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Telling it like it is

Rewriting the "opting out" narrative

By Heather Hewett

October 2005

When Lisa Belkin's controversial article, "The Opt-Out Revolution," appeared in October 2003, a maelstrom ensued. I was a brand-new mother of a six-week-old baby, and I remember peering through the haze of sleep deprivation to read the pages of The New York Times Magazine, feeling my general state of confusion only exacerbated by Belkin's piece. Two years later, as I think back on that moment -- before I knew how many letters would be written in response to her article, how many tempers would flare and positions taken, how many additional articles and books I myself would read on the subject of motherhood -- I realize that Belkin's article, for better or worse, marked my own entry into the mainstream public discussion about parenthood, work, and family.

This conversation, of course, had been going on long before "The Opt Out Revolution" hit the newsstands, and it continues today. But it was Belkin's piece, a feature that profiled the career-to-stay-at-home trajectories of several mothers who had graduated from Princeton, that seemed to catch everyone's attention. Most readers no doubt remember the scathing critiques and serious objections levied by fellow journalists (including Salon's Joan Walsh and The Nation's Katha Pollitt), not to mention the numerous Times readers who penned letters to the editor. Many objected to Belkin's focus on affluent, professional women who have the option of staying at home instead of addressing the financial and childcare issues faced by most mothers in the U.S. Others were outraged at the author's (mis)interpretation of statistics, over-reliance on anecdote, and highly questionable conclusion that these women represented a trend, and still others protested the author's portrayal of her subjects' lives in terms of the personal dilemmas of individual choice instead of the systemic issues restricting the kinds of choices women have (for example, might it be more accurate to say that instead of "opting out," the women in her article had been "pushed out"?). At the same time, the article resonated with many women who felt that the hurdles facing mothers in the workplace had not received adequate attention on a national level. (Robert Drago, Professor of Labor Studies and Women's Studies at Penn State University, explains that "Belkin struck a chord because of the stark choices professional women face: be an absentee parent or do not parent, or quit your job.") Finally, as writer and scholar Miriam Peskowitz astutely points out in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, many readers simply seemed angry that they didn't have all the choices they needed, and angry that someone else might have more.

Much has happened since this furor erupted. When I first began to reflect on where we are, two years after the publication of "The Opt-Out Revolution," I thought I would write about how much the conversation has changed -- how we'd moved onto more complex framings of the issues, based in large part on the work of social scientists, economists, policy analysts, journalists, and activists. Ongoing work/life research directs us to think beyond the mothers in Belkin's piece to consider the wide range of individuals who parent -- individuals with a diverse range of socioeconomic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds -- and furthermore suggests multiple alternative frameworks for understanding what's going on. Much, if not most, of this research points toward an examination of the workplace and its policies, not the choices of individual women. In all fairness, I've even heard Belkin herself call for a reframing of the debate. As the Times' work/life columnist, she has continued to participate in the public discussion about these issues. When asked at a September 2005 panel at Barnard College where she thought the dialogue should go, Belkin had a ready response: "We need to make this conversation about parenting, not just about women's issues."

But only six days after I heard Belkin speak, The New York Times ran Louise Story's front-page article, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." As MMO's own Judith Stadtman Tucker observed, it was "The Opt-Out Revolution" redux, only this time, the college students interviewed in the article weren't even planning to opt in. Once again, letter writers and journalists, including Slate's Jack Shafer and The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta, tore the reporting apart. Belkin's piece hovered in the background of this"'revived debate" (as the headline for the Times Letters section put it), and a collective frustration permeated many of the responses to the article. In the face of so much research suggesting other kinds of stories that could have appeared on the front page of The New York Times, why did another opt-out article appear -- not to mention one about the ivy-clad set? (Full disclosure here: I'm a Yale graduate, and a college professor to boot, though the state university where I teach is not quite so ivy clad.) To quote my favorite letter in response to Story's article, "I'm glad that the things I declared when I was 19 about what I was going to do with my life didn't make front-page news." Exactly. Why, then, is the media so eager to label this as news?

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

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 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.

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