Keeping a Family Together Is Hard, Whether You 'Opt Out' or Not

What a New York Times magazine article gets wrong about women and work

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

In a new New York Times magazine article, Judith Warner talks to three women--two white and one black--who were privileged high achievers before having children. Warner's article is a follow-up to Lisa Belkin's 2003 piece, "The Opt-Out Revolution," in which Belkin talked to high-achieving women who had deliberately decided to step out of the workforce to focus on raising their children. At the time, the women interviewed expressed the feelings that they were being pulled in too many directions and were finding their jobs the least fulfilling parts of their lives. Since they had the option (because of high-earning spouses) to leave the workforce, they were choosing to focus on their children. This new article revisits these women a decade later. After several thousand words in which Warner bemoans the perfectly ordinary life struggles of her subjects (one divorce, one career renaissance but marriage trouble, one unemployment causing marital tension), she makes an attempt at a thesis: The women she interviewed were foolish to opt out back in 2000. She writes, "Beyond the personal losses -- the changes in the dynamic of a marriage or the cumulative financial effects of many years of not working -- there is the collective impact to consider." Had they been less deluded, Warner implies, things would be different now for these women, our brightest and best. The focus on opting out only tells part of the story, which is that it's hard to survive and keep a marriage together, even for educated, privileged mostly-white people.

Blaming struggles of a limited group on personal choice is bad social science. Warner doesn't look at how well the women who stayed in the workforce are faring now, or how the men in their cohort are faring now. Without these comparisons there's no way to know if the women who opted out are doing substantially worse than they might have had they stayed in. Warner sensationalizes the stories of the three victims of her piece and makes them sound like true cautionary tales, but doesn't give any context. Sheilah O'Donnel might only be making a fifth of what she made thirteen years ago, but that means she's making $100,000, which the majority of the country would be thrilled to earn (and which puts her in the top 21 percent of the country, according to the NYTimes' own interactive income ranker from January 2012). Carrie Chimerine Irvin is thrilled with her job, but Warner still implicitly criticizes her by saying that the problems in her marriage are a result of Irvin's choices because Irvin's husband "had to adjust to the loss of her attention when she first shifted it to their daughters and then to her new job." Kuae Kelch Mattox, a journalist before she opted out, is painted as being in a pitiable situation for being unable to find a high-powered job after opting out, but Warner doesn't explore what has happened to journalists who stayed in the field the entire time and are having similar problems with under-employment.

These women are not earning as much as they would have predicted 15 years ago. But are they performing substantially less well than their peers who stayed in, both male and female? The economy has wreaked havoc on the earning power and careers of workers at all levels. Entire industries have been damaged, leaving displaced workers who are either unable to find jobs or who have switched into other industries at substantial pay cuts. Indicating that opting out is the only reason these women are having problems earning what they should be making is disingenuous at best.

The simple truth is that it's hard to keep a marriage together. It's hard to keep a family together. And it's harder when no one is earning what they want to be earning, when career trajectories flatten out, and when the structure you relied upon and the system you were fluent in crumble underneath your feet. At any level. Stress, worry, disappointment all take a toll. And blaming that on women who made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time is either cruel or careless.

It's hard out there for everyone. I'll talk about my own biased sample of readers of my website (in our 30s-40s, college plus, middle to upper middle class, one to three kids, mostly partnered): We're struggling. Our partners are struggling. Opportunities have shrunk. It is taking everything we have to keep our careers on any semblance of the track we thought they would have. Our marriages are struggling and sometimes falling apart. Whether we stayed in, opted out, flexed in and out, or did any other combination. We are the smartest group of (mostly) women I know, and we're struggling.

In Warner's article, a problem of all people--the economy, stupid--is turned into a problem of women. And when women can't magically solve this problem, any choice they make is given a negative moral weight. The media-concocted mommy wars (which Warner is a long-time participant in) rely on attributing moral judgment to acts that are more often financial survival. Warner uses the word "haunted" multiple times to describe their feelings, and attributes this to their inability to use their "prodigious powers of control" on all aspects of their lives, as if by choosing to opt out they'd given up control. Most women don't have anything like an actual choice, and even the ones who do shouldn't be blamed for having only the options they have. Don't hate the player.

Instead of looking only at the numbers for elite groups of women, I'd like to look at what the last five years have done to all of us, men and women: who's been hit the hardest and what we can do to get us all back on our feet. I'd like to have an actual discussion about how the financial and logistical risks of having children are unevenly distributed toward women, so that women are forced into or to stay in marriages for their own survival, and thus forced to choose between work and family to keep the marriage together. Part of that discussion should also be about how this same system prioritizes men in employment situations and therefore forces them to choose employment over family.

The women in Warner's article made the choices that made sense to them at the time. They played the game according to the rules, in good faith. And had they made those same choices a decade earlier (or a decade later), the outcomes may have been completely different.

Imagine that: What if they had dropped out in 1990 and come back into the game in 2000, just in time for the second Internet boom? We'd be lauding their choices to have taken off a decade and still become CEOs of socially-conscious, high-tech, new-economy boutique companies where the Vitaminwater was free-flowing and good intentions and energy trumped seasoned pessimism and profit models every day.

It is to each individual's benefit--and to the benefit of our entire society--to develop as many skills and learn as much as possible and to keep our hands in the game. That's the truth of what it takes to survive in the current employment climate. But focusing on entirely individual choice is both binary and simplistic, and puts women into a situation we can't win.