Friday, August 9, 2013

What Kind of "Opt-Out" Poster Child Will I Be?

Is it just me, or is the whole stay at home mom/working mom debate EVERYWHERE now?  It seems like every other day there's a new article in the Atlantic or the New York Times or Huffington Post or [you name that news medium] about women leaning in, opting out, or scaling back.  Don't get me wrong - I think it's great.  I love the debate, and for the most part I love the articles.  When I find good ones, I share them on Twitter and Facebook.  Occasionally, if one particularly strikes me, I write about it.  Like today.

Earlier this week the New York Times ran an article titled "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In."  This article profiles several women who, over a decade ago, decided to opt out of the work force to stay at home with their kids.  (They were profiled in an article back in 2003, which you can read here).  Most of the women left high paying, highly successful careers because the balance between work and family was too hard.  They did so willfully, and hopefully.  They wanted more time with their children.  Sound familiar?  The article asks, and answers, the question - what became of them?

Let me say at the outset that I approached this article with a bit of haste.  For my own sanity, I don't need to read articles, or hear stories, about women who have left their successful careers to stay at home with their children, and ultimately end up in dire circumstances.  Perhaps they are divorced, alone, or destitute, unable to find a job or land on their feet.  I know such situations exist, but I don't need to read about them in detail.  I am where I am at this point in time, and hearing such stories only bring me sadness, and anxiety.

But the article was compelling, so I read, and read, and read (it is a bit long).  And sure enough, over the course of a decade, some of the women did fall on hard times.  For some, their husbands stopped respecting them as professionals.  For others, they lost their own sense of identity and self respect.  Some ended up divorced, in small apartments, barely making ends meet.  Others attempted to reenter the workforce, and were successful, but only made a fraction of the salary they once did.  And others, through networking and volunteering they did during their time at home, found job opportunities they never would have otherwise. There were stories of success, and stories of failure, and a mix of the two.  As the article stated:

"The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms.  A certain number of these women - the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks - found jobs easily after extended periods at home.  These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious.  But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family friendly than their old high-powered positions."  (View quote here).

No surprises there.  And in fact, I found very little surprising in the article.  There are risks to making the decision that I did, and I am well aware of them.  I assume everyone is, who makes such a decision.  And it's not that we all think we'll end up like the aforementioned "superelite," although I suppose, that is everyone's best case scenario.  It's that we just don't know.  And in the absence of certainty about the future, we make decisions based on what works right now - in the present.  For better or worse.

But it got me thinking...

Where will I be in 10 years?  If you were to do a before and after profile of me, would I be the poster child for the downfalls of my own leap of faith - alone, divorced, single, poor, regretful?  Will I be struggling to find employment, and acknowledging that so many "told me so," and I just didn't listen?

Or will I be fulfilled, personally and professionally?  Will I be my own version of a "superelite," in a completely different professional field, or in no field at all, but at peace, reaping the benefits of my husband's financial successes?  Will I be the inspiration for other women who want to opt-out and stay at home?

The fact is, I don't know.  And by taking the path that I have, I have surrendered to the fact that I may not be making the "right" choices.  Perhaps I have already foregone the safest, and most conservative options for myself as a woman, professional, and lawyer.

Right now, I can I honestly say I don't care (a sentiment I may come to resent someday).  I don't care because right now, I am where I want to be.  I am spending my time with my children.  I am controlling my own time.  I am, in small ways, directing my professional destiny.  I am following my heart - a luxury that few are afforded, and one that I am so incredibly grateful for.  It is not easy, and I have my moments, but overall, I am completely at peace with where I am today.

But that doesn't mean it can't all fall apart.  As a woman, with (soon to be) three children, I am not independently financially secure.  Though I dabble in and out of the professional world and maintain networks and contacts, I still see my identity as that of a stay at home mom, and in reality, that's how much of the professional world sees me.  And how that will affect me, both monetarily and emotionally, in the years to come, remains to be seen.

Despite all this, I refuse to live in fear of potential regrets.  In fact, in my favorite quote from the article (which is completely self serving), the women before me advise I shouldn't do so:

"[N]ot 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."  (See full quote here).

And in that quote lies my relief, and my source of peace with my decision.  Relief because I know I will feel the same.  How can I regret spending this time with my children?  Time I will never get back?  No matter what, no matter where I end up - I will never regret it.  How can you regret something that is your life's biggest source of joy?

But where I do feel regret is, in a sense, for the collective good - for the ideal world that these women spoke of.  The idea of part time work that offers real advancement - of a chance to have a balance, and "have it all."  When we women that want such opportunities opt out of the workforce, "'[our] ability to imbue workplace culture with [our] values is gone . . . . [We] leave, and the door closes behind [us], and everything stays the same."  (See full quote here). I am certainly trying to maintain my professional network, and engage in work that empowers women, and in particular, stay at home moms.  But am I in a power position to really affect change?  No.  And who knows if I ever will be again.

My story is still unfolding.  Check back with me in 10 years or so...

(As an aside, if you are interested in articles along these lines I highly recommend you follow Your (Wo)man in Washington on Facebook - she's an awesome source for all things women).


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I get fascinated when I hear people debate this issue over and over again and I think there is NO "safest" or all around "best" option. All a woman can do is look at herself and her family's situation and make the choice that she feels the most comfortable with. I think that both staying at home or going to work can be wonderful decisions or detrimental decisions, but it all depends on the woman making the decision and not the decision itself.

  2. I very much appreciate your analysis and perspective. I too have been reading all of the articles and internally arguing parts of it as you excellently outlined. There are studies that show women attending the most selective undergraduate programs tend to opt-out more, longer and have better odds of getting back in if they want and need to work. Additionally, only 35% of most selective MBA women work. Work meaning mostly part time. I found the article points to internal dynamics of relationships -- respect, regardless of who is working, doing dishes or domestic chores. Self-respect is also an issue in that becoming a stay at home mom and losing the identity of being a powerful professional is a total mindf#@k. It too me six months to get through it to come to the somewhat triteful but profound conclusion that my law degree does not define me but I define it. I am really proud of my law degree, earned through sweat and tears and the work experience obtained thereafter. But I wanted more than success defined as money and prestige. Having a family so incredibly fulfulling and it is a complete life experience. But it is sad to have to choose between professional achievements vs. having a family. Many argue that it can be done but I don't half @ss stuff, especially when it comes to the most important parts of my life. That's what has made me successful. So I am with you, and the thousands of other highly achieved women, in that I wish I could find meaningful and real part time work during this phase of child rearing so I can return when I am ready to fully commit to my career. I can fully commit part time. I also don't know where I will be in 10 years but I am confident that I will find my way as we all have in order to reach the levels of professional success prior to children. Divorce happens regardless of working, and post-numpts should be in higher demand. I would be really interested in starting a nonprofit for professional women staying home seeking meaningful, real part time work within professional careers in corporations and firms.

    1. I'm posting as anonymous, too. In response to the first anonymous, the only problem with part time work is that a whole slew of family's are unable to afford private health insurance that isn't provided by corporations and firms because it isn't required. As a mom who has opted out, it's something we struggle with- I create home decor and paint furniture, but my husband is a "contractor" who has us meeting the minimum income requirement for the highest tax bracket and no benefits. Even if I were working for a company for part time hours with benefits, I wouldn't be available to help my sons with their homework or pay for responsible help or really do much at all. It's a trap.

  3. Before doing too much more reflection on the above article, it may be wise to read Heather Boushey's "Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth" ( She shows, through econometric analysis, that the opposite was true and that these women - along with women and workers in the economy as a whole - were merely suffering the effects of the U.S. recession and jobless recovery. It's a pity that Judith Warner, who has in the past been present at similar tables as Heather, didn't mention this piece.

  4. Hi Shannon-
    Read your blog regularly- don't think I've ever commented before. Completely agree with what you are saying.

    I would love to opt out, lean back, whatever you want to call it- but unfortunately it hasn't been in the cards for me. Whenever I hear about people like you doing it though I give you a big cheer from the internet!

    I am older than you- 44 and my boys are teens/pre-teens now. I have a pretty demanding professional job, but nothing like the type of hours/schedule those of you with big-law jobs have. I mostly have a good work/life my case I am just burned out on the type of work that I do, and would rather have more time with my kids (it's true what they say about them really needing you more during the teen years- although of course they don't realize that & would say the opposite).

    I definitely would have quit or gone part time by now (or just done something less stressful & more enjoyable!)but my husband didn't just lose his job in this economy- he lost his whole career (head hunter). So now I'm the primary breadwinner while he rebuilds.

    But I still agree with what you are saying! Yes those things do happen- particularly in this economy- but are we all just supposed to keep working forever just in case? Or have millions in the bank first? If I had "opted out" before my husband lost his job & big earning power...I don't know...but I just have a feeling we would have figured it out. Not to discount what happened to those women- believe me I get it.

    Enjoy your blog- interesting topic!


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