In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, reporter Judith Warner checks in with the women of “the Opt-Out revolution,” a class of “former mega-achievers” who gave up their high-powered careers and fat salaries in the early-2000s to become mega-achieving stay-at-home moms. These women swapped high-earning jobs as lawyers, policy researchers, and journalists in favor of exceling in the home, where they staged elaborate children’s birthday parties, assembled family photo albums for their parents, and stocked the pantry with “seasonally appropriate” candy (and talked about it for a 2003 Times Magazine cover story and in places like Time and 60 Minutes). Then the recession hit. And a decade after heading home, these opt-out revolutionaries want back in to the workforce.
How is that working out for them? In interviews with 22 women (and in some cases, their husbands), Warner found that the most elite women—“the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks”—have managed to find jobs relatively easily after their stints in the home, though the positions “generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious.” But Warner found that “those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks”—or those who had divorced their high-status husbands—“often struggled greatly.” And they’ve struggled not just in the workforce, but in their once-immaculate homes, too. “Many of the women I spoke with were troubled by the gender-role traditionalism that crept into their marriages once they gave up work, transforming them from being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning.” As one now-divorced opt-outer sadly told Warner, “I was this woman who made this great ‘choice,’” but it failed to lead to “the perfect fairy-tale ending.”
I’ve never dreamt of a life at home with my children as my “fairy-tale ending.” But 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. It’s just that I—like many of the childless women profiled by Time magazine this week—have decided to forgo the husband-and-kids piece of it instead of the career.
That’s partly because—unlike the opt-outers who made their money or married into it before the bubble burst—my early career has been punctuated by the recession. Even if we have similar educational and family backgrounds to some of the opt-outers, many of my peers have no illusions of cementing our status as “super elite” women, much less marrying super-elite men. (The impact of opting out was “in many cases amplified after the financial meltdown,” Warner writes, which found many stay at home moms joined by “a nonworking spouse at home,” and not by choice.) We know that we’ll spend our lives working, and the idea of an early retirement to raise babies in Bethesda doesn’t cross our minds.
But the choice not to have a husband and kids is a privileged one, too. 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. It’s not that I’m totally opposed to the idea of securing a lifelong partner and a couple of rugrats; in another life, that would sound lovely. But particularly in this economic climate, I’m just not willing to make the personal and professional sacrifices necessary to support a family and a career, which would mean pursuing a higher-paying job I didn’t like and tethering my financial security to a husband. In order to enjoy some luxuries, I’ve opted not to share my life and paycheck with a family.
“Real women’s empowerment is being able to do what you want to when you want to,” one of the opt-outers told Warner. That sounds more like “personal entitlement” than collective empowerment to me, but I get it: I want to do what I want when I want to, too. Like many middle-class millennials, I grew up in a time of seemingly endless possibilities, then got shot out into the workforce into a swiftly contracting economic reality. My way of reconciling that is to cut some other responsibilities (and rewards) out of my life. Maybe I’ll regret that 10 years down the road—just like exiting the workforce, the choice to not have kids is, at some point, an irreversible decision. (Or maybe I’ll change my mind before it’s too late.) But no matter what happens to me—and despite the tendency to frame elite women’s personal decisions as indicative of the status of women everywhere—I’m sure “women’s empowerment” won’t suffer from my choice. And maybe soon we won’t view opting out of work or of kids or of marriage as some sort of revolution, but rather just life. Regrets included.