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The case against “opting-out”

By Katie Allison Granju

I was a thirty-something, married mother of three with a college degree, a nice house, a flexible, work-at-home writing career, and a husband with a good job providing health insurance. In 2002, a sudden and unexpected shift of seismic proportions rearranged my enviable work-life balance.

In writer Lisa Belkin’s recent, much-discussed New York Times Magazine piece, entitled “The Opt-Out Revolution,” she made the case that one of the primary reasons so many of today’s highly educated, accomplished women never make it to the very top rungs of their professions is because they’ve come to realize that, in fact, they really don’t want to. Belkin argues that a trend is in the making, as more professional women are choosing to voluntarily “opt out” of male-pattern career advancement in order to stay home with their children and compose more meaningful family lives.

Bolstering her thesis, Belkin identifies a group of her own peers and colleagues: professional women in their thirties and forties who have stepped away from the world of work to concentrate more fully on mothering. Included among her admittedly narrow interview group are college-educated, married, professional, white women who love their kids, their husbands, their wine-sipping book discussion groups, and the comfortable homes they are making for their families.

In other words, these women are me. Or at least they were me up until about a year ago, when I too was a thirty-something, married mother of three with a college degree, a nice house, a flexible, work-at-home writing career, and a husband with a good job providing health insurance. Like Belkin, I too smugly pontificated about the many joys and benefits of creating a work life that allowed me to nurture my family and explore my own creativity. I patted myself on the back for my willingness to forego a full-time, salaried job in my field -- journalism -- to be a better mother.

What I never considered, however, was that I could end up the Gen- X version of the infamous “displaced homemaker,” but unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. In 2002, a sudden and unexpected shift of seismic proportions rearranged my enviable work-life balance and today, I find myself a single mother of three, no longer living in a house I own, and cobbling together a living without the benefit of a live-in spousal income.

I’ve done pretty well as an author and freelance writer over the years, but there’s a big difference between “doing well” as a writer when a partner has a job with benefits, and “doing well” when freelance work is your primary source of income. Still, the uniquely solitary nature of my profession lends itself far more easily to transitioning between part-time and full-time employment than many others, and I am getting by. I will no longer have health insurance or a 401K when my divorce is finalized, but I know I am luckier than many women in my situation. Female doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and teachers generally have a tough row to hoe if they suddenly find themselves forced back into the workforce by divorce or widowhood after years spent at home.

But is this a surprise? Didn’t women my age learn the risks of depending too heavily on our spouses for future economic security by watching middle-aged women who had been full-time mothers limp into the workforce in droves as divorce rates skyrocketed during the 70s and 80s? These women -- many of whom had cultivated careers or at least career skills in the years before marriage and motherhood - found that their voluntary sabbatical from the labor force left them ill-equipped to support themselves, much less pay for health care or save for retirement.

In response to the growing problem of what came to dubbed “displaced homemakers’ syndrome,” economists and feminists urged the professional women of my generation to take care of ourselves and our kids by assuming that no one else was going to take care of us. Apparently, however, we didn’t get the message. I know that I didn’t; unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way. I fear that many of Lisa Belkin’s opt-out pals are setting themselves up for the same rude awakening.

As I read Belkin’s article, I shook my head sadly as I applied current divorce statistics --including the rise in no-fault divorce and the virtual disappearance of alimony from most divorce settlements -- to her interview sample. Odds are that around half of the happily fulfilled, college-educated, para-homemakers she interviewed will find themselves single at some point in the next decade, at which point their choice to “opt out” of their formerly promising career trajectories may also mean that they have “opted out” of not only the lifestyle extras they seem to take for granted, but also fundamentals like a house, health insurance, and retirement funds.

Let me be clear: despite my current circumstances, I don’t regret the many personal benefits my kids and I gained during the years I worked less and mothered more, but the plain fact is that my choices have left me at a distinct economic disadvantage at a time in my life when I always assumed I’d be “all set.”. What I wish I had known then and what I do know now is that the years I spent primarily concentrating on being a mother and wife didn’t represent anything more than one phase among many in a working life that will, by today’s economic necessity, span my entire adult life.

While Lisa Belkin and her interview subjects may believe that they have “opted out,” the reality is likely to be much less clear cut for them as their children grow and many of their marriages end. Ten years from now, I suspect that we may be hearing from a new group of suddenly single, 50 year old, college-educated women who haven’t held a paying job in a decade about a new and fascinating trend: the “I-was-only-kidding-and-I-really-need-to-opt-back-in Revolution.”

mmo : January 2004

Katie Allison Granju is the author of the book Attachment Parenting (Pocket Books/1999). Her blog is at http://www.katieallisongranju.com

Also on MMO:

The least worst choice: Why mothers “opt” out of the workforce
by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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