Can I “Opt-Out”?

By now the idea of an “Opt-Out Revolution” has become not only old news but even partially redacted.  Yet, it has really come to resonate for me.  Lisa Belkin first published her article about the “Opt-Out Revolution” in 2003.  She described how high paid and powerful career women were finding that instead of being sustained and fulfilled by their career they actually wanted more time with their families and thus were opting out of the workplace (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/magazine/the-opt-out-revolution.html).

Although I am a big admirer of Belkin’s writing and the Motherlode blog she founded at the NYTimes, the idea of the “Opt-Out Revolution” always infuriated me.  Only the rich, only the privileged, only the lucky could ever have the choice to “opt-out,” I argued.  Those who took the choice, I would say, must be those who chose bad careers.  It wasn’t a problem of work-family balance but just a work problem, I figured.   A different job would surely alleviate the tension for most women.  Maybe a job like being a professor (my grad student self hopefully suggested)?

My lack of sympathy for the women described in Belkin’s article was partially due to my own class biases.  But it was due more to the fact that for my whole life I have believed that the way to be a successful person and also how to be a feminist was to have a job and to be independent.  (Never mind that my husband and I are college sweethearts and have been together since we were 20!)   I have been a feminist since I could walk, talk and think.   I wore political buttons on my 3T corduroy overalls. Literally.  My favorite said, “Don’t Call Me Girl, I Am A Woman” and my mom saved it for me.  (Never mind also that someone was probably being sarcastic when they gave it to me.  I took it to heart.)

And yet, and now, I have had a major change of heart.  It didn’t happen overnight but rather it happened through hundreds of books and articles and conversations that all made me start to wonder: how can equality come about by making the workplace stronger?  (The workplace is often a sight of exploitation!) How can equality be equated with independence if it also often leads to isolation and anomie?  In focusing on fulfilling ourselves, what does that mean for our connections with others?  What does that mean for interdependence, for love, and for family?

My scorn for those women who choose not to work has eroded and over the years been replaced with sympathy and even jealousy.  After having Big Girl in 2008 and Little Girl in 2012, I started fantasizing about a life where I could just focus on being with my girls.  Where we could do art projects and read books and just be happy and be free to be ourselves.   I could even homeschool and I could raise brilliant little radicals.  That fantasy is tantalizing, intoxicating, in fact.  And, I have an easy out right now.  I am, in fact, “out” already.  I don’t need to “opt-out.”  One possible path for my future is crystal clear:  become a stay-at-home-mom.

It’s a common path.  According to a recent PEW report, almost a third of women with young children did not work outside of the home.  To learn lots about the demographics and historical changes see: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/04/08/after-decades-of-decline-a-rise-in-stay-at-home-mothers/ .

Yet, this path doesn’t seem quite right, I’m not quite comfortable with the idea of being a stay-at-home mom (although with time I may be).  Maybe that’s a bit because I’m somewhat type-A and the idea of not being “successful” grates at my nerves…  and makes me feel a little ashamed.  Maybe it’s also that I would be worried about money.

But, that’s not the whole story.  I’m also uncomfortable with me becoming a stay-at-home-mom because if I take over the home sphere then the flip-side is that my husband will have to work more and harder.  And, at least sometimes, he will have to opt-out of family.  And, I don’t want to force that on him.  I want him to be around too.   (Although he’s terrible with art projects.)

Maybe I will decide to become a stay-at-home-mom.  At least for a little while,  but I think I will also want to work again some day too.   Like everyone else, I want the choice!  But, I also want to find better, fairer and happier choices.  It is clear to me that gender equality is not achieved by sublimating the home sphere and elevating work.  But it also can’t be actualized through a stark division of labor if that division is gendered because that, in fact, is a direct path to inequality.

The only conclusion I have so far is that cooking and crafting are only fun because they are choices, not limitations.

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1 Comment

  1. You know, I never thought about how the option of staying at home is, in a way,a sign of class privilege.

    ” I’m somewhat type-A and the idea of not being “successful” grates at my nerves… and makes me feel a little ashamed” – But how is not raising good kids not a sign of success? Parents are one of the most dangerous things to kids – you helicopter them, Stranger-Danger them, neglect them, have stupid expectations of them and so on. If you can raise your kids without messing up, well, science didn’t crack up how it’s done.

    I’m also not a fan of the fantasy that GO CAREER and you’re independent and powerful. It’s a very individualistic fantasy that emphasize material and lonely achievements. Has anyone taken notice that most stereotypical female fantasies are about human connection, having kids and a husband? So far, the dream of Career and Money isn’t going well in the West with all these suicides and mental illnesses.

    Like

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