Ten 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.