Cathy Arnst

"Professional Women Who Choose to Stay Home" is one of the media's favorite trend stories, but an analysis of the facts on (the Columbia Journalism Review's web site), shows it just ain't so. The Opt-Out Myth, by E.J. Graff starts out by citing a Times magazine story from 2003 by Lisa Belkin, The Opt-Out Revolution, much discussed at the time, that described some of Belkin's fellow Princeton alums who decided to stay home. Graff places the story in context:

Belkin’s “revolution”—the idea that well-educated women are fleeing their careers and choosing instead to stay home with their babies—has been touted many times before. As Joan C. Williams notes in her meticulously researched report, “ ‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict,” released in October 2006 by the University of California Hastings Center for WorkLife Law, where she is the director, The New York Times alone has highlighted this “trend” repeatedly over the last fifty years: in 1953 ("Case History of an Ex-Working Mother"), 1961 ("Career Women Discover Satisfactions in the Home"), 1980 ("Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Family Over Career"), 1998 ("The Stay-At-Home Mother"), and 2005 ("Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood").

And yet during the same years, the U.S. has seen steady upticks in the numbers and percentages of women, including mothers, who work for wages... The vast majority of contemporary families cannot get by without women’s income—especially now, when upwards of 70 percent of American families with children have all adults in the work force.

Graff's makes the point that the media's continual recycling of the argument about whether or not mothers should be home with their children avoids the larger issue of how workplaces need to be restructured to accomodate working parents. As the article says:

By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. And any parent could tell you that it makes no sense to keep running schools on nineteenth century agricultural schedules, taking kids in at 7 a.m. and letting them out at 3 p.m. to milk the cows, when their parents now work until 5 or 6 p.m. Why can’t twenty-first century school schedules match the twenty-first century workday?

I couldn't agree more.