where the “opt-out” debate is focused. “Extreme jobs and extreme parenting are colliding,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation and the author of several books about women and work. “Men and women who are college graduates are working 12 hours more a week than they were 15 years ago.” As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum tweeted, “ALL work has expanded to become untenable for anyone, mom dad or childless.” We’re doing more work for less pay. Even though we’re post-recession by most indicators, women have been slower to recover than men. And despite the fact that Nancy Pelosi has a long-term plan to try to force employers to be more accommodating, most of us have long ago given up hope for a national policy solution.

What feels most retro about the opt-out stories isn’t the fact that the women put their careers on pause. It’s the fact that they seem to have made that decision more or less alone. Sociologist Pamela Stone tells the Times that, ten years ago, almost every woman she talked to had been assured by her husband that opting out was her choice: “Whatever you want to do,” said the husbands. Stone continues, “This round, I’m hearing more, ‘My husband really prefers that I be home.’” But despite that shift, it seems the onus remains on women. “I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage,” says one opt-out poster woman, Sheilah O’Donnel. Another couple describes in detail the bargain they struck at the beginning of their relationship — that they would move to whatever city held the most lucrative job opportunity for one of them — but they never mention a shared road map for meshing their careers with the demands of child rearing. None of the women say, “We made a plan.” They say, “I made a choice.”

Throwback narratives about stay-at-home motherhood tend to include lots of comforting quotes about how women are making this decision on their own, not under pressure from traditionalist partners. (Cut to Charlotte on Sex and the City screaming “I choose my choice!”) But when it comes to such complex arrangements as balancing a ballooning workload with the demands of parenting in an era with no clear rules, telling women it’s their choice is basically telling them the burden is on them to figure out the details. And live with the consequences. Most young men and women say they want to be in committed but autonomous relationships in which both partners have a happy balance of work and family life, according to sociologist Kathleen Gerson’s book The Unfinished Revolution. But if (or rather, when) they are unable to achieve that egalitarian ideal, a majority of those young men assume their wives will be the ones to “shift down” their careers.

This made a certain amount of sense when professional men’s earnings were higher and more stable and women’s income was supplemental. But that’s changed. Recent Pew research shows married mothers are increasingly better-educated than their husbands and total family income is higher when a woman is the breadwinner. Yet 51 percent of Americans still say young kids are “better off” if their mother stays home with them. Only 8 percent say the same of fathers. For a couple who wants kids, it stands to reason that at least one person’s professional life is going to have to take a back seat. And it no longer makes economic sense for women to default to a caretaker role and men to a breadwinner. It may be of bedrock importance in the abortion debate, but in the context of work and family, it’s her choice is a paradigm that doesn’t make sense anymore. My version of feminism isn’t about being left to my own devices to make a choice that will affect my entire family and then pick up the pieces if and when it doesn’t work out. I’d much rather be a truly equal partner in making a mutually agreed upon plan.

Surprisingly, neither the original Belkin piece or the check-in ten years later consulted family therapists about whether attempting to make such a road map might alleviate the sorts of conflicts the “opt-out” women describe. Increasingly, men don’t want to be lifelong breadwinners any more than women want to be lifelong caregivers. “We know men also feel very high levels of work-family conflict, but they don’t feel very often like they can express them,” Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, tells me. “I’ve interviewed guys that say they’ll say they have a doctor’s appointment rather than saying they have to pick the kids up in child care. Discriminatory attitudes have really got to force us to start looking for ways to ally with men and childless co-workers who may have aging parents.”

It’s the recurring theme of opt-out stories, or really any narrative about modern women and work: Nobody’s happy, nobody’s fulfilled, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (As Amanda Hess writes in Slate, no wonder some women are opting out the other direction: “It’s just that I — like many of the childless women profiled by Time magazine this week — have decided to forgo the husband-and-kids piece of it instead of the career.”) And when the story is framed in terms of women’s choices only, men end up looking particularly bad. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook, “Uh, I think this is as much a story on women that opted out of the workforce as it is a story about women married to a bunch of jerks.” A choice I’m sure none of them thought they were making.

The Real Lesson of the ‘Opt-Out Generation’