Regrets of the “Opt Out” Generation?

Mother and daughter in kitchenTen years ago, Lisa Belkin, then writing at the New York Times, introduced us to what’s become known as the “opt out” generation — a group of accomplished, educated women who said they wanted to embrace their motherhood experiences without having to deal with the now-infamous conundrum of “work/life balance.” They tossed their suits and briefcases out and traded them for yoga pants and play dates, but after many life changes, some of these women want their old lives back — or at least a facsimile thereof.

Initially, many people thought that this a cultural trend that would send feminism back to the June Cleaver era. But in the years since that original article, research has shown that the “opting out” phenomenon was more anecdotal than a widespread exodus.

As the women who happily, or at least willingly, left their careers they had worked so hard to have in the first place are now a decade out from that decision, and their kids are now ‘tweens and teens, Judith Warner has revisited this cultural shift in a new New York Times piece entitled, “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In.”  After interviewing a variety of women about their life experiences since Belkin’s original article, Warner’s article focuses on the lives of three women and traces what’s happened to them in the last decade, and how they are coping with how their lives — and financial situations — have changed.

In this exclusive interview with The Broad Side, Warner shares some additional thoughts on some underlying issues these “opt out” women are facing:

The Broad Side: Is the “shift” about wanting to get back to work driven by divorce and a fear of divorce? What about women who are still married who made those decisions?

Judith Warner: For some women, the shift was precipitated by the changed economy: their husbands lost jobs or started earning less, and their income was needed. For some, it was made urgent by divorce. But more generally, I think there was a natural evolution, as children got older and more independent, and the women were returned to themselves, with the physical space and mental energy to take up an intellectual pursuit again.  

TBS: Why do you think we are fascinated as a society with the decisions of such a small group of women — highly educated, accomplished women who had the financial option to stay at home with their children?

JW: I’d say it’s first of all the media who are fascinated with these women — journalists live among them in the same communities, have the same backgrounds and expectations for themselves, and far less money, most of the time. So there’s a push-pull of identification and envy. That push-pull plays out, then, on a societal level as well. These women, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, embodied the social ideal of the mother who was entirely focused upon her children, 24/7. It was impossible for most women to even think of trying to embody that ideal, because they had to work. Yet it weighed upon them greatly, feeding a (not-altogether-healthy) curiosity about the women who could make the choice to stay home. In general, also, we as a society have a sort of angry fascination with highly educated, upper middle class (though not necessarily wealthy) “privileged” women — they are greatly resented demographic. Life is tough for so many people in America, and unhappy, insecure people tend to need other people to hate. So any story about these women who seem to have so much yet never to be satisfied receives a great deal of attention, and brings up a lot of ugly feeling.

TBS: What’s the answer for women in two career households? There seems to be an underlying theme of we’re “damned if we do, and damned if we don’t?”

JW: I think the message, for all women, is a dual one: Don’t expect yourself to do the impossible. You can’t expect yourself to give “120%” to your job and to your kids — if you try, you will have no choice but to feel like a failure. That effort propelled a good number of the women I spoke with to quit, rather than to scale down their expectations of themselves in one domain or the other, or in both.

The other, larger message is: we cannot accept life as we now live it. The way our workplaces are structured force us into lives of impossibility — the demands of our jobs — whether top-flight, high-prestige positions or not — are incompatible with the rhythms of a connected home life. The only way to resolve, or at least, lessen these problems for the greatest number of women possible is by rethinking how we work and what we expect of workers.

TBS: What’s the message for our daughters? Is there any hope of having a career and fulfilling personal life? Or will they have to choose one or the other, or choose to have “just a job” if they want a successful relationship?

JW: We must, for the sake of our daughters, fight both for social and cultural change as described above, AND teach them to reject the pressure to expect the impossible of themselves. We have to teach them to be demanding of others — employers, husbands, their government — to create a world that will give them more and better options.

TBS: Maybe more importantly, how do we process all this information from the last ten years, and advise our sons?

JW: We have to try to be the best role models we can be — for our daughters and our sons.

Warner’s full article on the “opt out” generation after a decade can be found here.

 Image via iStockphoto/David Sucsy

  • I think its interesting that you say opt-out women are 10 years out from their decision. I opted out 30 years ago from a very hard fought for law enforcement career.
    This is not new…maybe social media and the internet have made it seem new, but many women opted out and then tried to get back in well before this generation.
    Perhaps women should stop acting and reacting in isolation instead of learning and listening from previous waves of experience.
    It was extremely difficult when I attempted to opt back in to a career in education (my degree pursuit before law enforcement) and to listen to how difficult it is for these women in disconcerting to say the least. This is not new and novel to this particular generation…10-15 years ago when I was trying to opt back in they were the ones with the jobs that could not go to an ‘old’ woman getting back into the workforce…goes around comes around.

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    I am still digesting all of this. Think there is a much broader story here. Congrats on the get with Judith Warner.

  • I think she hit the nail on the head with her response to your second question.

    Food for thought here for sure.

  • Tina

    This hits home for me. In 2005, I left cubicle life (my kids were 5 and 7) and never looked back. I feel I missed out on a lot of their babyhood and toddler years, and I didn’t want to do it any more. My husband stayed home, and then went back to school. When he finished, I started freelancing. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best compromise I can come up with. My husband (now) earns the benefits, I work at home, and I’m around in the afternoons to supervise homework, drive kids around, and just be present. My teen daughter has her homework desk in my home office–we have tea together while we work in the afternoons. I say no to clients sometimes, and I build deadlines and commitments around my home life. It’s not always great, but it works for now. There are no good answers, but I know I don’t ever want to go back to life in a cubicle where someone else owns my soul (and my presence) from 8-5 every day.

  • Sara Lamberto

    I opted out, love it, don’t regret it. My kids are still little, but I don’t plan to fully “opt in” until they are in high school. I enjoy focusing on the things that really matter in life…when someone is dying you never hear them say “gosh, I wish I had more of a career.”

  • I think that rather than a movement, the “opting out” was an anti-movement that continues today. First, women were told to stay home. Then they were told they weren’t worth anything if they stayed home, so there was a movement from home to work, and then, a few women who made the move away from home, realized that the only thing that mattered was what was good for them (and for their families), which meant either staying at work or going back home. The more interesting story may have been the one about those who left their jobs, but I’m not sure it was a real movement. I see it more as a general understanding that “movements” calling women to stay home or to leave home meant nothing in the end.

  • This was one of the best posts I’ve read following the article. Warners findings deeply resonated with me, and truth be told, depressed me a little bit, because I was the poster child for both articles–the original Lisa Belkin one about Opting Out and the current one.

    I posted about “Motherhood Being the Necessity of Reinvention” on my site as I realized that the lack of opportunities to truly opt in made many of us entrepreneurs. Sometimes I feel it’s a much harder, less lucrative road–but I’m curious to see how it all plays out. It’s impossible to know when you’re in the middle of it where the dotted line is going to take you.

    For those who are interested: http://thinkingcapnyc.com/blog-sharing-my-thoughts/2013/8/8/motherhood-is-the-necessity-of-reinvention

  • This is a really great piece and great interview. I just wanted to point out that not every woman who “opted-out” to raise their kids and be home more as given up herself, or lost herself or put herself and her needs on hold for the years it will take till she can address her needs again. Some of us, actually decided in the process of choosing this different lifestyle that we wouldn’t, in fact, ever sacrifice our personal needs, wants, or ambitions. Instead, some of us decided to take the time to nurture our other gifts and talents and used the “new” schedules to pursue those things which we pushed aside, not for the kids or because of them, but because the rat race and the need to be present elsewhere prohibited it. I left corporate to care for my children, and used the “freedom” to do not what I had to, but what I loved. It has turned into a successful career for me. It can be done, and a lot of women have done it and are doing it. I am not sure what it would take to go back to corporate, but I sure as hell am going to work hard so that I never have to.

  • A few generations before the opt out generation that now wants back in were the Real Housewives of the Cold War.
    The mid-century housewife knew in her heart – because all the magazines confirmed it to be so- that love, marriage and children was The career for women. My own mother Betty would follow in the footsteps of another Betty, Betty Crocker, seemingly satisfied in her role as housewife and mother. But in the fall of 1960 another magazine article appeared in Good Housekeeping questioning the role of women. It wouldn’t be until 1963 when the article’s author Betty Friedan’s book the Feminine Mystique appeared.The problem that had no name was so unfathomable to many homemakers at the time no one even thought they had a problem. It was buried as deeply as our missiles underground and would cause the same explosion when they were released. For a look at the real housewives of the Cold War visit

    http://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2013/03/07/the-real-housewives-of-the-cold-war/

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