The Accidental Opt-Out

Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, passed along this article via her twitter feed:

(A quick shout-out for Emily Nussbaum's TV criticism: she's that perfect mixture of engaging, insightful, intelligent, and humorous reviewer who leavens her criticism with the appropriate amount of geeked-out obsessiveness that makes reading her writings about any show worthwhile. When the latest New Yorker is out, I read her piece first.) 

Getting back to the article. The NYT piece catches up with career women who, a decade ago, quit often high-powered professional careers in order to raise their children. The term 'opt-out' apparently caught on with working mothers at the time (although I was ignorant of the trend), and for a certain population (white, affluent, hetero-normative) it became something of a trend for women to quit their jobs and devote themselves full-time to home and family. 

Many of the women--again these were mostly affluent, white women whose husbands' careers could (mostly) afford the shift to a single income--have, these many years later, struggled to 'opt back in.' Or at least in the manner that they had originally been part of the work-force. There is simply no way for a professional in finance or law to be expected to return to a 50 hour work week when there are still children at home requiring care. It seems the one conclusion that we can draw from the article's small sample is that once women become mothers their relationship with work outside the home changes irrevocably.  

Maybe this a 'no shit' kind of observation, but I think many of us--myself included--expected or still expect that after huffing through the early, heavy-lifting child-rearing years (0-4ish), there will be some kind of return to the financial reality that existed before the kids were around. This is rarely, if ever, the case.   

There are many intriguing points in the NYT piece, but one of the most interesting is that if women return to workforce after 'opting-out' they rarely return to the line of work they were in before they had children. The article labels these post-kid jobs as more feminine and female-centric and community-based (teaching, social work, for example). There is the obvious practical advantage that these jobs provide more flexibility throughout the workday, but there is a deeper, more emotional/psychological aspect that has women returning to work after having children seeking more people-centered, connection-based employment. 

Nothing forces you to realize that you are part of a larger community than having children. 

I would call my own family's situation an accidental opting out. We shifted down to a single-income (mine) after the birth of our second son (and the accompanying medical expenses) made paying for childcare a laughable option. We have always known that my wife's 'opting-out' was financially unsustainable, and even though this period is transitory, she and I have experienced many of the same situations and emotions described in the NYT piece. 

Setting aside the joys and upsides (and there are many), raising children is difficult on both spouses, but in that hetero-normative family model that we are ourselves a part, the woman bears the physical, emotional and occupational brunt of the choice. (Again, with the 'no-shit' observations.) And although there are some things that I, the working spouse, can obviously do to make the ramifications of that choice less arduous, the power to alleviate, or dare I say protect, my wife from the downsides of having children is simply beyond me. 

Not that I'm asking anyone to cry me the proverbial river, but this powerlessness isn't easy to deal with. I want to change the situation, but I can't. I guess they would be the obvious ones: access to better and more affordable health care, subsidized quality child care, and mandatory higher pay for former English majors would go a long way to improving the larger situation that we who are raising children are a part. One could also argue--convincingly--about opting out of having children altogether, or reducing the number of children that couples have, and yes, these are valid options, too. Of course. 

Right. In place of a coherent conclusion, here is another link that just ran on the Planet Money podcast about Japan's solution to these very problems. Robot nannies. And why do I think that the liklihood of robot nannies is statistically more likely than former English majors getting a better payday?