Opting Out

The press discovers the mommy wars, again.


Ever since the rise of the modern women's movement in the 1960s, two genres of "trend" stories have periodically appeared in the media: stories about women advancing into new, nontraditional roles, and stories about women going back to traditional roles. Far from following a progress-backlash pattern, these stories often coexist, though perhaps not too happily, side by side.

The latest trend story involves professional women "opting out" of the career track to raise children. In October 2003, The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Lisa Belkin, "The Opt-Out Revolution," that examined the phenomenon of highly educated, successful women giving up or curtailing their careers.

Pointing to several well-known women who had left top-level leadership positions to spend more time with their families—among them Karen Hughes, a former adviser to President Bush, and Brenda Barnes, a former president of Pepsi-Cola North America—Belkin wrote: "Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to." Several months later, the cover of Time magazine offered "The Case for Staying Home: Why More Young Moms Are Opting Out of the Rat Race."

It's amusing to see the "opting out" trend treated as news, considering that the story has been around for the last 25 years or so—that is, for as long as women have been on the career track in significant numbers. In the 1980s, articles about career women "bailing out" famously raised the hackles of Susan Faludi, author of the 1991 bestseller, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

Today the topic continues to stir controversy. A critique of "The Opt-Out Revolution" in Salon elicited letters slamming Belkin's article as "clueless," "horrifyingly retro," "dangerous and almost misogynistic." You'd think Belkin had suggested repealing women's right to vote. Indeed, the syndicated columnist Bonnie Erbe invoked this very parallel: "This is hardly the first time some women with particular…agendas have tried to turn back decades of advancement forged by other women," she wrote, pointing to the anti-suffragist women who scoffed at the 19th Amendment.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly gleefully touted Belkin's story as evidence that feminism had been "mugged by reality."

Does the "opting out" trend really exist? Erbe asserts that Belkin's claims are based on shaky data: The finding that only 38 percent of women who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1981, 1985, and 1991 now work full-time came from a survey with a very low response rate. But clearly, many professional women scale back or give up their careers for family reasons—and there is some evidence that more women than before are making this choice.

Catalyst, a respected research and consulting group focusing on women in business, reports that one in three women with MBA degrees are not working full-time (compared to just 5 percent of the men). According to the Census Bureau, 36 percent of women with college degrees who'd had a child in the previous year were staying home in 2002, up from 32 percent in 1995. Overall, the work force participation of married women with children under 6 slipped from an all-time high of 63.7 percent in 1998 to 62.5 percent in 2001.

This hardly amounts to a "revolution." It's not even necessarily a steady trend. But these numbers don't tell the whole story either. Many mothers who are in the labor force are employed part-time or are self-employed, and still others who work full-time don't pursue promotions. Belkin herself left the Times newsroom, giving up the chance for a top editorial slot, to work as a home-based writer.

It's an open secret that child rearing is a major factor in the so-called glass ceiling. Thus, the American Bar Association's 1995 report on women in the legal profession, which pointed to the low numbers of female partners in big law firms as solid proof of discrimination, also acknowledged that women "often base their choice of work environments on how their environment can accommodate their personal needs," including family life.

Blaming the lack of family-friendly policies hardly resolves the dilemma: In European countries such as Sweden, family-friendly policies often keep women on the mommy track. In the March 2004 issue of the left-of-center magazine The American Prospect, Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a women's studies scholar at Brandeis University, issues a numbingly familiar battle cry for a "vast radical and feminist agenda" including "affordable, high-quality child-care and after-school programs, run by well-paid and well-trained and caring teachers." But as the psychologist Daphne De Marneffe—no conservative—argues in her new book, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, the day care solution ignores "the value people place on caring for their own children, and their desire to do it themselves if they can."

One could argue that child rearing should be shared equally between the sexes. Perhaps some day it will be; we have already made strides in that direction. In a 2000 Harris poll, more than four-fifths of men in their 20s and 30s said that a work schedule that allowed for family time was more important to them than a challenging or high-paying job. Yet for the time being, most women and men, even those with egalitarian ideals, seem comfortable with a certain degree of traditionalism in family roles.

These unliberated tendencies irritate some feminists to the point of recklessness. In The American Prospect, Gullette concludes her article with a warning to straight young women who want marriage and children: "Until the revolution comes, they would do well to be a little wary."

Most young women today, having grown up with the assumption of equality, are largely free from guilt about letting feminism down if they leave the fast track. This is probably one reason more women are putting family before career.

Another factor may be that for the younger generation, flexibility is normal. The old, linear "male" model of corporate success—defined as a steady climb from an entry-level position to the highest status one reaches before retirement—has changed, and not just for women. In its place, there is a rich variety of paths that include self-employment, entrepreneurship, and midlife career changes. Women who move in and out of the workforce, or find creative ways to balance work and child rearing, are very much a part of this larger revolution.

The "unfinished revolution" in family roles poses its share of problems. The equilibrium it creates between the sexes is an uneasy one. Currently, women have more freedom than men in choosing whether and how much to work, but they also bear the burden of grappling with those decisions. The "mommy wars" are likely to persist as well: It's difficult to vindicate stay-at-home motherhood without suggesting that working mothers are neglecting their children, or to vindicate working mothers without making stay-at-home mothers feel that their role is not essential.

Still, flexibility and freedom are vastly better than the alternatives. By and large, for the new generation of parents, rigid division of gender roles is obsolete—and so is the stark dichotomy of Superwoman vs. Supermom. That's a good start.