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Rewriting the "opting out" narrative by Heather Hewett

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Opting out or opting in?
Parenting and the third wave

Both Belkin's and Story's opt-out articles raise a question: How are members of Gen X and Y thinking about, and dealing with, motherhood (and fatherhood)? Embedded in this question is the assumption (explicitly stated in Belkin's piece) that second-wave feminism failed most American women, the majority of whom still become mothers but who find, as they embark on the simultaneous work of career and motherhood, that they're doing both in a "half-changed world," to use journalist Peggy Orenstein's phrase. Both articles -- particularly Story's -- look at younger women to spot developments in the larger context of not only how women are creating their lives, but also how younger generations of women view (or don't view) their lives in relationship to the feminist movement. Neither the college students in Story's piece nor the representative Gen Xer in Belkin's article (who graduated from college the same year I did) appear to suffer from guilt or angst over their choices, as do the two older women profiled in "The Opt-Out Revolution." (Belkin quotes the Gen Xer in her article as saying, "I don't want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn't really my sister because I don't even know her.")

The danger, of course, is that this quote, along with the quotes from the college students in Story's article, becomes woven into a larger narrative about Gen X and Y women. According to this narrative, younger women have turned their backs on the gains of their feminist foremothers; they opt out of their work lives easily; they do not view their individual situations as political. In other words, this story divides -- a point that becomes readily apparent when one looks at other opt-out stories, such as the October 2004 60 Minutes segment, "Staying at Home," which staged a conflict between the generations by including a second-wave feminist mother (the only second waver interviewed on the show) who criticized the choices of younger, stay-at-home mothers.

Yet this conflict, like the larger opt-out narrative, hardly represents the experiences of all younger women (or of not-so-young women). Certainly none of the thoughts and observations of any of these mothers, as represented by the journalists who interviewed them, capture my own experience of motherhood, which has been become fundamental to my understanding of myself as a feminist. Nor do they represent the diverse experiences of the wide range of twenty- and thirty- something women who have been defining motherhood, family, and work in their own terms, in print and on the internet, in the workplace and at the playground.

Thanks to the surge of Gen X and Yers writing about motherhood -- particularly among those who identify as third-wave feminist -- we're all a little more aware of the incredible diversity of women with children in the U.S. The smart, searching, irreverent, and frequently humorous autobiographical essays, memoirs, and blogs of writers such as Ariel Gore, Bee Lavender, Ayun Halliday, Faulkner Fox, Andrea Buchanan, and Cecelie Berry, plus numerous others -- not to mention the many magazines, 'zines, internet journals, and web sites they and others have launched (Hip Mama; Brain, Child; East Village Inky, and so on) – "tell the truth" about mothering (as Ariel Gore writes in Breeder) and/or celebrate a radical, "hip mama" lifestyle in a culture seemingly obsessed with upper middle-class motherhood. And while some have criticized the third wave for being stuck on the personal side of the "personal is political" equation, much of their writing both complicates and challenges the opting out story. In fact, according to Rowe-Finkbeiner (The F-Word), one of the main third-wave responses to the opt-out debate has been to question the relevance of the debate in the first place, which she says has a "misplaced focus": "What we're really looking at here is not an opt-our revolution, but a symptom of a far greater problem -- very little family support in America."

Not all third-wave writing about motherhood is autobiographical, however. Third-wave activist and author Amy Richards (ManifestA, Grassroots) is attempting to redefine the debate in her current work-in-progress, Opting In: The Case for Motherhood and Feminism, which will delve into feminist history and examine the relationship between feminism and parenting. Richards describes the book as a "partial response to Belkin." After reading the article, she was intrigued by the way that the women profiled in the article seemed to stand for the failure of feminism. "Why is it that working or not working has become the feminist litmus test?" asks Richards. "Feminist values go so much deeper, plus there are so many working mothers who aren't feminist and vice versa." To add to the confusion, many women think of feminism and motherhood as in conflict: they can be one or the other, but not both. (While some of this perception may be rooted in false stereotypes of feminism, some is certainly based on reality; as Crittenden writes in The Price of Motherhood, the majority of mainstream feminist organizations have "not exactly stepped up to the plate for mothers.") However, this either-or opposition is a "false dichotomy," says Richards. "One CAN be both." She wants to close the gap between feminism and motherhood by articulating a feminism that's truly pro-parent and that addresses the needs of families in practice as well as theory.

Richards' comments suggest one defining characteristic among many third wavers: a healthy sense of entitlement, which may generate much of the desire to redefine the terms of the opt-out debate. Peskowitz argues that many Gen X and Y women "feel entitled to work, and have a family if they want one, and they feel entitled to believe that these things don't have to be opposites or separate or in conflict." They have the urge, as Rowe-Finkbeiner puts it, to "search for new solutions." Rowe-Finkbeiner is searching for her own solutions in a new book she's writing with Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org. Tentatively titled The Motherhood Manifesto, it attempts to politicize the discussion and inspire individuals to advocate for policy changes. "Motherhood in America is in crisis," observes the author, and while third wavers have done a lot of work on "consciousness raising," she argues that they have yet to undertake what they are poised to do: "advocate for public policies and programs that truly support American families." Rowe-Finkbeiner believes that a national movement based in achieving these changes may come together soon: "The time is ripe to take the next step of advocacy for public policies and programs that truly support American families."

Like activist groups such as MOTHERS, Rowe-Finkbeiner wants to politicize discussions surrounding work and family. Will she, along with other journalists, writers, researchers, and activists -- those I haven't mentioned as well as those I have -- manage to change the narratives we tell about motherhood in the U.S.? Will this then translate into social policies that will truly help us live our lives? I don't know. I would like to think the tide is turning, but I'm certainly not an objective observer. What I do know is that coming to understand my own situation, through a process of reading and writing, has been central to my own sanity and sense of self. My deepest hope is that our collective effort to rewrite the nation's narrative about motherhood will succeed, and that the public dialogue will begin to reflect what we each know, privately and deep within ourselves, about the many different kinds of work we do as parents.

mmo : october 2005

Heather Hewett is an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of the Women's Studies Program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She has written for The Washington Post, The Women's Review of Books, Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, The Scholar and Feminist Online, and Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction (forthcoming from Routledge).

The author would like to thank Amy Richards, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner and Miriam Peskowitz for generously sharing their thoughts about the third wave, mothering, and their works-in-progress via email and phone.

Related articles:

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

Opt-out revolution redux
Once again, the New York Times stirs the pot of controversy over what women want.
by Judith Stadtman Tucker

The Case Against “Opting-Out”
by Katie Allison Granju

What’s next for women?
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, author of The F-Word: Women, Politics and the Future, talks about what it will take to get mothers’ issues on the national agenda.

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