The Many Myths About Mothers Who 'Opt Out'

Women don't leave the workforce simply because they're desperate to stay home and take care of their kids—their motivations are much more complicated than that.


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We live in an upside down world. Bread-baking stay-at-home moms call themselves feminists, while money-making chief executive moms eschew the label. First Marissa Mayer—the highest placed, highest profile new mom in corporate America's history--declines membership in the sisterhood, for lack of "the militant drive and, sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that." Next Lisa Miller pens a New York magazine cover story, "The Retro Wife," about "legions" of feminist housewives who are "having it all" by choosing to stay home.

Many, if not most, mothers feel a tremendous amount of conflict between work and family. Do "legions" respond to it by opting out, becoming feminist housewives? Lisa Belkin, who wrote the "The Opt Out Revolution" in the New York Times Magazine ten years ago, reports that today approximately 31 percent of mothers leave the workforce, often after the birth of a second baby, and for an average of 2.2 years. Tracie Egan Morrissey notes that Miller's article is a profile of only two women, not a large statistical survey. Jessica Grose concludes, based on Census Bureau Statistics, that professional women like Kelly Makino are rare, "a minuscule sliver of the whole pie" of women in the labor force:

Of women with graduate or professional degrees, 75 percent of them who had a child in the past year work, and 60 percent of those women work full time. When you look at highly educated women who have older children, about 86 percent of them are in the work force.

Enter Emily Matchar, author of an upcoming book about what she calls the "new domesticity." Matchar reports observing a shift over the past decade in how educated young women balance the work-life equation. She sees a "phenomenon" of moms across different social and cultural groups "reclaiming traditional women's work in the name of environmentalism, sustainable living, healthier eating culture, anti-consumerism." She cites examples from her research, saying:

It's about the laid-off office worker who opens an Etsy boutique selling crocheted baby clothes rather than jumping back into the fray of recession-era job searching. It's about the grown child of harried Baby Boomers who, having seen his parents work 60-hour weeks to climb the corporate ladder, decides to lead a slower, more home-focused life. It's about the young parents who, freaked out about BPA in baby food and pesticides in fruit, decide to take food into their own hands by growing their own veggies and baking their own bread, maybe even raising a chicken or two in the backyard.

But wait: "most" of Matcher's knitting, woodworking, homesteading, blogging, attachment parents embracing domesticity cannot afford to be housewives (or househusbands) and opt out of the paid labor force. Their lives are "family-focused" but they still go to work.

Based on my research, the opt-out narrative is mostly a myth. Full-time homemaking is hardly the preference of lower-income stay-at-home moms who, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, report total household income under $25,000 a year. Many of these mothers lack a high school degree and would earn only enough money to pay for sub-standard childcare, if any childcare at all, if they were working full time. Babies can't exactly stay home alone.

Let's visit some scholarly research on a sample of women who could afford quality childcare but nevertheless left the paid labor force to become housewives. Even if this group is just a sliver of the working-mom workforce, it offers telling information. Professor Pamela Stone wrote Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, which closely examines the decisions of 54 "high achieving" women to take a voluntary career break. Stone spoke last month at a "Gender and Work" research symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of women's entrance into Harvard Business School. She described some prevailing myths surrounding professional women's exits from work to become homemakers. One is that they are "traditional" women, less career-oriented than others, that they quit "because" of the baby and the time demands babies create. Another myth is that they are not highly educated. Yet another is that they work at "bad" companies—that is, firms not offering family-friendly benefits like flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting seen on "Best Places to Work" lists.

These reasons did not drive the mothers to opt out. Stone's high achievers quit because their jobs required 60-hour weeks and the workplace was inflexible. Some mothers managed to broker private deals with their individual supervisors to work more flexibly and reduce hours. But this came at a cost. Some worked part-time and watched as prized parts of their jobs were reassigned to others. Some took less demanding assignments, which challenged their self-concept and identity, pushing them toward "second class citizen" status. Becoming a mother and working flexibly gave signals to marginalize the women. As a result, they felt devalued and vulnerable.

It should not surprise, then, that Stone's women travelled career paths that began with a "seamless entry," then advanced upward, but stalled when motherhood was greeted with stigmatized workplace flexibility at best, and no flexibility at worst. The moms didn't opt out—no, the truth is, they were pushed out.

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Nanette Fondas is co-author of The Custom-Fit WorkplaceHer work appears in academic journals as well as Psychology Today, Ms., Huffington Post and MomsRising.

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