It’s been more than 15 years since New York Times Magazine writer Lisa Belkin made a splash with her article called “The Opt-Out Revolution,” about educated mothers dropping out of high-powered positions to stay at home and raise their children. Depending on their place on the political spectrum, readers were either comforted or horrified by Belkin’s report:
Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the ’50s, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.’s.
Belkin’s suggestion that America’s wealthiest and most educated couples are also the ones with the most old-fashioned domestic arrangements has been confirmed in numerous ways. The well-to-do are the most likely to get married, the least likely to divorce, and the most likely to find men earning more than women. The idea that women’s M.B.A.s turned out to be of no more use than the MRS degrees that their mothers and grandmothers received was more than many people could bear.
A recent study found that about 20 percent of college mothers with children under 18 have opted out or are at home full-time. Around 30 or 40 percent of mothers with degrees from elite schools have at some point taken a sustained break from work. Among Harvard Business School alumnae, 30 percent had at some point been at home full-time.
But the time in which we have children at home is actually only a fraction of our working lives. So Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy—scholars at the City University of New York and Harvard respectively, whose work formed the basis for the original Belkin article—set out to learn what became of these Lululemon-clad former management consultants after their kids got older.
The first thing they found was that the opt-out revolutionaries stayed home longer than they had originally planned. Before having kids, many women imagine that they will take time off from work when the kids are little. They want to see the first steps, hear the first words. And they want to see their kids before early bedtimes. And, by the way, full-time child care is pretty expensive.
What these moms discovered, though, is that older kids also benefit from having their parents around more. And parents often find their older kids enjoyable. Take Meg Romano, who “reluctantly” quit her job as a financial trader after the birth of her third child and then planned to return to the workforce relatively quickly. She changed her mind. Children, she told Lovejoy and Stone, “don’t come to you and say, ‘Mom, I really need to talk to you about something important that happened at school. They tell it when you’re driving them to piano lessons, and from the back of the car comes this little voice …. In some ways, I think it’s easier for them to talk to the back of your head.”
Thus it is that many upper-middle-class women stay out of the workforce through the time their kids graduate from high school. As the authors point out, they are pouring all their energies into ensuring that their kids maintain the same class status they enjoy. Sometimes these moms may overestimate how important their time with their children is. As one explained: “My sitter can’t sit down with my 9-year-old and do a math assignment. So if I weren’t home in the afternoon to assist, I don’t think it would get done.” Really?
It is undoubtedly true, though, that for these women whose husbands work long hours and have jobs that demand constant and immediate attention, things go more smoothly with one parent managing the home front on a full-time basis. Once this division of labor is established, it becomes harder for the mother to go back to work. The authors note that “these women experienced a surprising drift to what we identify as ‘privileged domesticity.’ Over time, their new lives as at-home mothers created a heightened involvement in mothering, community volunteer work, and traditional household roles.” Stone and Lovejoy note that much of the volunteering these women do outside of their homes is really an extension of their intensive mothering. They volunteer at school a lot—and then, when their kids graduate, they generally stop.
But for some women, these volunteer positions turn into full-time work. Many choose to work for educational institutions or local nonprofits that offer flexibility even if the paycheck is significantly lower than what they were making before they opted out.
When they opt back in, they do not want to return to their former employers. A national study found that only 5 percent of women sought to be rehired. Perhaps, as Stone and Lovejoy argue, it is because their former employers were so unyielding as to drive them out of the workplace to begin with. Or perhaps it’s because something about being at home with kids has changed their orientation. Romano tells them, “I felt like Sybil; you know I’m like trying to twist my head around to go from being, ‘I’ll scratch your eyes out over an eighth of a point’ to, you know, nurturing good mommy.”
Many of them instead decide to retool and launch themselves into professions that are entirely new or only tangentially related to what they did before. They go to work for nonprofits, schools, or philanthropies. Some have to go back to school but others are able to spin volunteer work into connections to new fields. Still more decide to consult part time in their previous fields. Generally speaking, they have little trouble relaunching their careers. A booming economy with low rates of unemployment probably helps.
And here’s the kicker. The women actually like these new jobs better. As the authors write: “While objectively, especially with regard to pay, security and benefits, their new jobs compared invidiously to their former ones, women were much more satisfied with work the second time around.” When the authors first interviewed them about their careers, “women most often indicated mixed feelings or moderate satisfaction, and fully two-thirds reported either low or moderate levels of satisfaction. Rating their current jobs, however, women are highly satisfied, two-thirds giving them the thumbs up.”
Which is great news. Right? Stone and Lovejoy have finally found the answer to the age-old question of what women want. Oh, not so fast, the authors claim. These women may have found some kind of individual happiness. But what about the sisterhood?
Stone and Lovejoy write:
Once women are out of the labor force, their class privilege works to further undermine their gender-egalitarian aspirations by 1) keeping them out of the workforce for a longer time, seduced by the patriarchal bargain of privileged domesticity and the status maintenance imperative of their upper-middle-class form of intensive mothering and community involvement; and 2) eroding their incentive to return to elite careers while giving them the freedom to pursue work that is less lucrative but more meaningful to them.
And don’t be fooled, the authors warn, by the fact that these women say they made these decisions freely: “Their affluence, their understanding of the privilege of their position, their professed perfectionism, and their strong sense of personal agency led them to adopt the narrative of choice.” The authors also seem startled that these women continue to call themselves “feminists” even after they have damaged the cause.
These opt-outers may actually be to blame for the dearth of women in corporate leadership positions, working as partners at high-powered law firms, or working at the highest levels of politics. “The very women who are best positioned (and indeed expected) to surmount barriers and close gender gaps instead pursue career-family strategies that work for them individually, but that ultimately exacerbate and increase gender inequality overall,” Stone and Lovejoy write.
Because these highly educated women seem so intent on pursuing their own happiness and the good of their own families over what the authors see as the best avenues for the advancement of their gender, Stone and Lovejoy are forced to offer new solutions. They suggest that corporations do more to limit work hours. Since they won’t do that on their own, they suggest that the government “require … them to pay overtime to professionals and managers.”
They also recommend that we pay the same rates to male- and female- dominated professions: “The artificial, systemic, and discriminatory devaluation [of care-giving professions] obscures the fact that the care work involved in traditionally female-dominated occupations is intrinsically valuable … and meaningful.”
Finally, the authors recommend that men should do more co-parenting. There is little acknowledgement that this is already happening. The authors argue that more mandatory paternity leave will help solve this problem.
But if women are happy with the current arrangement, why will having men stay home for a few more weeks significantly affect their decisions? Ultimately, the authors come clean. The goal, of course, of feminism is not to help individual women lead fulfilling lives. Instead, they write, “we need a significant shift in the social system (and balance of power) in the United States. Our prevailing form of capitalism (also known as ‘neoliberalism’) and patriarchy as we know it have to change.”
Good luck with that.