Opting Out? When Are We Going to Involve Men in the Discussion of Work-Life Balance?
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Is it possible to "opt out" of a lucrative career, enjoy an egalitarian marriage and then opt back in to the workplace when you're ready? All signs point to no, and we shouldn't be surprised. If women want to be equal players in society and in our families, then we need to actually be equal players. And we need to expect men to do the same.
In this week's New York Times magazine, Judith Warner looks back at some of the women who were highlighted in that same magazine 10 years ago, in an article on the so-called "Opt-Out Revolution". In that older piece, journalist Lisa Belkin explored the thesis that highly-educated women in elite jobs were "opting out" en masse, returning to their homes to take care of their children. The opting out was framed as a freely-made choice, indicating that despite feminist gains and increases in gender equality, what women really want is to be home with babies and dependent on a male partner. "Why don't women run the world?" the article asked. "Maybe it's because they don't want to."
A decade later, it was clear that the opting-out narrative wasn't quite true. Many of the women leaving elite jobs weren't doing so solely by choice; they were "opting out" because it was increasingly untenable to maintain full-time demanding work and still do the disproportionate amount of at-home work that is typically required of wives and mothers. As Belkin herself put it:
Looking back over 10 years and a lot of reporting, I have come to see my mistake when writing 'The Opt-Out Revolution'. I confused being pulled toward home with being pushed away from work.
Women, much more so than men, are pushed away from work by a combination of inflexible schedules, hostility toward working mothers and traditional gender roles at home, no matter how unintentional or unconscious. Men routinely over-estimate the amount of work they do cleaning and caring for children; women routinely perceive their relationships as 50-50 when in fact the female partner is doing much more around the house. And women have spent a lifetime being socialized into caretakers.
Couples may have a formal division of labor, but when guests come over, it's the wife who makes sure the counters are spotless and there's more than enough food set out. Couples may share childcare duties, but it's the wife who does more of the mental work of remembering doctor's appointments and dates of last vaccination. Couples of course both love their children, but it's mom who is much more likely to feel crushing guilt over missing a piano recital, whereas dad is roundly applauded for coming to a Saturday soccer game. As a result, even women who say they're in egalitarian marriages may find themselves more stressed than their husbands, physically and mentally.
Women who are married to high-earning husbands have the privilege of "choosing" to stay home or pursue less lucrative volunteer or creative endeavors while being praised for their dedication to their families. After all, not everyone loves to work, and a lot of high-wage jobs are stressful and soul-numbing. I know that from experience: I worked as a corporate lawyer for four years, and am much happier in my significantly less remunerative job as a freelance writer. I made the jump without a husband offering financial support and would be quite uncomfortable relying on someone else to pay my rent. But I nevertheless understand that a high-paying white-collar career doesn't necessarily translate into asatisfying career.
I have a tougher time imagining quitting my job to stay home with kids – kids are great and I've been a full-time caretaker for more than one of them, but they simply are not all that intellectually stimulating – but I can see how women who are burnt out from a corporate career may simply decide that work sucks, and if they don't have to do it, they won't. That's an even simpler calculus when your work is a job that you keep simply to pay the bills, and not a career with a trajectory and the opportunity for growth.