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.
But what should a family do then when it doesn't make sense for both parents to be working? Well, maybe the husband should opt-out? After all, isn't this as much a gender issue as an economic one? Warner doesn't think so, and writes, "At a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one." But as much as it is an economic issue, I have to disagree with her and say that it is most definitely a gender issue. Where are the husbands who opted out? What would have happened if the wives stayed on their career paths and the husbands stayed home with the children and taken over household duties? It's really hard to speculate about that because, frankly, it so rarely happens. One reason for this is that it's still typical (although, at least, not the absolute rule anymore) for men to make more money than women, and so it seems to make more sense for the woman to be the one to leave a career. Additionally, there's the fact that maternity leave (paltry as it is in this country) is more substantial than paternity leave and there seems to be a greater acceptance in the work place of women taking the time off—it's just easier for them to leave. However, no matter how easy it might be, and no matter how tempting it is to think about leaving a demanding career that might not fulfill you in every way that you thought it would, it remains vitally important for women to understand what it is that they're giving up when they leave their jobs for full-time parenting, namely, the extreme privilege of security. And security, like it or not, is usually based on financial freedom.
Warner reports, "money was not the primary focus of the women I spoke with—whether they needed more of it or not," but the key words there are "the women [she] spoke with" because if Warner had spoken to any women who actively struggle to feed, or clothe, or house their children, I think she would have found that these women are less concerned with "having it all" than they are with having anything. The very idea of "having it all" speaks to the kind of privileged mentality that many Americans—especially well-off ones—have regarding the choices afforded them by their socio-economic standing, and is revealing insofar as it demonstrates what kind of an all or nothing society we live in, one where we rarely stop to think about having something in between. It goes beyond the fact that "having it all" isn't even possible. "Having it all" isn't even necessarily desirable, and yet women are instructed to try to reach those heights where they then find themselves full of regrets for the things they've had to give up in order to achieve success.
The main thing that strikes me about all the chatter about "having it all" and "opting-out" or even "leaning in" is that it is not only extremely gender specific, but it also willfully ignores the fact that while a certain segment of society deals with a tyranny of choices (do I work? do I stay home? do I get a nanny? do I use daycare?), the majority of people in this country would view those choices as a luxury. There's no two ways about it; it's a privilege to feel stunted because all you do is sit around and bake cookies and organize carpools to and from your kid's swim meets. That doesn't mean there isn't a worthwhile discussion to be had about whether or not women in high-powered careers should feel obligated to stay put for the good of their future or even for the greater good of a society that desperately needs more women in positions of power. Of course, there's room for that conversation, but, well, that conversation has been ongoing now for at least a decade. Where is the conversation about the women who can't afford the choice of opting out, who work minimum wage—or not much better—jobs and don't have—never had—a partner to help them out? Those stories are easily as representative of American society as ones about women who went to Brown and Harvard and fell back into a successful career the moment they so much as thought about it.
I recently wrote about economic privilege with regards to casual sex, hook-up culture, and reproductive rights, and feel that the same sort of privilege that exists where a young woman can have casual sex with the knowledge that a safety net exists for her is in play with all these women who opted-out and now want to opt back in. Privilege is a tricky word because it exists everywhere in ways that are occasionally hard to quantify, not everyone knows what the term even means, and people are sensitive to the idea that because they come from a place of privilege, their stories will be dismissed as frivolous. And yet it is impossible to look at these types of women's issues and deny the fact that they are only relevant to a small, privileged segment of our society. Pretending that this is the norm or focusing mainly on the women who never had to fear all that much (because if having a view of a parking lot is truly that awful to you, you're probably doing just fine) to begin with does a disservice to all the women who never had a choice, who don't get to regret their decisions because they weren't even given the option to make any. Those are the women I want to read about. Those are the women who are facing difficulties as the economy continues to limp along. Where are their stories?
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