No One, Male or Female, Should Be Ashamed of Leaving the Workforce

For some people, regardless of gender, family is more important than career. And that's fine.

20th Century Fox

I'm a grad-school drop-out. I spent a year in the University of Chicago's history program, and then quit to go be a poet. I spent years sending manuscripts off to tiny magazines without any notable success. So, eventually I quit that, too.

There's a huge stigma on quitters. When I left grad school, my grandfather—a very successful patent attorney, and a man who valued education very highly—wrote me to tell me I had betrayed my parents and my potential. (My parents didn't feel that way, thank goodness.) And if you do drop out to pursue your dreams of being a writer, you're at least supposed to stick to that. Advice to young writers always emphasizes persistence the importance of not being discouraged. Whether you're pursuing money or your education or your dreams or your Hollywood romance, you're not supposed to give up.

The stigma against quitting is unfortunate for a number of reasons. In the first place, quitting is sometimes really the thing to do. You can't concentrate on your poetry if you stay in grad school; you can't move on with your life if all your energy is on writing poetry no one wants to read. My nine-year-old son played soccer for a couple seasons; his team lost every game; he was miserable. Some folks would perhaps argue that he should stick with it...but why make him do something he hates just for the sake of proving he can? Better to let him go take karate lessons instead. Quitting lets you do something else, rather than spending the rest of your life like the monkey trapped with its hand in the jar.

The stigma against quitting also has painful results for women. Research suggests that employers tend to discriminate against the long-term unemployed...and one group in our society that is likely to drop out of the workforce for extended periods of time is women. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett pointed out in an NPR report this week that women in their 30s in the US often "leave or languish," dropping out of the workforce because of a lack of childcare options and a general disenchantment with job opportunities in the stagnant U.S. economy.

For Hewlett, the problem here is that American women are quitting in disproportionate numbers. She points to developing nations like India, where women have more access to extended families and cheap child care, and so stay in the workforce longer. She also argues, though, that women in the United States are actively discouraged from embracing the corporate ladder, and encouraged instead to talk and think about work in terms of sacrifice. According to the NPR account,

Hewlett says that what American women need most is a change in the narrative. "I remember very clearly going to a Wall Street Journal conference, and Andrea Jung, the then-CEO of Avon, was speaking. She's an incredibly impressive person," Hewlett says. And yet, instead of talking about the joys of her success, "she chose to talk about what she had given up."

Hewlett added that "no male leader does that."

It's true that men are much less likely to talk about the family sacrifices required to be a high-powered CEO. But is the problem here solely that women are too open about what they give up? Or to put it another way, why is it seen as normal for a man to spend his life at work, travel away from his family all the time, leave the care of his children primarily to someone else—and never express a regret?

Some men—and some women—really do love the "joys" of power and success that Hewlett mentions. And then some of us look at 80-hour weeks and never seeing our families and say, you know what? I would rather quit. I had an opportunity to move into a management position at my job, for example; instead, I went part time to care for my son. I got lucky and eventually moved into freelancing work—but even if I hadn't, I don't think I'd regret my decision. Changing diapers wasn't necessarily all that much fun, but given the choice between expanded administrative powers and wheeling my baby around the neighborhood while stuffing Cheerios into him, I know which one I'd pick.

Hewlett argues that we need to change the narrative for women, so that work for them is not seen as a sacrifice, and so that quitting work is not seen as the normal or default. I don't necessarily disagree. Certainly, we need better day care in this country, so that both women and men can have more options for balancing work and family. But, at the same time, I wonder whether women's experiences of quitting—or, for that matter, my experiences of quitting—should be so thoroughly discounted as a retrograde return to "the expectations of the 1950s," as Hewlett puts it. Lots of women have shown, pretty clearly, that if forced to choose between work and family, they'll quit work. Rather than seeing that quitting as false consciousness or failure, maybe we could learn from it that work is not always more important than family, and that quitting, for women or for men, is not a sin.