Opting Out? When Are We Going to Involve Men in the Discussion of Work-Life Balance?
Is it possible to "opt out" of a lucrative career, enjoy an egalitarianmarriage 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.
And yet men work soul-numbing corporate jobs too, and plenty of them are married to high-earning wives; yet you rarely see men "opting out". That's in part because men, even those married to high-earning women, face significantly more social stigma for taking lower-paying jobs or staying home with children. They're culturally perceived as less masculine, even irresponsible: what is an adult man anyway if not a good breadwinner? Men also seem to realize the inherent power imbalance involved when they're financially reliant on a partner, and most of them don't want to be in that dependent role.
And that's just on the home end. At work, men who request flex time or leave early to spend time with their kids are perceived even less favorably than women who do the same. Women who take time off after childbirth, a major medical procedure, it should be noted, which necessitates some physical recovery time as well as time with a vulnerable new infant in its first months of life, too often see themselves informally demoted upon their return, or presumed to be less dedicated employees. With a less stimulating workload and an assumption that a new mom isn't going to perform as well as she once did, of course lots of moms find themselves bored, frustrated and eventually meeting expectations by leaving. Men with children, on the other hand, are perceived as more competent and dedicated workers.
All of those factors push women in certain directions and men in others, and inevitably lead to inequality and resentment. Warner's piece details it well: the wife opts out, only to find that her marriage starts to become a traditional one, with her husband expecting her to keep a perfect June Cleaver house in addition to taking care of the children. She's resentful of that expectation, feeling like her contributions are under-valued and like he doesn't find her descriptions of her days particularly stimulating. She knows that without her taking care of everything on the home front, he simply wouldn't be able to succeed as highly and dedicate as much time to his career, but that goes largely unrecognized.
On the husband's end, he doesn't understand why he's working 50-plus hours a week to financially support a grown woman as well as their children only to come home to the expectation that he do 50% of the housework and support his wife's unpaid volunteer efforts. He's resentful of the fact that his wife appears to have all the "choices" while he foots all the bills. Neither of them are unreasonable. Both of them are unhappy. Neither is a selfish monster.
When those relationships end in divorce, though, it's largely the opting-out wife who's left high and dry. A small segment of very wealthy women who volunteer on coveted boards in large cities can leverage their connections into full-time work. Most, though, find themselves with outdated resumes and a tough job market. And that's not an entirely unfair situation. Fields change, jobs evolve and skill sets atrophy, and if you take a decade off of work it's not reasonable to expect to come back in at the exact same position and with the same salary as you left.
In the meantime, though, the husbands with the privilege of wives who stay home have been able to dedicate even more time and energy to their jobs than husbands who by necessity have to pitch in more around the home. The men with at-home wives are the ones who are better situated to show up at the 7am meeting, attend the late client dinner or go to a networking event well into the evening. By the time they get divorced, they've already earned reputations as hard workers. What they've missed out on, though, is a life outside of the office and a chance to cultivate deep and life-changing relationships with their partner and children. It's a tired cliche at this point, but few people on their death beds wish they'd spent more time at work.
In other words: the current model, where women are much more likely to drop out of the workforce, is bad for everyone. But it's particularly financially perilous for women. Unfortunately, that advice doesn't tend to resonate, because few people believe they'll end up divorced. Even outside of divorce, though, opting out of paid work entirely and making oneself financially dependent on a male partner inherently puts women in a traditional role. For better or worse we live in a capitalist society, and money is power.
For large swaths of the American population, this entire conversation is non-issue: most people, female or male, have to work to support themselves, and "opting out" isn't an option. But for those who do have a "choice," it's worth evaluating what's sacrificed when one decides to assume complete financial dependency on a partner. And it's worth evaluating the circumstances that lead one to decide such dependency is a desirable thing. Is it an inflexible job? The assumption that childcare is your primary duty? A partner who simply isn't pulling his weight?
Not everyone wants to work 50 hours a week in a high-flying career. But part of being an adult is realizing that choices are not without consequence, and choosing to walk through one door can close another. Leaving work means financial dependence and major barriers to re-entry. If you choose to adopt a traditional role and someone else is footing the bill, a gendered power imbalance is more likely than egalitarianism. If you're married to a man who thinks it's preferable that you stay home and take care of the kids while he pursues his paid work, you're married to someone who does think tending to the home and children is a woman's more natural role. A lot of supposedly modern, progressive men will claim to believe women are their social equals, but scratch the surface a little and see how he feels about taking on a more flexible schedule so he can do half the childcare. It's a telling endeavor.
We of course need more family-friendly and flexible workplace policies, not just for the women who aren't in the privileged "opt-out" classes but for Americans generally, who are dramatically over-worked. But we also need male partners who are willing to step up and fully participate in raising their children and tending to their homes. And we need women to think beyond a simplistic "it's my choice" framework when it comes to working versus staying home.
We're all operating under a constrained set of circumstances, and trying to make the best choices possible given what we have. But not all choices are created equal, and part of the responsibility of choosing is realizing that you can't get everything you want. Choosing to leave paid work entirely may work out wonderfully for some women. But for most, there are downsides, big and small, from the creep into traditional gender roles to potential financial ruin. Perhaps the biggest lesson isn't "don't drop out of the workforce" or "take on a flexible job;" it's "choose carefully who to marry".