There was a movement 10 or so years ago of educated, successful women with high-earning spouses opting out of work to stay home with their children.
“This magazine, in a cover article by Lisa Belkin, called the phenomenon of their leaving work the “Opt-Out Revolution,” and other coverage followed: a Time magazine cover story on “The Case for Staying Home” and a “60 Minutes” segment devoted to a group of former mega-achievers who were, as the anchor Lesley Stahl put it, “giving up money, success and big futures” to be home with their children.”
I remember the first article very clearly because the opening scene was set in Atlanta.
At that point, I had quit working two years before to be home with my kids. I didn’t have an Ivy League degree and didn’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars but I did feel a connection to these women choosing (and being financially able) to stay home.
But I also liked the terms they were using in these articles — “off ramp” and “on ramp.” I felt like at some point I would want to work again, but for that time I had just taken the “off ramp” and would eventually get back on.
So 10 years later The New York Times Magazine has checked in with some of these same women, and I am fascinated to read how they feel about their journey and where they stand now. (The article is really long but well worth your time. I could only pull a couple of graphs so please read the full article.)
“The culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably, too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong and books like “Surrendering to Motherhood,” a memoir about the “liberation” of giving up work to stay home, setting the tone for the aspirational mothering style of the day, almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010, with recovery from the “mancession” slow and a record 40 percent of mothers functioning as family breadwinners, fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.”
“The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions….”
“Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York, surveyed thousands of women in 2004 and after the financial crisis in 2009. She has found that roughly a third of “highly qualified women” leave their jobs to spend extended time at home. Though her subjects were all women with graduate degrees or bachelor’s degrees with honors, they didn’t necessarily have the elite credentials of the women in Stone’s research and many reported having a difficult time transitioning into the work force.”
“Most of the women, Hewlett found, stayed home longer than they had hoped. Eighty-nine percent of those who “off-ramped,” as she puts it, said they wanted to resume work; but only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs. “It was distressingly difficult to get back on track,” Hewlett told me. In addition, the women Hewlett surveyed came back to jobs that paid, on average, 16 percent less than those they had before. And about a quarter took jobs with lesser management responsibilities or had to accept a lower job title than the one they had when they left. The impact of those sacrifices, Hewlett noted, was in many cases amplified after the financial meltdown, when 28 percent more of the women she surveyed reported that they had a nonworking spouse at home….”
“The longer they’re home, the more they continue the trajectory toward something different,” Stone told me. “They have greater appreciation of some of the values of home and connectivity, which were somewhat alien to them in their high-flying professions.”
The women in the article talked about their self esteem taking a hit being at home and tied too much to their children, and I am definitely feeling some of that.
With my youngest in first grade, I am ready to take on more work and be outside the home. I love being down at the university, and I do think I feel more confident and have more energy when I am teaching.
I will most definitely take a hit in pay when I do find a full-time or part-time job, and I have very little retirement in my name. With that said, I have loved every moment of being home with my kids and wouldn’t have wanted to have been in an office. However, now I am ready to work again.
Were you part of the women who “opted” out? How did it work for you? How did it affect your marital relationship? Are ready to go back to work? Can you find work? Is it in a totally different field? Is your pay a lot less? What would you advise the next generation of women?