It’s the jobs, stupid. Why women really opt out.

Jennifer Folsom runs a company designed to help mothers and others find flexible work to keep them in the labor force. By Dayna Smith for The Washington Post
Jennifer Folsom runs a company designed to help mothers and others find flexible work to keep them in the labor force. (By Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

When I had children, I didn’t opt out of the work force. I should have said, ‘When my husband and I had children,’ because it takes two, right?

But opting out was only ever a question for me. It never even remotely crossed my husband’s mind that he would quit his job because his proper role was to stay home to raise the children.

Instead, I became a ragged, guilt-soaked working mom– like just about every other mother with a job outside the home I knew.

Many of us felt constantly on the defensive. Did we work because we wanted to? The subtext being, we were somehow selfish, putting ourselves, or as one reader put it to me once, our desire for big houses, shiny stuff and our need for self-fulfillment, ahead of our precious children and families.

Or were we working because we had to? It’s a question most often posed by someone from an older generation when one paycheck went a lot farther, with sympathetic eyes and a cluck, like, ‘Isn’t it too bad your husband is such a loser that he can’t be more of a provider.’

But what I began to notice over the years is that some of my working-mom friends who could better afford to wound up opting out, not because they wanted to devote themselves entirely to their children as an at-home mom, but because their jobs were so demanding, inflexible and intense that it left hardly any time to devote to their children at all.

One friend put together a smart proposal for working reduced or flexible hours at a job where she was highly valued and had devoted herself to for years. Her bosses said no.

Another friend didn’t even bother to ask. And when she left a job that rewarded long hours of face time in the office and answering e-mails and texts at all hours, her mostly male bosses celebrated her decision to give her kids the childhood they deserved.

I say all this because in Judith Warner’s excellent and provocative piece in the New York Times magazine, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” she writes about what is really at the heart of the Mommy Wars, the Gender Stall, the Having it All, with or without kids, debates and the Opt Out, Opting Back In Phenomenon: economics.

Warner is the author of the bestselling book Perfect Madness, which captured the increasing intensity of mothering standards in middle- and upper-middle class circles in the United States. For her magazine piece, she interviewed nearly two dozen women who’d given up promising careers in the late 1990s to stay home with their children.

Many of the women were profiled a decade ago by another writer, Lisa Belkin, in another Times magazine article that spawned intense media coverage and serious academic research. Their choice to return home was heralded by traditionalists and bemoaned by feminists. I just remember reading it and feeling slightly sick, like perhaps I wasn’t a good enough mother–or even a good enough human being.

Warner wrote how many of the women were now returning to work. (I wrote about women opting back in to the workforce two years ago. You can read about it here.)

None of the women Warner interviewed begrudged the time they’d spent with their children. And just about all of them acknowledged they’d never have had that kind of time if they’d stayed on the straight and narrow career track of their previous professional lives.

And, Warner wrote, many of their husbands envied that time:

“Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” Ted Mattox told me. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.”

To find time for that “something more,” husbands would need to join with their wives in rejecting nighttime networking sessions and 7 a.m. meetings. They would have to convey to employers that work-life accommodations like flexible hours or job sharing aren’t just for women and that part-time jobs need to provide proportional pay and benefits. At a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.

To that, I say a resounding yes.

Finding time to do meaningful work, making close connections to family and friends and living a good life is something both men and women want.

Women are not less ambitious than men. They’re not less capable, though studies of unconscious bias show that that’s exactly what we all think.

Men don’t have to be trapped into distant provider roles, yet that’s exactly what many of our workplace cultures do, often rewarding face time, long hours and instant accessibility at all hours, over mission-focused, innovative work.

I’m not one to talk. I’ve worked insane hours in my career – and just the other night until 3 or 4 a.m. I’m not proud of that. I’m tired, a little resentful and I haven’t seen enough of my kids. But I work in a field where the ground is shifting out from underneath us and no one knows what to do except, as my soon-to-be new boss Jeff Bezos extols, work longer, harder – though probably not smarter.

And the best social and human performance science shows – it’s working smart that matters.

Changing workplace cultures, gender expectations, unconscious bias, isn’t easy, but our attitudes and our workplaces haven’t caught up with the way we live our lives.

And if we all want to try to life a good life, it’s about time they did.

Brigid Schulte is a staff writer at The Washington Post where she writes about work-life issues and poverty. Her book, “Overwhelmed, Work, Love and Play when No One Has the Time,” on time pressure and modern life will be published next spring.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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Mary C. Curtis · August 8, 2013