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  • Writer's pictureScott Behson

The “Opt-Out Generation,” Mothers, Fathers, Work and Family

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Most of us don’t want to opt-out of a rewarding, successful career. Most of us don’t want to opt-out of being a present, involved parent. Hopefully our generation can find a more balanced, integrated path.

A screencap of the recent NYTimes Magazine cover story

A screencap of the recent NYTimes Magazine cover story

The NYTimes Sunday Magazine’s fascinating cover story, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” by Judith Warner, paints a complex picture of the dynamics of work and family. While it focuses on high-earning women who gave up their careers to be stay-at-home moms, it has very interesting things to say about how men’s and women’s progress towards work-family balance are inextricably tied.

Opting Out

Warner’s article revisits Lisa Belkin’s “Opt-Out Generation” cover story from 2003. The 2003 article was based on interviews with several well-educated women who left lucrative and powerful careers to become stay-at-home moms. These moms were estactic with their choice of eschewing career for full-time-very-very-very-hands-on-Type-A motherhood (I highly recommend reading both articles).

In the current piece, Judith Warner re-interviewed some of the women from the original article, and found that the long-term consequences of these moms’ choices were not as rosy as they had expected.

Most of the women wanted to return to their careers, but found that the time away from work (and their networks) prevented them from finding jobs at even half their former pay and responsibilities. Many women struggled with lowered self-esteem and deep feelings of regret. Further, the power dynamics of their marriages changed, resulting in less equality and considerable strain. One tells of a bitter and bankrupting divorce.

But the clearest theme in the article is that:

… not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.

Can Dads Opt Out?

To her credit, as she concludes the article, Warner turns her focus to fathers:

Men, too, are feeling the crunch of excessively demanding work. They now report more work-life stress than women do, according to the Families and Work Institute. They also may be penalized more than women if they try to accommodate their work schedules to the needs of their children, as research appearing in the June issue of The Journal of Social Issues shows. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some husbands find themselves eyeing their wives’ lives at home with envy. “Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” Ted Mattox [one of the husbands in the article] told me. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.” To find time for that “something more,” husbands would need to join with their wives in rejecting nighttime networking sessions and 7 a.m. meetings. They would have to convey to employers that work-life accommodations like flexible hours or job sharing aren’t just for women and that part-time jobs need to provide proportional pay and benefits. At a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.

Men are less likely to “opt-out” of employment for family because of financial necessity, the stigma of violating gender roles, the fear of career consequences, and personal priorities.

But a world in which men and women would not have to make such a stark choice between career advancement and time involved with family would be a far better one.

Time for Both Work and Family?

The largest obstacle to something resembling work-family balance is the persistence of traditional gender norms, which create expectations of a single male earner laser-focused on financial provision/career advancement whose wife stays home raising the kids/running the household. These norms are embedded in workplace cultures and, as a result, people are expected to be “all in” for career or “all in” for family, with precious little middle ground allowing time for both.

Even more maddening is that these expectations are at least 30 years out of date– Over 60% of US household have dual-earners, and this has been the case since the late 1970s.

If companies could get beyond these traditional gendered expectations, they could focus on results instead of on how, where and when work gets done. This flexibility would allow more parents to to navigate work, families and careers more flexibly and pursue career paths in which they wouldn’t have to settle for either-or. They could pursue a degree of success in both work and family. And that would really be progress.

Most of us don’t want to opt out of a rewarding, successful career. Most of us don’t want to opt-out of being a present, involved parent. Hopefully our generation can find a more balanced, integrated path.

Work-family is not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue- it’s a family issue- and therefore, we share the struggle and must work together for solutions. Let’s get going.

What do you think about the “Opt-out” articles? About the challenge of being “all-in”? Any experiences to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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