Opting Out?

When I was at the library getting something else I came across Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone. It’s not a bestseller (are sociological studies ever?), but I thought it might shed some light on a few books that are top-sellers—namely, would it confirm or deny the conservative trend that John and I found in relationship/romance reading? Are women leaving the workplace because they just want to be mommies, Dr. Laura-style?

Stone says no: “What I find behind these women’s decision is not a return to traditionalism. It is not women who are traditional; rather it is the workplace, stuck in an anachronistic time warp that ignores the reality of the lives of high-achieving women” (19).

Stone’s suspicions were raised—and her study begun—when the media began to target mothers leaving the workforce, spinning their “opting out” as a return to conservative family values. (I was completely unaware of this trend or the accompanying spin, but I’ll take her word for it.) When asked why they were leaving work, these women inevitably stated reasons of “family,” thus sending the message that even powerhouse women really just want to get home and have babies. Stone discovered through in-depth interviews with around 50 such women that “family” was just the simplest, easiest way to describe a web of reasons for quitting that was ultimately motivated by lack of flexibility in the workplace, even by reputably family-friendly companies. “Far from rejecting the true…feminist vision of an integrated life containing both work and family,” says Stone, “these women pursued and persevered in trying to live it” (215).

The vast majority of mothers in America have to work. Necessarily, Stone had to interview those few who really did have a choice: the affluent. And because of that, I’m not convinced that her findings would hold true throughout the country. The women who contributed to her study had been lifelong achievers who graduated from top universities and went on to pursue demanding and powerful careers. It is not surprising at all that such women would want to be professionals as well as parents. But do average women share those ambitions? That’s not clear.

Since I read this book primarily to supplement such profound works as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, I was hoping Stone would explicitly discuss the marriages of the women she interviewed. Has there been a return to conservatism in the homes, if not in the minds, of the mothers who leave the workforce?

Stone didn’t talk about that in great detail, but what she did find was that previously egalitarian men became much less so once their wives were not working: many stopped doing any chores and avoided the unpleasant aspects of child-rearing altogether. I’m not sure that’s wrong—if you divide the labor between working-person and at-home-person, that’s kind of the deal you make—but it eroded the previous equal partnership between husbands and wives. Women no longer made money, so their vote and voice became less significant.

It gives me the willies. I would find it extraordinarily difficult to be financially dependent on someone else. That, as well as their (perceived) loss of status, was one of the most difficult consequences of quitting for the women in Stone’s study.

While I found Opting Out? finely written, and very interesting overall, I did question some of the author’s assumptions. For one, she seems to think that it is a woman’s right to be both a mother and a CEO of a company. One of the main points of the book is that women thought they had a choice whether to stay or quit, but they didn’t—they couldn’t really do both, even though they wanted to, because the workplace made it impossible.

But they did have a choice. They had a choice to have children in the first place. In terms of time commitment, having a child is basically choosing to have another job. Why would you ever think you could combine hands-on parenting with an intense and demanding career? And why would you think the workplace should change to accommodate that choice? Imagine if you went to your boss and said, “Say…I’ve decided to take another job at the same time as this one. Oh yes, I’ll be really stressed out and a lot less focused, but I expect you to give me flex time and special leave when I need to be at my other office. And of course you’ll continue to promote me as usual.” Your boss would probably call security and have the crazy person carried out of the building. So why is having a child any different? Most of us have to work, but some jobs just may not be compatible with kids. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all—at least not well.

Stone does say that the loss of talented female employees has put a strain on companies, inspiring some to instate more flexible “work-life” policies. If that’s the case, I have no problem with it. But if companies can get along fine without those policies—if it’s in their best interest to continue to demand those insane workweeks, and if they can find the people loony enough to work that much (which I personally don’t think anyone should do)—they should not have to change just because women want to have babies. I’ll say it again: Having children is a choice.

Isn’t it funny how our American belief in infinite potential is so deeply ingrained? It doesn’t just appear in cheesy New Age books. Even the smartest and most educated among us really, truly think we can do it all. But at some point it’s a matter of simple arithmetic. You actually can’t be a good VP, a good parent, a good spouse, a good friend, and a good citizen all at once. So you have to choose. Want kids? Take a less demanding job. Workaholic? Don’t have a family. Spend 12 hours a day training your cuddly cockapoos? Maybe you don’t have time for a spouse. Sure, it sucks, but until there’s a pill that can eliminate sleep, we all have to prioritize. There’s a reason I don’t have any hobbies or friends, and it’s not entirely because I’m boring and unlovable.

Secondly, Stone doesn’t really question the notion that today’s obsessive parenting style is 1) necessary and 2) good for children. Part of the reason that the interviewed women stopped working was that they felt obligated to take a leading role in their children’s emotional, intellectual, and moral development. While I completely understand and agree with this—god knows there’s not a teacher at Emma’s “national Blue Ribbon” public school who could tell you the function of a semicolon—I also think a serious line has been crossed in this regard. At-home mothers have simply gone way too far, not only scheduling their kids up the wazoo, but treating their children like endless little projects. Stone calls this “intensive mothering” and “the professionalization of domesticity.” I call it “bugging the hell out of Lisa Adams.”

But it’s not merely annoying; this behavior can actually be destructive and terrifying. And to illustrate how, I must tell you the Story of the Bake Sale.

The Story of the Bake Sale
A bake sale is a beautiful thing. Frankly, bake sales are one of the best things about America. You stand before a huge table laden with every conceivable cupcake and brownie. You lust and drool. You pick your favorite desserts and you stuff your face. Few things could be easier or more wonderful.

So I was practically peeing my pants in excitement over last year’s bake sale at Emma’s school open house. We had our priorities in order, so before going to Emma’s classroom, we went straight to the bake sale. But to our shock and dismay, we found that it had been…professionalized.

Instead of the endless spread of chocolatey goodness that characterizes any self-respecting bake sale, we found individually wrapped paper plates, each containing one cupcake and four nasty cookies and priced at ten dollars. TEN DOLLARS! The mothers of Menlo Park had taken everybody’s donations and redistributed, packaged, and priced them. We couldn’t pick and choose or pay by the item. So we bought nothing, enjoyed nothing, and stuffed our faces with nothing.

I can’t even begin to tell you how disappointing and wrong this was. ALL the volunteers had to do was leave well enough alone. But they couldn’t. And if these moms could screw up a bake sale so royally—one of the easiest and most obvious things in the world—I shudder to think what they are doing to their kids. I swear to god, not a week went by at Emma’s elementary school that didn’t feature a party or a pancake breakfast or an afternoon in the garden. These “intensive moms” effectively take their children out of the classroom, away from learning, and then get to gloat about what wonderful, devoted mothers they are. All so they can do something with the energy they used to apply to their careers.

While these dreadful scenarios may be peculiar to my community, I am sure that intensive mothering is a national epidemic. It’s clear that many (most?) women need more intellectual stimulation than normal parenting provides. Frankly, they need to be working! So I think Pamela Stone is right about this flexible workplace thing. With more part-time jobs and clever arrangements available to mothers, we can keep women both from opting out and becoming insanely meddling.

And that’s a good thing for all of us. Not because every woman has the right to raise kids and lead a company at the same time. But because we all have the right to a decent bake sale.

2 thoughts on “Opting Out?

  1. While I whole-heartedly agree that having children is a CHOICE (in every conceivable aspect of the word), and OMG I cannot agree with you enough regarding today’s over-parenting, I think you’re missing the overall point, which is –

    Are you ready?

    MEN don’t have to choose between being CEO and being a good parent. Only women do.

    And suffice to say, a certain percentage of those women opting-out are, I’m sure, more valuable to their companies, and more competant as managers, employees, etc. than their male spouses are. Yet societal gender expectation tells us that A. women are the better parent, and B. men are the better provider. Until these decisions can be made on equal and somewhat concrete terms without all the cultural and emotional baggage, it will always be a lopsided situation, and women will always be the ones making the choice.

  2. Well said! And I agree that the situation is definitely lopsided. But my point is that men actually DO have to choose, even if they don’t know it, between being a good CEO and a good parent—because, man or woman, you really can’t be a good parent if you hardly ever see your kids.

    I agree that the societal expectations make things difficult, but we don’t NEED to be burdened by such expectations. Women who care about their careers really don’t have to marry men who will always put their own careers first. I thought it was interesting (and sad) how the women in the study lamely explained away their husbands’ unwillingness to make any sacrifices of their own. Men should be more fair on principle, but women shouldn’t tolerate it when they’re not. So while we do need changes in the workplace, I think we need individual women to stand up for themselves too.

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