As in option. Or, sometimes, the lack of same.
Surely you have been tuned in to the continuing controversy as to whether the “opt-out revolution”, reported by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine back in 2003, ever really existed. In her story, Belkin reported on a group of fast-track women who’d “opted out” of their high-flying careers once they had children. Ever since, a debate has raged as to whether or not the story reflected an actual trend, backed up by numbers, or was based on anecdotal information from a select group of women and what journalists call “weasel words” — like “many” and “most”.
Just last week, the Washington Post reported on new census figures that seemed, at first glance, to debunk the so-called “mommy myth”:
A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.
Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.
In other words, the reports seemed to show that the vast majority of stay-at-home moms were not those who opted out — but more likely those who were never comfortably in. So case closed, right? But hold the phone: In a post right after the numbers came out, several writers drilled down the numbers and found the snapshot to be a little more complex. WaPo blogger Brian Reid was one:
If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that’s hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you’re seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That’s hardly a “small population.”
Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I’ve taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it’s only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It’s clear that we’re still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I’d love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.
Which goes straight to the point made by Mother Jones writer Elizabeth Gettlemann, who wonders if what these numbers really show is that whether mothers stay home with their kids or go to work in an office, the decision to opt in or opt out is one often made for them, largely by circumstances.
The report’s take-home message, that stay-at-home moms are actually younger and of lower income and education (and less white) than the opt-out theory would suggest, does less to say that other mothers aren’t making hard work/life choices and says more about the nearly 1 in 4 moms who do stay at home, that they simply don’t have options to begin with (jobs to go back to, for example), the choices that older, more established workers and women have when deciding how to support their family and career.
And keep in mind that the Census definition of stay-at-home mom is rigid and doesn’t account for all sorts of work/life sacrifice decisions women make…
In other words, maybe the numbers are not about opting in or opting out — or the resulting backlash. But, more likely, about which of us have access to the options one way or the other. And what the numbers show is not many of us do. The majority of those stay-at-home moms, as Broadsheet’s Judy Berman suggests, may never have had a choice in the first place:
If we really look at the census data, stay-at-home mothering begins to seem less like a post-feminist choice than a decision often made out of pure necessity. Not to say it’s a universally undesirable one. (The census found that 165,000 dads are doing it, too.) But the most statistically significant group of full-time moms turn out to be the women who have never reaped the benefits of white, middle-class feminism.
When all is said and done, what I wonder is why we got so caught up in these numbers in the first place. Really, who cares. As women, do we need the validation? Is this yet another tedious round of the Mommy Wars that, by now, should have been put down for a nap? Are we still caught up in judging each others’ choices? And why is it always either/or? What about freelancers or part-timers?
I have to wonder if this numbers business — and the debate itself — is nothing but a smokescreen that keeps us busy smugly sniping at each other when what we really should be doing is fighting together for flexible workplace policies, as New York Times Economix blogger David Leonhardt suggests:
So here’s a modest proposal: maybe we should stop arguing so much about whether women are staying home in greater numbers and focus instead on the policy questions. How can companies be persuaded, or pushed, to make part-time work a more serious options for both mothers and fathers? How can part-time work — or, for that matter, years spent outside the labor force — become less of a career killer? What can be done to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave? How can we create better, more comprehensive pre-school programs, so that middle-class and poor parents of 3- and 4-year-olds can feel more comfortable working full time?
Exactly. Maybe we should call it the opt-in revolution.