Opt Out or In? New York Times Magazine Sparks Working-Mom Debate. Again.

Photo: JGI/Jamie GrillThe obsessive mommy-judging buzz has again reached a fever pitch this week thanks to “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy, well-reported story about women who left their professions to be round-the-clock moms a decade ago—but now, for a variety of reasons, want back in.

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It’s a follow-up of the mag’s now classic (and highly criticized) “Opt-Out Revolution,” from 2003. In that piece, Lisa Belkin upheld well-off women who exchanged high-powered careers for full-time child rearing as some sort of new feminists.

This time around, writer Judith Warner revisits those moms (though not all of the same ones from Belkin’s piece), finding that, lo and behold, the decade has greatly altered their narrative. She spent time with women who now, after choosing stay-at-home-mom lives, are jumping (or attempting to jump) back into the workforce—be it for shaky finances, loss of self-worth or an exasperation with traditional gender roles. 

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The story is nothing if not thorough, packing in a ton of issues. But here’s the thing: I’m over it. All the women of Yahoo! Shine are, actually, as a short and lukewarm in-office discussion of the story quickly revealed Thursday morning.

If women want to give up their careers—or never pursue them in the first place—to stay home and raise kids, good for them. If they want to be CEOs as well as wives and moms, great! If they want to dust and vacuum in French maid uniforms and meet husbands at the door with martinis and slippers, if they want to never have kids (or partners, for that matter) and focus strictly on busting glass ceilings, fine and fine. Good for any woman who is even in the position to make work-life-balance choices to begin with.

No offense to Warner, but we’ve simply exhausted this discussion and have nothing more to say on the matter.

That doesn’t mean anyone else can stop talking about it, of course. Journalists, bloggers, tweeters and online commenters — in spaces from Reddit to the New York Times itself—are in the midst of a frenzied “opt-out, opt-in” discussion.

Here, a distilled outline of the top five hot-button points:

1. The men are total jerks, but maybe it's not their fault. Tweets by men and women have called the husbands in Warner’s story “terrible,” “horrible” and “monsters” because of how they come across in many of the story’s anecdotes: as 1950s breadwinners who want their wives to raise the kids and mop the floors. “I had the sense of being in an unequal marriage,” revealed Carrie Chimerine Irvin, one of the women profiled. “I think he preferred the house to be ‘kept’ in a different kind of way than I was prepared to do it. If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising the kids, but it was about sweeping.”

The Nation dedicates an entire piece to the husbands in this discussion, “How the Opt-Out Revolution Changed Men.” In it, a forgiving Bryce Covert concludes, “It’s clear that the personal becomes political for men as well. When a couple makes a decision to adopt a traditional model for their family, it changes their expectations of each other. And then it ripples outward. It’s not just that women who opt out of the workforce change the way we think of female employees and women's choices. The structure of men’s relationships changes the way they treat the women around them and the parameters of those choices.”

Fast Company’s response to the Times piece, meanwhile, is simply that relationships—not men, not women, not corporations—are what need to evolve. “I call BS to this pile of anecdotes disguised as fact,” writes Anya Kamenetz. “This story is not about women and their choices. Actually, it's not about gender at all. It's about partnership.”

2. The real issue is a systemic sexist-workforce problem. “From my perspective, the fundamental problem has less to do with ‘opting out’ and more to do with being forced out. The stark reality is that in the professions discussed in the articles there is no flexibility,” LK of Houston wrote on the New York Times' Motherlode post about Warner’s story. “I am one half of a two attorney household and I can tell you that there is no room for a family in that equation. Firms expect 50+ hours a week in the office plus the constant emails etc after hours. If you are a female attorney who did not go directly from undergrad to law school by the time you graduate from law school you have a stark choice to make.”

Salon summed it up with its piece “Opt-out, opt-in—What women need are options,” with Mary Elizabeth Williams's first-person take, musing about the future options for her own daughters. “When I look at their possibilities, I worry that in spite of all the changes in the world of the past several years (thanks for the iPhones and marriage equality!), what’s changed far too little have been the ways in which men and women ultimately finesse the work-life balance, or how the ‘options’ extended to both of us so often default to traditional, limiting roles," she writes. "And that’s a loss for all of us.” Cosmopolitan adds, "In short? Even for elite, well-educated women with super-successful jobs, the struggle is still real. Sigh."

3. You can bypass the struggle by just not having kids. “I identified with the women in Warner’s piece because, in the midst of endless discussion of how college-educated, career-minded women like myself can manage to ‘have it all,’ I’ve also made a calculation about my priorities that I suppose I could grow to regret later,” wrote Amanda Hess for Slate, smartly tying the recent Time piece with Warner’s by talking about her choice to not have kids. “As easy as it is to poke fun at women who quit work in order to fashion wreaths, I’m choosing to forego diaper-changing in order to pursue a risky, impractical, and modestly-paying career that I love,” she writes. “In order to enjoy some luxuries, I’ve opted not to share my life and paycheck with a family.”

4. The story is absolutely terrifying. Laura Hemphill, author of the forthcoming “Buying In,” tweeted that the piece was “chilling.” On the Frisky, Jessica Wakeman declared, “The article, simply put, scared the crap out of me.” Why? Because, to someone who might want to spend a portion of her future being a stay-at-home mom, “The article is a cold shower of bad news. All of the women featured had struggled in their marriage somehow, usually because their partners at some point began to resent being the sole breadwinner and the women resented the implication they were in charge of all the household chores. Some reported struggling with their self-esteem because stay-at-home parenting was not as immediately rewarding as paid work.” Furthermore, she wrote, “Perhaps scariest is how most of these women found it quite difficult to transition back into the workforce because — thanks to the recession — things had changed while they were gone.”

The Hairpin blogged about the article by breaking down its “10 Scariest Excerpts,” leading with this one: “An apartment,” O’Donnel, who is 44, sometimes says bitterly, when she’s reminded of her former life with her ex-husband in their custom-built, six-bedroom home.

5. It’s all a bunch of BS. Many folks on Reddit tore this piece to shreds for its focus on women of a certain means. “Upper Class Family Distraught They Cannot Have Their Cake and Eat It Too,” was one straight-to-the-point comment. “Why can't I have everything I want exactly how and when I want it? Life is so unfair,” read another. And then there was this: “Alternative title: miserable selfish women now in their 40s are still miserable.” And this: “They lived a charmed life and then had a midlife crisis and wanted to ‘make it on their own’ and now they are sad they don't have a 6 bedroom house anymore from their rich husband and are FORCED to live in an apartment. OH GOD HOW HELLISH! It's a huge disconnect from the average person, why should we empathize with them?”


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