Ten years ago, the New York Times published an article on the phenomenon of women “opting-out.” Meaning pretty much what you’d guess from its name, the opt-out movement consisted of women who had stable and lucrative careers, but decided to leave their jobs and stay home to raise their families. Much was made of this movement because it seemed to fly directly in the face of everything that women had worked for professionally over the prior few decades. Everyone wondered, would this be the start of a new era? Would more and more women forego career fulfillment so that they could transform into a new generation of Betty Draper clones, only this time outfitted in Lululemon yoga pants and Nike Frees instead of jodhpurs and riding boots? (Which, side note, but when you pit yoga pants against jodhpurs, yoga pants always lose.) What would become of all these women who didn’t want to rule the world and instead wanted only to stay home with their children? Would everything turn out just perfect for them and their families? It would, right? Everything’s fine, isn’t it? Ha. Of course not. Nothing is fine—obviously—or there wouldn’t be a story.
In this past Sunday’s Times Magazine, Judith Warner visited some of the women who opted out so many years ago, and found that (spoiler!) they actually aren’t all as happy and fulfilled as they thought they would be. And not only are they not all happy and fulfilled, some of them are even—gasp!—poor. Which, isn’t that just a fate worse than death? To be poor? Because you only earn, as one woman interviewed does, “a fifth of what she earned at her peak”? (This woman’s peak, by the way, was half a million a year, so she still pulls in a hundred grand, so…not too shabby.) And wouldn’t it be absolutely mortifying to have to live in an apartment that “overlooks a dreary parking lot” when you used to live in a “custom-built, six-bedroom home”? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe that would be awful. Although pulling in six figures a year doesn’t exactly sound like the worst fate on earth. But maybe that’s just me and my skewed perspective of money, a perspective informed by the fact that, um, I don’t pull in anywhere near that much of it.
But so, besides this one woman who is forced to live in what she “bitterly” calls an apartment (which—and sorry for all the parenthetical asides, but I can’t help myself—is what I’m going to start doing when talking about my apartment, I’m going to sound bitter as fuck), other women who opted out didn’t find exactly what they wanted either. One woman, a graduate of both Brown and Harvard, spoke to Warner about her original choice to leave her career—”she liked the work but it wasn’t a real calling”—the kind of thing she did while she stayed at home—”she oversaw a large yet tastefully cozy house renovation”—and what happened when she decided that she was unfulfilled and wanted a job again—”sight unseen, I got work.” To sum up, a spectacularly educated, wealthy woman stayed home for several years with her children and as soon as she wanted work again, she got it. Fascinating. There’s another woman who wants to go back to work, but has had more trouble finding a full-time job and has had to settle for freelance work, but what Warner overwhelmingly finds is that the “superelite…the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks—found jobs easily after extended periods at home,” while “those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently ‘strategic’ in their volunteering (fund-raising for a Manhattan private school could be a nice segue back into banking; running bake sales for the suburban swim team tended not to be a career-enhancer) or who had divorced, often struggled greatly.”
So, while the wealthy women who had opted out of their careers by choice (instead of the economic necessity of not being able to afford childcare) faced regrets that revolved around some “ideal world” that might have been, the less financially stable women had much larger problems, namely wondering how to make ends meet from month to month. In fact, it is highly possible that those less financially stable women never even thought about the “choice” of opting out to begin with. There’s a pretty good chance that staying home was the only feasible option for their families. And where this becomes a huge problem and one that transitions into more of a traditional gender issue is that we are not only living in a time when many families would benefit greatly from having two salaries, but we are also living in a time when it is harder to leave work and not lose valuable hands-on experience lest advancing technology leave those who take time off in the dust.