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Rewriting the "opting out" narrative by Heather Hewett

page two

Here we go, again

At the risk of boring those as weary of deconstructing the opt-out story as I am, I'll mention some of the more salient points others have made: that media coverage of work/life family issues are framed as lifestyle stories targeted at a particular demographic, and that reporters reinforce this story with their choice of interviewees and the questions they ask (Joan Williams); that stories about opting out make better copy than the ordinary lives of most working parents (Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers); that media gender bias may play a role (Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner); that the history of the "opt-out" stretches back to the 1980s, when a spate of media stories proclaimed, incorrectly, that women were "bailing out" of the workforce (Susan Faludi); that alternative work/life stories are fighting to be heard amongst the "din" of our information-saturated age (Linda Basch, Ilene Lang, and Deborah Merrill-Sands). To these media analyses we could add Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels's argument in The Mommy Myth that a greater conservative cultural backlash against changing gender roles has affected the way many individuals and institutions view and portray motherhood. Perhaps the popularity of the opt-out story suggests that our country still prefers to think about family and motherhood in terms of personal values and choices and not in socioeconomic or political terms; and that to do so, many believe, would require us to adopt very un-American, European-style social policies interfering with our competitive capitalist edge. (This runs contrary to much work/life research, such as studies done by the Families and Work Institute and Catalyst, which suggest that workplace flexibility enhances productivity.) All of this threatens to make opting out into what Judith Warner in Perfect Madness calls a "master narrative," a story that "we tell now about women's progress and the problems of motherhood" for all women.

On an individual level, for women whose work patterns are far more complicated than the public narrative of the "opt out revolution" implies, the ready phrase "opting out" may provide an easier explanation -- to the women themselves, or to others -- than calling out the complex array of cultural, structural, economic and personal pressures that influence mothers' behavior. As Peskowitz points out, it's a lot easier to use a rhetoric of personal choice (so popular in this country, and so dominant at this particular moment) than to acknowledge the greater forces that often compel us to make certain choices. The latter runs the risk of inviting questions and of being construed as "complaining" in a culture where "we're supposed to be agents of our own freedom, not trod-upon workers who complain." Thus, the rationale of "opting out" may be more comforting and socially acceptable than the assertion that mothers' employment options are often circumscribed by factors that can't be overcome by ingenuity or will. From another point of view, resorting to the "opt out" explanation hints of self-deception and prevents women from seeing their own situations as part of a greater, societal problem.

Ultimately, of course, what's at stake is how we frame our understanding of the issues -- whether we see our own struggles in connection with the struggles of other mothers, in the context of greater socioeconomic forces, or whether we view our own lives as individual stories. For this reason, many have been working to situate the popular debate in a larger frame. Numerous researchers and research institutions, policy analysts, journalists, and feminists have called for a change in the existing rhetoric. Again and again, they have argued for a more accurate, complex, and diverse accounting of motherhood (and fatherhood) in the U.S. As Families and Work Institute Vice President Lois Backon argued at an "Opting Different" panel sponsored by the National Council for Research on Women in June 2005: "We need to reframe the work/life discussion for the entire workforce, women and men."

The list of those working to recast the dialogue is a long and familiar one to those who follow the work/life field. Some of these researchers have also tried to influence public rhetoric more directly, by suggesting specific stories the media could pursue. A recent AlterNet article by scholars associated with the National Association for Research on Women, Catalyst and the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons College ("What Women Want: A Rebuttal to the Times," by Linda Basch, Ilene Lang, and Deborah Merrill-Sands, 3 Oct 05), provides one of the best overviews of the facts and research disputing the opt-out story to date and suggests alternative stories the media could be covering, with headlines such as "Gen X Men Crave Work/Life Balance Too" and "Stay-at-Home Moms By Default, not Design." Similarly, Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California Hastings College of Law, has made detailed recommendations regarding how to change the media coverage of work and family, proposing stories about the persistence of a "maternal wall," employers' unexamined gender stereotyping of mothers, and recent courtroom successes in legal challenges to various workplaces. Ongoing research points to other potentially significant stories, including Cornell sociologists Shelley Correll and Stephen Benard's preliminary findings pointing to the existence of a motherhood wage penalty.

There are, as well, plenty of journalists and writers who have suggested alternative narratives to the opt-out story. Ann Crittenden, Judith Warner, Miriam Peskowitz, and Judith Stadtman Tucker, among others, have put forth alternative narratives to describe various dimensions of early twenty-first century motherhood in the U.S. -- Crittenden's "mommy tax," Warner's "mommy mystique," Peskowitz's "playground revolution," Tucker's "mothers' movement" -- all of which shift the lens away from its current setting on personal choice and the implications of choice for identity (am I a working mom? a stay-at-home mom? a work-from-home mom?) in order to focus on broader questions of policy and politics. Their work, which is smart, informed, and accessible, has certainly transformed my own understanding of the issues. To what extent it will help move the national dialogue forward still remains to be seen.

opting out or opting in?
parenting and the third wave

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