Women Who Opt Out Face Harsh Choices

I am struggling hard to be sympathetic to the women in Judith Warner’s new piece for New York Times magazine, which revisits Lisa Belkin’s 2003 piece for the same magazine, The Opt-Out Revolution. And she finds that many of the women who enthusiastically left the workforce to raise children are now kinda wishing they hadn’t.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the plight of parents, especially ones who are struggling to re-enter the workforce. This is genuinely hard, and I wish it were easier. But the article is so relentlessly focused on the experience of ultra-elite women who went to expensive schools and had jobs that only a tiny handful of people ever get. And those ultra-elite women generally seem to believe that there aren’t supposed to be tradeoffs.

“Not a single woman I spoke with,” writes Warner, “said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job -- no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been -- more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work -- but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

What they’re regretting, ultimately, is that there are returns to hard work -- that career plums tend to get reserved for folks who put in a whole lot of hours. Everyone else has to make tradeoffs, between, say, intellectual fulfillment, or higher pay.

At this point, someone will step in to announce that America needs a more family-friendly workplace -- that no one should be penalized for raising kids, because that’s a core part of life. Which is a fine sentiment, but doesn’t actually make much sense if you drill down into it, because as noted, there are returns to working harder. And this isn’t just a matter of stupid corporations demanding pointless face time and displays of commitment -- though this does of course happen, it doesn’t actually explain why people who work harder tend to get better jobs than people who work fewer hours. While you can actually reach a point of negative returns to more work -- burnout -- this occurs well above 40 hours a week in most jobs that don’t involve keeping planes from running into each other.

In most of the “intellectually stimulating” jobs that these women like, the more time you spend talking to clients, or doing research, or writing, or thinking about design, or trying cases, the better you get at your job. Practice really does make perfect, or at least much better. People who are working, say, 60 hours a week are probably much more valuable to their company than two people working 30 hours a week, or 3 working 20 hours a week… which means that those people are going to be able to demand the best assignments, and the promotion, and much more pay.

And how on earth would you stop that? Forbid people from working? Oh, you can make men take paternal leave -- but that doesn’t actually help if they use it to catch up on work, while the women use it to breast-feed. Even within genders, some people are going to be willing to take more time from family life to advance their careers, and unless you can somehow stop them, those people are going to get most of the rewards.

Of course, if labor markets were tighter, there would be more of these opportunities. But it would still be true that their husbands would make more money -- and therefore, in many of these marriages, have more economic power -- because they didn’t take 10 years off to raise kids, and were therefore more valuable to their employers than people who did.

At the heart of the article this seems to be the complaint these women have. Some of them miss work, but many simply resented the fact that once they stayed home, their husbands expected them to do most of the housework, and resisted paying for help (or doing half the housework and childcare themselves) so that they could throw themselves into volunteering and doting on their children. This is a complaint for which it is very hard to generate sympathy, both because virtually zero percent of the population gets to stay home and have paid help take care of all the most tedious bits, and because it seems as if they think that they are supposed to have neither most of the pressure of supporting the household, nor most of the tedium of maintaining it.

For the rest of us, life is composed of tradeoffs. There are not enough hours in the day to have the marriage, the parenting experience, and the careers that we would like to have, so we have to choose what to focus on. The “Opt-Out Revolutionaries” seem unpleasantly surprised to discover that these things are actual choices, with real consequences.

What they may also be discovering is that making it a choice actually makes things more difficult in some ways. There are, as I noted, societal spillover effects from the choices your neighbors make. If all the mothers and fathers in your neighborhood work, the neighborhood will have a lot of institutions set up to support that choice: day cares, dry-cleaners that wash and fold laundry, upscale takeout stands and all-night drugstores. If all the mothers stay home, the neighborhood will have an entirely different set of amenities -- streets where stay-at-home moms can confidently let the kids run from house to house knowing that there is always someone with an eye on the pack, volunteer institutions to provide social support, daytime activities for adults with small children. Workplaces, too, will respond. When most women stay home, a woman who shows up at the office after taking a few years off is signaling that she’s a hard-charger. When most women work, taking a few years off signals that work is relatively low on your list of priorities.

And of course, it shows up in the divorce law -- the article opens with a newly divorced woman living in a so-so apartment while pining for the enormous home she left behind. In the old days, her husband would have been expected to cram himself into a decrepit apartment while supporting wife and children in the style to which they’d become accustomed, because the assumption was that the woman had sacrificed her earning power for the family, and was therefore entitled to his. These days, women can in theory get a job -- so if you’ve sacrificed considerable earning power to bolster the family, divorce means a permanent loss of lifestyle.

That doesn’t mean that choices are bad; I’m all for them! But they are choices. There is no paradise where women enjoy prestige work at high salaries for part-time efforts, nor where men and women all head home after 37 hours with no impact on their careers. There are countries where more women work than they do here, because of all the mandated leave policies and subsidized childcare -- but the U.S. puts more women into management than a place like Sweden, where women work mostly for the government, while the private sector is majority-male. A Scandinavian acquaintance describes the Nordic policy as paying women to leave the home so they can take care of other peoples’ aged parents and children. This description is not entirely fair, but it’s not entirely unfair, either; a lot of the government jobs involve coordinating social services that women used to provide as homemakers.

There are not enough hours in the day to be the parents we would like to be, do the jobs we would like to do, and have the marriages we would like to have. Everyone is going to have to prioritize. In the old days, the choices were made for us. Today, we get to choose… but the very fact of having choices inevitably means that we will also have regrets for the opportunities we gave up.

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