The Stay-at-Home Pushmepullyou

 

Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home
By Pamela Stone
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, 295 pp., $24.95, hardcover

Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success
By Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 299 pp., $29.95, hardcover

 

Reviewed by Lori Rotskoff

 

When the New York Times Magazine ran journalist Lisa Belkin’s article “The Opt-Out Revolution” in October 2003, I couldn’t wait to read it—although if that Sunday morning was typical, I did wait, at least a little while. I probably fed my two preschoolers breakfast, changed a diaper, and resigned myself to a game of Candyland.

“Many high-powered women today don’t ever hit the glass ceiling, choosing to leave the workplace for motherhood,” the article’s subtitle proclaimed. While this statement didn’t mirror my part-time work arrangement exactly, it hit a nerve. I snuck a glance at a few paragraphs while my gingerbread man was stuck in the molasses swamp. When my husband and kids finally fled to the playground, I grabbed the Times to get the full story.

Documenting an apparent shift among well-educated, high-achieving women, Belkin reported that increasing numbers of mothers were leaving the workforce and devoting themselves to fulltime childrearing. Centering her story on a handful of Princeton alumni, Belkin argued that many daughters of second-wave feminists, frustrated with trying to balance work and family, were trading in their professional ambitions for the values and routines of intensive parenting. While some women gave up promising careers entirely, others scaled back to part-time work. “Why don’t women run the world?” Belkin asked. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.”

Ouch. After decades of feminist progress, the nation’s preeminent newspaper was now asserting that women didn’t want to “get to the top.” Predictably, the article ignited a firestorm of controversy. The media’s new buzzword was “opting out,” but for many women, quitting didn’t feel like a choice at all. One friend of mine, who reluctantly left her job after showing the door to five nannies in six years, lambasted the article’s focus on maternal sentiment and personal growth. She wasn’t escaping a job she didn’t care about. Nor was she philosophically committed to full-time mothering. “I just can’t take all the juggling right now,” she explained. “Something has to give. Why didn’t she interview someone like me?”

Alas, the pervasive rhetoric of individual choice has led even thoughtful observers to distort a complex reality. That’s why sociologist Pamela Stone’s accessible, nuanced book Opting Out? is such a welcome addition to the public conversation on women, work, and motherhood. Moving beyond media sound bites, Stone untangles the multiple threads of this knotty cultural phenomenon. Why, in fact, do some women turn their backs on years of professional achievement? How do stay-at-home mothers really feel about their lives? What are the implications for the workplaces they leave behind? What happens when they want or need to work again? And what broader lessons can we learn from their experiences?

For starters, Stone reveals, the supposed opt-out craze “is the revolution that wasn’t.” Even among married mothers of preschool-age children, a large majority (roughly seventy percent) remain in the workforce. While statistics reveal a slight upward tick in the number of women staying home between 1994 and 2004, the overall trend over the past twenty years is flat. “Staying home continues to be the exception, albeit a sizeable one, not the rule,” Stone observes. At-home mothers attract a brighter spotlight in the new millennium, but it’s not because there are vastly higher numbers of them.

Still, nearly one-fourth of white, college-educated, married, professional women with children leave the workforce. As a suburban parent, Stone knew many mothers who were home full time—but as a scholar, she discovered a gap in the research on the topic of women exiting the labor force. Along with an assistant, she conducted extensive interviews with 54 stay-at-home mothers nationwide. With backgrounds in fields ranging from law and technology to publishing and marketing, all but one of the interviewees possessed at least a bachelor’s degree, most from highly selective colleges. Her research sample included some Hispanic, Japanese, and Jewish mothers, but no black women (“[I]t is still a cultural exception…for black women to choose to stay at home,” explains Stone, even if they can afford to do so.)

Such women, of course, form a privileged group, and they do not represent all or even most mothers in the United States. Indeed, it’s fair to ask whether Stone’s book duplicates the media’s preoccupation with an elite minority, ignoring working-class and poor women who are in no position to quit their jobs. We can lament the leaky pipeline that drains talented women from prestigious professions, but what about the parents for whom quitting work is but a pipedream?

To her credit, Stone confronts the class issue head on. Listening carefully to stay-at-home mothers, she argues, is worthwhile. Even though their financial status enables their voluntary departure from the workplace, that very departure diminishes their social power—including the power to control how their lives are depicted in the culture at large:

Women at home, precisely because they’ve removed themselves from the public domain…are rendered relatively invisible and silent, and it is easy to project values and beliefs onto them and to see in them whatever one wants to see. Learning what they have to say is thus important in its own right, to better understand what their actions truly represent.

Moreover, she asks, if educated, socially advantaged women “cannot combine work and family successfully, who can?” Like it or not, they shape public opinion. Their actions send powerful messages to corporate leaders, policy makers, and young people. Certainly, mothers of all classes straddle the work-family divide. Stone gives voice to a small chorus of women, but it’s a reverberant melody they sing.

In a nutshell, she argues that most mothers are not opting out; rather, they are being shut out of the workplace by inflexible employers and inhospitable work policies. To her surprise, Stone found that only twenty percent of her interviewees could be characterized as “neo-traditionalists”—mothers who had always intended to raise children full time. Most of the women, in contrast, quit as a last resort. When explaining why they left their jobs, “it was work, not family, that dominated their narratives.” Despite challenging assignments, high salaries, and generous benefits, they bemoaned the long hours, extensive travel, and unrelenting pace of the “all-or-nothing workplace.” Their requests for part-time work were either denied or paired with demotions.

These work-related “push factors” dovetailed with the demanding “pulls” of parental obligations. On this point, Stone cites fellow sociologist Annette Lareau, who argues that middle- and upper-middle-class families usually embrace a mode of childrearing known as “concerted cultivation”—a time-intensive, child-centered parenting style designed to impart skills that maximize children’s life chances in adulthood. In her persuasive analysis, Stone highlights the variety and sheer accumulation of factors that drive mothers away from high-pressure jobs.

Moreover, she reveals how constrained their options really are. Like the influential legal scholar Joan Williams and the author Miriam Peskowitz (whose thoughtful book The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars Stone curiously ignores) Opting Out? demonstrates that the word “choice,” with its connotations of personal agency and free will, is a misnomer. Many interviewees expressed feelings of loss over the work they left behind. Yet few evinced anger toward their employers or questioned prevailing gender norms that predispose mothers—and rarely fathers—to become primary caregivers. Indeed, only one woman placed her personal situation in a broader context: “There’s not enough blame…being laid at the feet of the culture, the jobs, the society,” complained one disillusioned lawyer. By underscoring how seldom women invoked the structural constraints of the workplace or the ideals of intensive mothering, Stone demystifies the illusion of unfettered “choice.”

 

Questioning the opt-out narrative is tricky, however, precisely because mothers embrace it so implicitly. The stories women tell about their lives—the narratives they construct in retrospect to make sense of their experiences—do not always portray those experiences accurately. Rather, they serve psychological and ideological purposes of their own. Blaming the system entails admitting the limits of personal control. Schooled in post-second-wave “choice feminism,” with its emphasis on individual success, today’s stay-at-home mothers are caught in a conceptual “double bind” when they quit prestigious jobs. Choice rhetoric meshes with their self-perceptions as high-achieving women in charge of their own destinies.

The opt-out narrative lets employers off the hook. It also faults mothers for the losses they incur by quitting. Stone deftly shifts the onus back from individual women to the institutions that fail them. This is good news, because lately, too few feminist writers have been inclined to do so. It’s instructive, for a moment, to compare Stone’s book to Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake (2007) and Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work (2006). For these authors, “opting-out” is really “copping out.” Stay-at-home mothers, they contend, have given in too quickly and given up too much. Relying on husbands for money, they’ve put themselves in economic jeopardy—rebuffing their feminist foremothers and even forfeiting their right to gender equity. Yet despite the merits of their arguments, Bennetts and Hirshman serve up their cautionary tales with a heaping dollop of condescension. We would be remiss to dismiss their ideas entirely, but frustrated mothers need support and new solutions—not another barrage of blame. In contrast, Stone emerges as a tough-minded yet empathetic advocate for mothers. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever scrawled the word “amen” so often in a book’s margins.

While it’s not Stone’s main goal to propose policy solutions, she offers some recommendations, including job flexibility, part-time benefits, job sharing, and reduced work hours across the board. Such policies should apply to men as well as women, of course, because until more men take advantage of them, “reduced-hour and flexible accommodations are likely to remain stigmatized and underutilized” in the workplace at large. Ultimately, Stone calls for a “fundamental reimagining and redesign of how work gets done.” The workplace, she concludes, should be refashioned to acknowledge the family responsibilities of both women and men, “building work around life not life around work.”

 

Given the hypercompetitive realities of global capitalism, this vision of a more humane workplace may see utopian. But according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, corporate leaders can ill afford to ignore employees’ familial obligations—those to sick and elderly parents as well as to children. Hewlett’s new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, reflects the author’s metamorphosis from controversial feminist professor to savvy corporate consultant. Hewlett concurs with Stone that most women want or need to work, but her emphasis is on why the workplace needs women, and how it can keep them there. Changes in immigration policy since September 11, coupled with economic expansion abroad, have resulted in a “brain drain” of highly-skilled workers from American companies. From top-tier law firms to scientific research centers, the workplace is losing its leading edge because it’s losing talented women.

Aimed primarily at corporate managers, Hewlett’s volume abounds with the case studies, charts, and bullet points found in so-called business books. It’s not a literary masterpiece; the prose is pedestrian and replete with corporate lingo. But as a progressive nuts-and-bolts manual for the new workplace, it’s long overdue.

Hewlett aims to demonstrate how companies can overturn the “male competitive model.” Within traditional work culture, high-profile positions require extended work days and weeks, constant client contact, unpredictable work loads, and tight deadlines. The male competitive model requires workers to pursue their careers “full speed ahead,” with the entitlements of gender—including a spouse who runs the household—woven into the fabric of career expectations. Instead, Hewlett argues, companies should provide flexibility and accommodate “nonlinear career paths”—such as the Encore program of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, which recruits former workers who’ve been out of the office for up to three years.

I will leave it to the business community to assess the practicalities of Hewlett’s ideas. But from my perspective as a writer and historian, the book heralds a promising shift in the rhetoric we use to describe women’s careers, beginning with the title. Instead of “opting out,” which implies a dead end, “off-ramping” signals a temporary rest stop. “On-ramping” connotes a resurgence of energy and a recharged commitment to work. While some workers never leave the “fast lane,” others take what Hewlett calls the “scenic route” when family demands are at their peak. The highway metaphor evokes forward motion, paving over the stigma of the “mommy track.”

Of course, language isn’t reality. For progress to be made, we can’t just change the way we talk about our lives. But words have power nonetheless. “Catch phrases” are called that for a reason: when the dominant culture catches onto them, they can alter our social conceptions.

Last May, four years after her original article, Lisa Belkin cited Hewlett’s book as an “upbeat chronicle” of yet another employment trend, “opting back in,” in her weekly Times column. I’m struck by the difference the time has made. This time as I thumbed through the newspaper, my boys were glued to the computer screen, and the Candyland game gathered dust on a shelf. I have more time now not only to read articles but also to write them. As for my childcare-challenged friend, she’s busy with freelance work and polishing her resume.

“Ladies, start your engines,” Pamela Stone advises. I hope we’ll find some on-ramps on the road ahead.

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian and author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America (2002). She teaches part-time at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and is working on a study of feminism, childrearing, and American culture in the 1970s.

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