Vigil wrote in The Aeneid, " A shifty, fickle object is woman, always." Women have for centuries been described as indecisive. We want something and then we don't want it anymore. We love you; we hate you. We buy jackets with shoulder pads and then we decide they look ridiculous. Women are even known to pride themselves on their wavering personalities. It's our right as women. But what happens when we make life decisions and years later reconsider? This is the crux of this week's New York Time's Magazine cover story "Ready To Rejoin the Rat Race." In the article, author Judith Warner examines a decade-old trend described as "opting out," where high-powered professional women gave up their big-money careers to raise their families, and now they are sorry they ever did.
Why are they sorry? According to the women interviewed, in addition to some factual evidence, women who give up their careers to have children are not only eventually unsatisfied with their lives but they also have turned the clock back significantly on their careers when they do want to re-enter the workforce. Mostly.
Of the women interviewed for the piece, all of them gave up careers as lawyers, bankers, corporate America-type of stuff. Additionally, the ancillary data in the article was all centered on women who had made a lot of money pre-babies, with graduate or post-graduate degrees. The majority of these women found that when they wanted to go back to work, they were making significantly less and in lower-level positions. Sadly, this isn't really surprising.
This story is not new at all. Researchers and writers and women have been in a constant battle with each other and themselves as to the fundamental lifestyle choice: stay-at-home or don't stay at home. According to The New York Times, staying at home is a bad choice.
Feminist blog Jezebel got wind of the article and took it to another level (as they tend to do), stating that "Quitting Your Job to Be a Full-Time Mom Is Probably a Bad Idea;" no beating around the bush for them. Jezebel author Erin Gloria Ryan states that not only is it a bad idea, but women who decide to opt-out are just plain stupid.
"Opting out," heralded as revolutionary only a decade ago, looks downright foolish in retrospect. First, because quitting your job to take care of the kids because you wanna relies on two completely unreliable entities -- a high-earning spouse and the economy -- in order to be anything but a risky venture at best, and a spectacular failure at worst.
In the Times article one of the focuses is on a woman who quit her job to raise her family and wound up in a messy divorce with no income. She blames much of her marriage's demise on the fact that she felt devalued at home, which she never felt at her $500,000 a year job. This idea of feeling like you can't get satisfaction out of homemaking is the foundation for most of these women, women who left high ladder positions to change diapers. The fact that they are gloomy about swapping business lunches at Vic and Anthony's for eating their kids' left-over mac and cheese is not at all surprising. What's surprising about this article, and the Jezebel compendium, is that the women being interviewed are of a very specific breed - those that worked big-money, fast-paced gigs that don't slow down to wait until children are old enough to dress themselves. But let's not forget that this breed of woman is not statistically significant. Fewer than 30 percent of Fortune 500 companies even have women on their executive team. I am NOT saying that this is OK by any stretch of the imagination; I am just saying that the article seems very one-sided and targeted toward a certain type of woman.
Because let's be real, there are a lot of women who absolutely love being stay-at-home mothers. A lot of women have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder because they are really good at climbing jungle gyms and packing up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that don't get soggy; this is a veritable and highly-necessary skill in life. So why are stay-at-home moms made to feel that they can't possibly be happy doing just that? Why is wanting to be at home with your children considered such a crime these days?
Before you start commenting about how we all wish we were wealthy enough to stay at home with our children, let's just squash that right now. I am not suggesting that we all have rich husbands. We live in a society that basically requires two parents to work. Toss this on top of the ridiculously high single-mother rate, and it's no wonder that daycares are as prevalent as Starbucks. Many, most, of us are not privileged enough to not work, but that doesn't mean we have to like it or want it. And that certainly doesn't mean that those of us who have figured out how to make it on one income should be looked down upon for not getting back on the horse three months after we pop out a baby. Sure, babies are expensive but so is daycare. The average cost of center-based daycare in the United States is $11,666 per year, but prices range from $3,582 to $18,773 a year ($300 to $1,564 monthly), according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). If you have two children in daycare that could wind up costing you upwards of $37,000! That's an annual salary. Perhaps after doing the math, going back to work just doesn't make financial sense. Should you feel bad about being fiscally sound?
Both articles highlight the possibility of divorce and how non-working mothers are then left on their own without any viable source of income; this is a harsh reality but not the best reason for a mother who wants to stay at home to deprive herself of that. "Oh I should go back to work because I'll probably get divorced," is like saying I should probably not eat that can of tuna because at some point tuna will be extinct. Just eat the tuna.
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The Times article also touches upon the outside the home functions these moms took on, i.e. school activities, volunteering, etc, and how much they enjoyed this work, but quickly dismisses these things as not fulfilling. Just because you are a full time mom, doesn't mean that you can't do other things like the above. The 1950s housewife stigma may be around still, but we are very far from that life when moms spent their day getting hot and bothered over a new fangled device that sucked dirt up off of your floor. Stay-at-home moms are not sitting around popping Nembutal all day. Stay-at-home moms are busy bees, running clubs and non profits and foundations up the wazoo. I know plenty of stay-at-home mothers who are busier than I can even possibly imagine being. It is what you make of it.
What got my goat about this line of finger pointing is that it refuses to acknowledge any other side or type of mother. Where are the interviewees who are teachers, artists, real estate brokers, construction workers, or Burger King employees? Do these women struggle to get back into the workplace when they finally decide it's time to re-enter? I have no idea because they are completely left out of this article.
Additionally, as mentioned before, the new feminist movement of "leaning-in," "opting in" or whatevering "in" you want to call it is polarizing. Women who want to work after they have children, wonderful for you; women who want to stay-at-home with their children, hey, that sounds good too. We should be able to do whatever we want (if we can make it work, of course) and whatever we feel is best for ourselves and our families and not be forced to feel bad about that decision... until we change our minds again because that too is a woman's right.