Lean In vs. Opt Out:

The decision by some women to put on hold what is, and is promising to continue to be, a promising career, is never an easy one to make. Torn between their desire for professional fulfillment, usually after many years of sinking abundant resources in terms of both time and money, and their desire to spend more time at home with their children, most women find this dilemma fraught with anxiety and apprehension. The thought of bringing to a close what was up until now, their life-long mission of becoming self-reliant, career-minded women, is a frightening one to make.

I am going to try very hard to withhold judgment of these women who do abandon their careers in favor of being full-time mothers, and say that each woman needs to make the decision that is good for her and her family. Nevertheless, my first inclination when I hear of a woman making this decision is, really? Why? Why in the 21st century would anyone (woman or man) decide to be totally reliant on someone else for the welfare and livelihood when 50% of marriages end in divorce? You might say that one cannot live their life in fear, to which I will reply that it is true. However, what about one’s sense of professional fulfillment and self-development. That is a valid argument except for a person can get all that without a paycheck. I think, I am not sure myself, and feel very conflicted about the issue.

I made my decision to go back to work nearly 21 years ago when I gave birth to my first son. I use the term “my” decision loosely as it was not really mine to make, as I did not have the choice of whether to stay home or go back to work. As the main breadwinner in our family at that time, the decision was made for me, and in a way, I am glad that it did. Would I have made the choice to stay home? I seriously doubt it. From an early age, it was ingrained in me by both my parents (my father would have been 93 today had he been alive – quite progressive for his age) that a woman should be able to stand on her own two feet and provide for herself. But I worked long hours in intense environment, often missing my own kids birthdays in school and being mistaken for the baby sitter in the rare occasion that I made it to drop off. Do I personally regret it? The answer is a resounding no.

In the upcoming issue of NY Times Magazine, Judith Warner follows women who opted out of the workforce. This is a 10-year follow up article to the original one by Lisa Belkin in which she describes the Opt-out Revolution, and those women who decided a decade ago to leave the workforce and stay home. They often left brilliant and very promising careers in favor of spending more time with their children, and being emotionally and otherwise available to them and their husbands. There is validity to their way of thinking, and there is no one single conclusion that can be drawn from the most recent article except for each decision has its consequences. In the end, the author concludes by saying that “not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

Which leads me to the following question: why is it so hard for women (and men for that matter) in the US to juggle work and family obligations? While American families have been proven better at adapting to women’s working outside the home, mostly in terms of their husband’s increasing participation in household work, the United States lags far behind in providing the government support that makes it easier for many families to have both parents have rewarding careers.

Federal spending on children has declined more than 15 percent in real terms from its high in 2010, while the cost of rearing children, “either in money or the value of women’s time” has increased, writes Eduardo Porter in his weekly “Economic Scene” article. “In economists’ terms, women’s “opportunity cost” of children rose.” That, coupled with decrease in federal assistant in terms of both schooling and per-child subsidies, serve as hindrance of couples to have children and/or have both parents work outside the home (indeed fertility has been dropping precipitously since the great recession to 1.9 children per family).

What is most alarming though is recent study  out of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which indicates that the labor supply of American women fell compared to those of other rich countries as the “expansion of “family-friendly” policies including parental leave and part-time work entitlements in other OECD countries explains 28-29% of the decrease in US women’s labor force participation relative to these other countries.” More specifically, “in 1990, the US had the sixth highest female labor participation rate among 22 OECD countries. By 2010, its rank had fallen to 17th.” This is a very alarming trend, as we should always strive for more women participate in the labor force.

But should we? Are we compromising quantity for quality? As I read the study further, I have had this nagging question of whether encouraging women to work part-time and flexible work schedule robs them of the opportunity of engaging and getting better jobs at higher positions with better pay. Indeed, the study concludes that “[government] policies also appear to encourage part-time work and employment in lower level positions: US women are more likely than women in other countries to have full time jobs and to work as managers or professionals.” I cannot say that for certain, but it seems to me that we can poke holes in this data. There are only 21 women CEO in Fortune 500 companies, a mere 4.2%. In comparison, there are 11 women CEO in FTSE 350 [The FTSE 350 is the 100 largest (most highly capitalized) companies (FTSE 100) plus the 250 next largest companies (FTSE 250) on the London stock exchange.], an even meager 3.1%, but one that does not lead to conclude that government incentives hinder women’s professional growth. Moreover, we still do not have a woman president!

So what is the right balance? Is there one? I am not sure. I do know one thing – if you are stay-at-home mom who has a nagging feeling to go out and work, then discuss it with your family, build consensus, and go out there. Children do not need a mother who feels frustrated and unfulfilled. On the other hand, if you feel like you are missing your child’s first steps (and by the way, that never happens – somehow the children save it for their parents), and you can afford to, stay home if that is what you wish. I will try to withhold judgment.

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Categories: Means of Reproduction, Women at Work

3 replies

  1. perhaps sahm s feel “frustrated” because of attitudes implying that raising the next generation of humans is “not enough”. in an event “government” assistance in making family-work balance more feasible consists of mainly male tax dollars..so it s still men supporting women (albeit strangers) to take care of their children..the more socialized an economy, the lower the birthrate (why have children for old age security if gov takes care of you anyway?)..o fewer babies today – less soc sec tomorrow

  2. another thing: stats on women CEO s etc. should include their marital status and number of children- the “angela merkel” syndrome… there will always be an opportunity cost for the ovulating/lactating members of society seeking a career

  3. Actually, if you look at the list of Fortune 500 female CEOs …most of them *are* married and have children.

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