Leaving a high powered job to pursue your true June Cleaver stay-at-home-mom smiling-serenely-while-scrubbing-the-grout-in-pearls vocation sounds like an untenable fantasy from jump — like those shoes that were supposed to make your butt look good without exercising, or frozen s'mores (they whole POINT of S'MORES is to be hot. Jesus Christ). But the too-good-to-be-true stay-home siren song was too seductive to resist for many quixotic families — and now women are finding out the hard way that by opting out of their careers at the height of earning power, they're opting in to a host of unexpected frustrations.
A decade ago, the New York Times magazine ran a cover story featuring several smug, wealthy women who were super duper happy that they'd quit their alpha jobs to focus on taking care of their families — you know, rich people reflecting fondly on decisions they were able to make because they were rich.
''I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,'' says Katherine Brokaw, who left that track in order to stay home with her three children. ''Some people define that as success. I don't.''
''I don't want to be famous; I don't want to conquer the world; I don't want that kind of life,'' says Sarah McArthur Amsbary, who was a theater artist and teacher and earned her master's degree in English, then stepped out of the work force when her daughter was born. ''Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit.''
(Yeah, well — if you have a husband who makes a lot of money, it does. Or, if you're poor and have a kid and you suddenly realize that more than the entirety of the income you'd earn from your low-paying job would go to pay for childcare and you were forced to stay home as a result. But I digress.)
A lot has happened between the 2003 OPT OUT REVOLUTION: Kanye West started making albums, iPads started being A Thing, and the economy took a massive dump all over everyone's best-laid financial plans. In a piece for the New York Times magazine (Read it. Sh just read it), Judith Warner finds out what became of those satisfied stroller pushing women in the original Opt Out Revolution story. Spoiler alert: it's not all sitting cross legged on a carpeted McMansion floor whilst wearing $120 yoga pants. It's bleak.
One woman featured in the Times story in 2003 — who was also interviewed for 60 Minutes — is now divorced from her primary-earning husband and is working part time to support herself while she lives in an apartment that looks out onto a parking lot. Others felt bored and unfulfilled with their full-time momhood and gradually threw themselves into volunteering (which is exactly like working except you don't earn money). One grew to resent her husband's expectation that she clean up after him while he's off earning money. Many tried to re-enter the workforce after their kids were old enough to be embarrassed of them only to discover that the new jobs available to them came with significantly less status and only a fraction of the income of the jobs they left. Some were forced to try to earn money after their husbands lost work only to bump up against a significantly lowered glass ceiling. Jobs were lost. Marriages strained. Yoga pants likely discarded.
"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. If, say, the money earning spouse dies or runs away with a 19-year-old French au pair, the opter is forced to replace the earnings or pursue spousal alimony, thus remaining dependent on the earning spouse. The one with the money isn't similarly screwed by losing the opting out spouse; they can simply use the money they're continuing to earn to hire a person to perform many of the duties that the stay-at-home spouse performed. (Sure, a nanny isn't the same as a mom, but plenty of kids who had nannies grow up to refrain from pleasuring themselves in their neighbors' gardens or serial killing; it's much easier to raise children with the aid of the nanny than it is to live comfortably without the aid of income.)
Things look even worse for the Opt Out Revolutionaries if the rosy economic picture goes to hell, as it did for many Americans in 2008. In those cases, having two incomes would have hedged against microeconomic disaster, and as many women who "opted out" found out, leaving a career isn't like putting a bookmark in it and setting it down. It's like having to start over again, and this time the book is written in a different language.
Secondly, "opting out" just doesn't seem like it would gel, personality-wise, with the sort of hard-driving high earner the Times magazine piece profiled a decade ago. Does it make sense that a person who derives a sense of self worth from earning a lot money and wielding a lot of power would also get their jollies changing diapers?
If opting out was so obviously risky and so obviously doomed to be less successful than the Pepsi revolution, then why did so many women do it? According to the Times piece, we can't blame the husbands; most were supportive of but not insistent upon their wives' initial decision to leave the workforce. It's not that women "don't want to" rule the world, as the initial Opting Out Revolution piece suggested; if they didn't want to rule the world, Opt Out Moms wouldn't feel compelled fill their empty plates again, and they wouldn't feel frustrated that they weren't able to resume kicking ass and taking names when they were done packing lunches and signing permission slips.
So, why did women buy into the fairy tale that if they quit their jobs, everything would be hunky dory? Because American corporate culture is outdated and inflexible that participation in it has become incompatible with how many people feel it's best to raise their families. As Warner points out in the JK About That Opt Out Revolution piece, smartphones and computers and whatzitgadgets have all but shackled workers to their employers, and the expectation of constant availability means that the demands of corporate employment keep people from fully engaging with their families even when they're not "supposed" to be working. A number of women cited in the Times piece say they dropped out of the workforce because they thought it was a healthy decision for their marriage and their kids, but it seems that a healthier decision for everyone involved would be if companies allowed parents some flexibility — telecommuting, more flexible hours, actual goddamn time off to be a real person outside of dronehood.
Fox News et al has long touted the notion that the reason women lag behind men in earnings is because they're making choices like the once- christened Opt Out Revolutionaries did (in fact, here's some bullshit from just this week). But the reality is that the women who left their great jobs to Mom around full time did so because it seemed best for their individual families. Fox News is right that women are free to work themselves to death just as freely as men now, if they want. But once they become mothers, corporate culture pushes them to leave the workforce and then punishes them for doing so.
Throughout Warner's piece, the women trying to Opt Back In speak repeatedly of regret. They regret leaving their jobs, they wonder where their career could have gone. But regret isn't exclusive to those who opted out. Regret is a luxury afforded to people lucky enough to have choices. The real tragedy of the women who opted out isn't that they made the wrong choice; it's that they were forced to choose at all.