No One, Male or Female, Can Ever Really 'Opt Out'

Work is inescapable.


Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about moms leaving the workforce versus dads.

Gross: Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to opt out. Working--the kind of corporate-oriented, career-building capital-W Work that seems like the American ideal--never appealed to me. And, growing up in the recession of the early 1990s, that kind of work life seemed to be crumbling anyway. Me, I wanted to spend as much of my time traveling, eating, making new friends, maybe even one day starting a family, and I figured the work I'd get, if indeed I got any, would be lowly, menial, minimally rewarding, practically uncompensated, and freelance. But that would be fine--I expected nothing more.

What actually happened was that, as much by chance as by design, I built a freelance-writing career around precisely those subjects I wanted to fill my days with: traveling, eating, friends, family. My opting out was, weirdly, my way in. At the same time, however, my work, such as it was, was becoming more and more optional. For most of our marriage, my wife, Jean, has been the breadwinner by far, and once we had kids, my household duties, always significant, grew. I cooked for us all, I ended my workday at 5:15 p.m. to pick our daughter Sasha up from preschool, I was the one who'd stay home if Sasha was sick.

Never, however, was there a day when I could imagine chucking it all to focus solely on childcare and homemaking. That would that work? Which is why I found it so strange to read the New York Times Magazine feature on the "opt-out generation": the legion of women--mostly high-powered executives and professionals, all generally five to ten years older than me--who'd given up their careers in the late 1990s and early 2000s to focus on being wives and mothers. Now, a decade or more later, many of them are regretting their decisions and/or trying to re-enter the workforce, with varying degrees of success.

The strangeness comes not from an inability to understand their desires. Yes, work sucks. And when it sucks, you want to concentrate on the things you really do love: your husband, your kids, your house. In that sense, opting out seems utterly rational.

What seems unrealistic, however, is their belief that they could somehow escape from Work--that they could live lives apart from the System. I mean, as much as I hate that system, and as little as I expect from it, I understand that it is inescapable. To be alive in America in 2013 is to be a worker of one sort or another--a freelancer, a volunteer, DIY publishing maven, a hack screenwriter, a dog-walker, a can-collector, a social media consultant, a branding expert, a T-shirt designer. Pretend that the System doesn't apply to you, that you can step outside of it for a year or ten, and the System will let you have your fantasy and then, cruelly, crush you when you return to reality. The opt-out generation is getting crushed right now.

Why did these women think they could get away with this? Maybe it's just a generation gap: In the five to ten years between them and me (I'm 39), enough changed that I began my working life in the dawn of the Freelance Era, when careers are made not by rising through the ranks but by surfing the networks of friends and contacts and hoping you don't get pulled under. And that era has continued to blossom, especially over the past decade, to the point at which it's almost laughable to expect a traditional one-company corporate career.

Or maybe it's because I'm a man: For men, opting out of Work has never really been an option, even for those of us who, in recent years, have devoted our energies to our family lives. Stay-at-home dads blog, and consult, and do graphic design while the little ones are asleep, and not merely because we want to--because we enjoy doing well in realms outside the home--but because we've always been expected to work. We've grown up with that expectation, never imagining an alternative.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's 8 p.m., and I'm still in my office, and I have a Website to relaunch.

Ross: The café around the corner from my apartment embodies many latter-day, gentrified, Brooklyn stereotypes. The barista, a co-owner, boasts an ample beard and a handsome collection of retro-castoff T-shirts. The music skews sensitive-boy-indie, with some hip hop, '80s-pop, and the odd country tune mixed in. They offer no decaf or flavored coffees, the tattooed parents of nattily dressed children abound, and the description of each day's fair-trade roast comes with enough biographical detail to make a union organizer weep.

My mother, who lives in Mississippi, likes to go there with me when she comes to town. Whatever the shortcomings of the artisanal movements running amok in American culture, bad coffee is not among them. My café beats Starbucks, which has decimated the population of coffee vendors in my mother's town, black and blue and twice on Sunday.

A while back we ventured out for a cup on a weekday after dropping my son at school and before I headed to the office. The café happens to be situated across from the local public school, and every day a group of stay-at-home mothers gather to jaw about the wrongs of the world. It's a loud and occasionally raucous chat, informed by extensive NPR and New York Times reading and, I wouldn't be surprised, a good number of advanced collegiate degrees. The women tend to dress with a sophisticated and beleaguered stylishness that blends self-conscious indifference, lack of sleep, and precise fashionability. They appear fit and still slender but have none of the cosmetic adornments and possible surgical augmentations that I associate with stay-at-home mother-dom in the suburbs and smaller cities. As a group, they project an image of ease and confidence and contentment. Mine is a middle-class neighborhood, whatever that means in Brooklyn, so their relaxed posture likely doesn't spring from great wealth. They simply look in their element and betray no hint of desire for another.

For some reason, this group infuriated my mother. She couldn't wait to leave the café to rain sneering disapproval down on them. My mother is many things, as is everyone's mother, but in her case it includes being a doctor in private practice. She came to her adulthood in the 1970s, and takes pride in having overcome the sexist barriers to entry into her profession, and for having worked these many years for no one but herself.

I don't have the space--or expertise--to get into the generational differences between women, or the boundless and personal ways feminism can be defined. What I do know is that my mother viewed the women, whom she automatically assumed had opted out of careers, as arrogant and self-congratulatory--and a rebuke to her struggle for equality with men. She had, she seemed to be saying, worked hard to secure a place in the working world for them. If they chose to spurn it, the least they could do was to look, if not unhappy, then conflicted.

My mother's reaction strikes me as more relevant than my opinions of opting out as a man. I work, as does my wife, because I must, and any feelings I have about it seem the stuff of bull sessions enjoyed by those with time for such things. And, of course, my mother probably misjudged the group altogether. Perhaps they seemed so giddily pleased with themselves because this was a stolen moment they shared with each other, one of the few during which they could express the remnants of their pre-child personalities.

I think it's important to reflect on how one perceives choice, and what it means to have one. My mother chose to work because she wanted to confront a society that presumed to rob her of that option. Or really, she didn't choose. She insisted. Graduating from medical school was an act of defiance. The motivation to build her practice came from anger at those who would dictate otherwise. Is it the same for the contemporary woman, educated and capable, who decides to return home? Can you retreat into a traditional gender and familial role as an act of resistance? Probably. I don't know, and I imagine few women expect or relish an answer to these questions from me. Occasionally, a stay-at-home-father will join the group at the café, but I believe he takes his place subject to a wholly different set of societal expectations, criticisms, and rewards. I can cast my mind into his situation, though, and my mother's. But not theirs, not really.