As if on cue, a lousy old myth about women, motherhood and work is making a return, too: that many of these women are better off for cutting their (paid) work hours and downscaling their professional aspirations in favor of tending to family responsibilities.
The Los Angeles Times found a woman who couldn’t simultaneously telework and care for a newborn — no kidding! — so she’s offering online parenting classes, which, she admits, might not earn her a full replacement income. “It’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said. The Atlantic, in turn, reported on a group of high-achieving professional women who, facing the demands of pandemic parenting, cut back from full-time jobs to part-time hours or freelance work. They are taking, the writer said, “a brief, low-speed detour” and “are happier as a result.”
Give. Me. A. Break.
We’ve been here before. In 2003, a New York Times headline coined the term “opt out” to describe a Lisa Belkin article about highly educated, high-achieving women who, overwhelmed by the demands of the workplace and parenting, decided to downscale or totally jettison their careers for a time, seemingly convinced that they could get back on a professional track when they needed or wanted to.
As later reporting and research revealed, the reality was more complicated and less cheerful. Many of the women, it turned out, had left work largely because they could not manage the demands of work and home. Their spouses, usually high earners, had little bandwidth or willingness to pitch in. The employers often proved less than accommodating. And when the women tried to opt back in, they often returned to lower-paid positions. If they divorced, they were likely to experience major financial trouble. The “short detour” became permanent and life-altering.
These narratives, then and now, have the same theme. It is, after all, an American character trait to take personal responsibility for solving a systemic failure — like millennials who think they don’t have enough savings because they order avocado toast, instead of because they’re drowning in student loan debt. Similarly, women, pushed out of the workforce by our family-unfriendly workplaces, lack of care-taking infrastructure and the continuing societal expectation that women — and not men — are the primary parent responsible for the well-being of children, often say they are decisive actors in their own stories. But as Pamela Stone, a professor at Hunter College and author of “Opting Out?” and co-author of “Opting Back In,” told me when I interviewed her a few years back, “Their perception was all about choice, but the stories they told were all about constraints.”
But there is another reason this way of thinking about women and work is making a return. A few months ago, I highlighted a paper written by a group of academic futurists about what they expected to see in the post-pandemic world. “Gender norms are backsliding, and gender inequality is increasing,” they warned, reasoning that women’s prioritizing of their families while men continue as “breadwinners” could lead to a chain of cascading moral judgments about women, work and family. “This may shift families toward traditional structures and conceptions of gender,” they concluded.
The Biden administration, to its credit, looked at the pandemic ground situation and concluded that tending to humans was as much a part of our societal infrastructure as building and maintaining roads and bridges, and it is now proposing to expand federal funds for universal pre-K.
But Republicans and conservatives are using the sentiment of the old opt-out movement to attack President Biden and the help he wants to offer American parents. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wants to offer a tax credit to parents, one they would receive whether one stayed home or not. Democratic plans, he sniffed, “try to make family life more affordable by pushing both parents into the full-time workforce while subsidizing commercial childcare.” J.D. Vance — venture capitalist, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and possible Republican Senate candidate from Ohio — took to Twitter last month to accuse the Biden administration of waging “class war” — because, of course, only wealthy families want to shuck off their responsibilities send their children to day care. (This is also an old trope.) He followed it up with a co-written commentary in the Wall Street Journal. The sub-headline the paper put on it? “Young children are clearly happier and healthier when they spend the day at home with a parent.”
And, make no mistake, when they say “parent,” Americans hear “mother.”
American mothers — and fathers — need help. But the moment we begin to wrap women’s life-altering decisions to leave or cut back on paid work and professional aspirations in the soft glow of motherhood, we are playing into flawed and disproven conservative tropes about society. Let’s not go there again.