The XX Factor

The Opt-Out Myth

DoubleX is starting a new partnership with The Washington Post Magazine . Each week our contributors will argue over a certain question, and we invite you to join in. This week: A recent Census report refutes the idea that large numbers of women are quitting successful careers to become stay-at-home moms.

Hanna Rosin : So the latest census data shows that there is no “opt-out revolution,” meaning that middle-class women are not actually dropping out of the workplace in droves. We seem to have exaggerated the phenomenon based on thin anecdotal evidence, as we seem to always exaggerate the agonies of the middle class. (Barbara Ehrenreich diagnosed this problem first in her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class .) My guess is that what’s changed is not the habits of women but their attitudes. It’s not that fewer women work, it’s that there is a self-consciousness about not working, and women who choose not to work stand out as a more noticeable subculture. The hope is that one day either decision brings a shrug, and maybe working and non-working moms can even be friends!

Emily Bazelon : Hanna, my own take is that there is a small rise, since 1994, in the percentage of families with kids under 15 with a stay-at-home mother. But the rise isn’t among the highly educated, affluent women whom the fuss was all about. They are not the stay-at-home mom norm. And yet we all know them, and I suppose you’re right about the subculture, though I get a little historical whiplash trying to think about how exactly this is different than the PTA moms of previous generations. In any case, I’ve never believed in the sharp working/not-working divide. It’s much more of a spectrum, with women who can afford to moving in and out of working more or less, full-time or part-time, and talking it through with women making different choices as they go. Sure, there’s some alienation and judging along the way. But in my experience there’s also more common ground than we usually get credit for.

Rachael Larimore : Talk about “opting-out” and the entire “mommy wars” meme invariably implies that a woman must work 40 hours a week or stay at home. Yet I know so many moms who have made career choices that allow them to have the best of both worlds, or at least try to. Moms who work part-time, moms who own their own businesses and limit their time away from home, moms who (like me) telecommute. Far too much attention is given to the divisiveness of the “mommy wars” and not enough is given to the fact that women today are working hard and finding creative ways to get the intellectual fulfillment that a job provides while still being attentive parents.

Amanda Marcotte : The opt-out revolution is a myth no matter what definition of the word you work with. In the colloquial sense, the word “myth” is used to mean a popular fiction that a number of people believe is true, but is not. In that sense, the opt-out revolution is indeed a myth, because while a number of people believed there was a stampede of middle to upper middle class women out of the job and into the home, recently released Census data proves this isn’t so. But the opt-out revolution is also a myth in the older sense of the word: a story in which veracity is less important than normative qualities. From the beginning, the opt-out revolution was a myth that was less about describing a current reality than about creating pressure on women to either create that reality by quitting their jobs, or at least feel very guilty if they’d rather be checking in at the office than putting on an apron and cooking a pot roast for a breadwinner husband. That’s why I don’t see it going away, even in the face of lack of evidence for any trend. Like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, the opt-out housewife is too tempting as a cudgel to bully women who reject old-fashioned femininity for independence.

KJ Dell’Antonia : Honestly? I live at the corner of Opt-out Road and Lisa Belkin Lane. Small town, Ivy college, and a totally atypical number of female graduates of that college and institutes of even higher learning staying home and raising kids. If you lived here, you’d put the whole thing on the cover of a magazine, too-but that’s exactly what was wrong with the idea of the opt-out revolution. Almost nobody lives here, literally or in metaphor. It’s only if you do-and I’d argue that a relatively high percentage of editors, writers, and readers are part of a community like mine in some way-that it seems significant. Plus, they called it too soon. A lot of those so-called “opt-out” women go back, one way or another.