Written By Meredith Mahony Mueller, PhD and Jules Lewis Gibson
Sitting on a carpeted floor in a neighborhood baby group 10 years ago, it occurred to me that 9 out of 10 of the mothers on the floor around me had advanced degrees.
And not just any degree, they had earned MBA’s and PhD’s from Harvard, Georgia Tech, Duke, Tulane and so forth. So many obviously bright and extremely well educated women were clearly not at work, but “at-home” with their children. It somehow made me feel at ease, that I was not alone in my decision to stay home, irrespective of how many years it took me to earn my PhD.
Alas, it is never easy to be the last to know that you are a poster child for a major cultural trend. The trend with my picture on the poster has been termed “opting – out,” as in a generation of women who are opting out of the educations and careers that they, and countless women before them, have worked so hard to achieve. Albeit largely a phenomenon of the fortunate, it is an interesting insight into what is happening on the forefront of women’s liberation.
Women were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe.
Anathema to many, professional educated women are not supposed to chuck it all to become stay-at-home moms. The term itself, “opting-out”, was coined in 2003 by Lisa Belkin, a writer for the New York Times Magazine. As she saw it, ”Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was leveled, they (women) were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half. ”
Well, I was obviously, not at that moment, a master of the universe. My fellow baby-group moms and I had chosen to delay our pursuit of universal domination in favor of time with our children during these formative years. It wasn’t as though we planned our current “stay-at home” status to be a lifetime occupation necessarily; it was simply an option at this time, an option we were all thankful to have.
One of my fellow moms, the first among us to return to the job market, had worked diligently to graduate with honors from Rice University, before beginning her ascent up the career ladder. After her first child was born, she returned to work at a large research firm after two months of maternity leave. Her mother was available to watch her baby, allowing a relatively painless, smooth transition. However, after her second child was born, her mother was no longer able to assist with the child-care. After researching child-care costs for a newborn and a two year old, and extra expenses, she came to the fiscal conclusion that her household would actually be losing money if she returned to work. “I can’t afford to work”, she told me. She says she hopes to return to the work force one day when both kids have made it into the school system, but as she is currently pregnant, that day may be a long way off.
Why some women opt-out of the work place when they have children is a many- layered issue, one where personal choices are affected by economic realities and corporate cultures. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the choices women have open to them today have been crafted through sixty years of effort by other women. The opt-out phenomenon is ultimately a result of those hard fought battles.
In the 1950s, the feminine “ideal” stayed home and raised a family. The division of labor within the family was clear, as were the lack of options for women in the work- place. Flash forward to 2014. Many of the women I know consider their decision to leave careers as doctors, lawyers, scientists and business professionals to stay home to raise children, with a partner providing financial support, to be their current ideal situation, as well as the height of feminism. They are now free to choose what they want, and what they want to do is stay home, but not without consequences.
While the emotional benefits to staying at home with children are often among the first reasons cited for the decision to remain at home, the emotional consequences are rarely admitted. One consequence of opting-out, that I personally encounter on a daily basis, is guilt. Of course, as a woman, I never have to reach far for sources of guilt. However this particular river of guilt is wide and deep, and once again I am not swimming alone.
One woman, Sarah, discussed with me how she gets pressure from extended family members who cannot understand why she chose to leave a thriving law practice to stay at home and raise four children. She says, “I had no idea when I was younger that I was so well suited to being a mother. I also feel like I give so much back to my community through volunteering and church involvement, but my family still wants me to go back to work. I feel guilty for staying home, for even having it as an option.”
No matter where a woman is on the opting-out/ opting-in continuum, she is probably feeling guilty.
No matter where a woman is on the opting-out/ opting-in continuum, she is probably feeling guilty. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, where almost every woman I speak to confides that she is constantly questioning herself. Am I spending enough time with my children? Should I be contributing more financially to the household? It all boils down to; is my family going to suffer because of my decisions, no matter what they are, and this is a classically feminine perspective.
While many women choose to stay home, far more women feel as if they are pushed-out of the workplace when it comes time for them to grow their families. For the most part, these high-achieving women have left their careers after starting a family, as their careers demanded incredibly long work weeks and their workplaces were too inflexible to make room for the new family responsibilities. If an employer was willing to broker a new arrangement, it came at the cost of being given less demanding tasks and watching the prized parts of their roles being given to others.
Another emotional consequence of opting-out for some women is that they not only hit the “maternal wall” at work, but then experience traditional role stereotyping at home. Whenever couples procreate, somebody has to take on the added responsibilities and time commitments created by a growing family. By and large the mother generally meets those commitments. The predominant method of resolving work-family conflict, among my cohorts at least, is for the mother to shift her time allotment from career to family. And here we have it, one of the most disturbing by-products of stay-at-home motherhood is the sharp turn into gender-role traditionalism that some marriages take. Although this is not necessarily an issue for many couples, in some marriages the new income inequality leads to a power inequality, which then leads to very real feelings of financial and emotional vulnerability. And sometimes those vulnerabilities are exploited.
The new reality for these women includes negotiating with their husbands for living expenses and being viewed as the only person in the household capable of doing the dishes. They had expected to retain their status, position, and standing not only when they returned to work, but in their partnerships at home. What they learned was that when they left work, and the income they had been earning, they also left their “equal standing” at home. And what’s more, for those who were able to re-enter their careers, the expectations by their spouses for the contributions made at home remained the same. Apparently once you are the homemaker there is no going back.
Of course the world has experienced a fundamental shift in the 10 plus years since the opt-out revolution was aptly named. The tumultuous years following the financial meltdown of 2009 have taken a toll on most Americans. Hard choices and financial problems have become the reality for many. Professions that once seemed rock-solid, such as medicine, have even been affected. Jobs have been outsourced and downsized to the point that many families are faced with a completely different financial reality today. To make matters worse, financial woes combined with the inherent challenges of marriage have pushed many unions to the breaking point, leaving some stay-at-home moms with a new title of single mom. Many women no longer have a choice to stay home or go to work. And yet, the reality women face when they decide to opt-in after a long career hiatus can be grim.
89% of women who left their careers wanted to return to work, but only 73% were successful at acquiring a new position.
For me a decade later, my fellow baby-group moms and I are no longer sitting on the floor playing jamboree games with our adorable little bundles of joy. We are now shuffling pre-teens to and from activities, tutors, sports, and struggling to balance school projects, household chores, jobs both part-time and full-time not to mention marriages and even divorce.
Out of the 10 moms in the group, most have gone back to work in some capacity, only two women retain full-time stay at home status. The Harvard Law graduate is now the proud full-time mom of two boys and a set of toddler girl twins. Her marriage has remained strong and thankfully so has her husband’s career. The engineer also chose to stay at home, from where she spearheads countless fundraising campaigns for her children’s schools and her church. Our community as a whole reaps the rewards from her thankless and unpaid labor. I earned my PhD in Human Evolutionary Ecology, and yet, together with a dear friend I have re-entered the workforce in an entirely different field, one where I get to share my life experiences and daily challenges with other women. In my new roles of editor and writer however, I must be thrifty with my time management, as I remain the full-time caregiver for my children.
This off-site, part-time work is not unusual today, as the frowned upon part-time employees a decade ago, are often now happy to give well trained and talented mothers a part-time opportunity. Of course, the down side to this transformation will mean minimal or no benefits, such as health insurance. The upside is flexibility for family commitments.
I would counsel that if you want to leave the work force to have a family, it would be prudent to always maintain a Plan B, C and even D. Life is long and realities, both financial and emotional, are ever changing. In fact, adaptability is perhaps the most important life skill necessary today.
Currently one in three American women leave the labor force when they start a family. It is unknown how many women are “pushed” out of the workforce by long hours, inflexible work environments, unwilling or unavailable partners, as well as by the specific needs of their children. It is also unclear how many of these women resume work in their prior professions at an equivalent level, take less demanding roles, or curtail their hours to compensate for the demands of parenting. However, the opt-out generation has contributed much knowledge to the ongoing struggle of women to find place and purpose, at home and at work. These women may not have known what was in store for them when they left their desks to stay at home, but the revolution continues if we make sure that the next generation of women, spouses and employers will have learned something from their experiences.
Practical ideas to contemplate if you are considering opting out or in.
Many career advisers counsel that if you want to return to work after having children, stay on part-time, or use a flex-time arrangement.
Follow your passion.
Evaluate your innate abilities by starting a small business out of your home.Some of the most successful women of our day started their businesses in their kitchen. Have you heard of Martha Stewart or Paula Dean? Dean’s empire began when she was desperate for money raising her boys as a single mother. She sent hers down to the street corner to sell her delicious brownies and the rest is history.
Work freelance or consult.
With websites such as Guru.com, women are able to compete for projects around the world, make an acceptable hourly rate and work from home. Keep your portfolio and resume fresh without a single commuter mile on the road and nap time meetings.
Maintain relationships with colleagues.
Staying connected within your professional circle is extremely important in many fields. Even if it’s just meeting for coffee or cocktails occasionally, maintaining those relationships can be the key to standing out in a crowd of applicants someday.
Use your volunteer hours in industries or organizations that can provide you with valuable contacts and relevant experience which can be translated into marketable skills on a resume.
Utilize social media.
Valuable contacts are closer than you think. If you have been out of the work environment for the past few years, you may be unaware that LinkedIn is the Facebook of business. It is widely used today as a networking and recruiting tool. Update your resume, take a new professional headshot and start connecting with old colleagues and friends.
No one has to look far to find a woman
who has lived the Opt-Out/Opt-In experience.
By Jules Lewis Gibson, Founder, GRAVITAS Magazine
I call it my “maternal sabbatical,” my five-year gig as a stay-at-home mom. I wish I could say it was the most blissful time in my life, but that would not be entirely true. While I am grateful for the opportunity to witness all those important milestones in my babies’ young lives, some aspects of the job were challenging for me.
When my earning capacity disappeared as a “non-working” mom, so did my personal worth in some ways in my husband’s eyes and truthfully my own. My professional life prior to motherhood was full of rich experiences and interesting jobs, so a great deal of my self-worth was tied to my career. Once that was gone and I was “just” a mom and wife, I struggled to reconcile my value. Adding to my feelings of inadequacy, I lost financial freedom once I was regulated to asking my husband for an allowance. This unhealthy shift of control in our marriage resulted in resentment on both sides.
As my children approached school age, I eagerly began plans to trade in my yoga pants for a new Dana Buchman suit and go back to work. At 41-years-old, I set out to re-enter the work force, only to be faced with a disappointing new reality. It was 2010, jobs were scarce, competition high and my qualifications dated. Realistically, I knew I would not be able to re-enter my career at a VP or even Director level, I would need to restart my career in a lower position. And yet, even getting hired at a lower level proved challenging. On one occasion, the person interviewing me to be his assistant was 10 years younger than me and much less experienced. Instead of looking impressed by my breadth of knowledge, I saw suspicion in his eyes. I knew I would not get the job, he saw me as his potential replacement.
Ultimately, I bought my dream job. Unsatisfied with my options, I began investigating cost effective businesses for sale in industries that interested me, eventually I found Florida Homes Magazine. It had a narrow focus but good bones, a unique niche and most importantly, it was affordable. Although I had never worked in the magazine industry, my prior careers in marketing, advertising and sales in the luxury home industry were perfect training for this particular type of publication, so I convinced my husband it was a good investment in our future. I redesigned it, expanded and now I own a thriving media company, but it hasn’t happened without a great deal of hard work and sacrifice.
Certainly, there are days when I wish I could be the class mom and pick my children up from school when the bell rings. On those days, when the guilt closes in on me, I sit down and read one of my magazines. The pride for what I’ve accomplished assures me that I made the best decision for me and for my boys. I’m happier as a working mom.