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.

Long hours and inflexible work arrangements feature prominently in Stone's study, but they are not the only reasons high-achieving, feminist moms can be found at the playground instead of the office. Sociologist Kathleen Gerson surveyed young women for her book, The Unfinished Revolution, and reports 25 percent saying "they are the only parent available for the job" of providing "an acceptable level of care" for their children.

Availability and willingness surfaced also in my research on ways to resolve work-family conflicts. Some mothers I interviewed for The Custom-Fit Workplace, who had quit their paycheck jobs, called themselves "solo" moms or, as one said, a "single mom without financial problems" (because her breadwinning husband was rarely home). Another confessed in a hushed voice: "When the boys were babies, my husband would never get up in the middle of the night if one of them awoke or cried. Not once. Even when I was dead tired and pleaded, 'Honey, just this once, I'm exhausted,' he would say 'No, I have an early meeting' or 'I have to work tomorrow.'" She concluded the story with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and a sarcastic tone, 'Thanks, a lot.'"

Sally is a solo mom, a 37-year-old high achiever, married 11 years, and mother of eight-year-old Will. Trying to build a career on-ramp after eight years as a stay-at-home mom, she feels frustrated and burnt out. A nutritionist by training, at the end of a three hour interview, she quietly confessed:

Stay-at-home moms have no security if the marriage goes awry, if they are not educated and have no vocation. That's why I went back to work when Will was in kindergarten. When Will was two, I turned down an offer to teach a course for 300 people, because I knew it would create difficulty for me as a mother: I would be anxious if Will skipped a nap when I had preparations to do and that the overflow into my time with him would be problematic. So I turned down the job, after a long consideration period, and actually told them quite late. I dabbled for 2 more years, doing nutritional counseling at a health club, speaking at some schools. Then the opportunity to teach at a local community college arose. I took it. At first, the work was overwhelming. The previous teacher didn't leave anything. I had to start from scratch. And there were two or three separate preparations. I was staying up late at night, after Will went to bed, getting ready. Now I have the preps under my belt and I'm the director of the program, so I control my schedule. I teach back-to-back, two days a week. I'm out by the time Will gets home from school.

But a problem is arising this semester. On Tuesdays I have to be in by 8:30 a.m. I need my husband to stay home and see Will on to the school bus. My husband is non-committal, he says, 'I'll check my schedule.' I HAVE to be there. Does he get this? He has the discretion to go in a little late sometime. Normally he leaves the house at 6:30 am and returns at 7 or 7:30 pm. My work financially is not a great contributor to the family income. He is the main breadwinner. But the work is important to me, his wife. He seems to miss this: that you help your wife. And it's only one day per week.

Like Kelly, New York's retro wife, Sally is only one mom. But in this one passage, this one woman offers a clear picture of why a mother just might lean back or opt out all together from a career she cherishes: the child's life stage (baby, toddler, teen); anxiety about spillover of paid work into parenting time; the number of hours needed to complete the work; the absence of schedule flexibility and some control over workload; and a spouse unwilling to share parenting duties much, let alone equally (especially when salaries are vastly unequal). Her words also express the reality of financial vulnerability for mothers who step away from paid work, while her actions show a doggedness needed to build a successful on-ramp back into the paid workforce.

While about one in three moms opts out of the labor force, we don't know how many of them are pushed out by long hours and inflexible workplaces. We know even less about the factors that keep them out, including unavailable and unwilling dads, as well as things like children's behavior and needs. This helps explain why the opt-out story never quite ends.