Working Mothers Who Opt Out Have Big Regrets

Working Moms Ten years ago, New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin wrote about a fascinating discovery: many women in her circle (she graduated from Princeton in 1982) weren't masters of the corporate universe in the way they had assumed they would be back in the early 80s. Many were home with their kids full or part time, and by most accounts were happy with their choices. Maybe women weren't getting to the top, Belkin speculated, because they chose not to. They had opted out.

The article caused quite a stir, and was part of a larger series of influential writings from that era hinting that women needed to choose between careers and families. Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book on Creating a Life had come out the year before, pointing out that only about half of corporate women earning over $100k/year had kids by age 40. There was plenty of criticism. Belkin was writing about a rather elite group of women, but that's who reads the New York Times, and their choices are worth discussing, because their choices affect other women too. The husbands of women who opt-out must (for the most part) stay in the workforce, and if they come to see the traditional family model as the norm, they may expect it from people who work for them too.

Anyway, the phrase "opt out" stuck (if I remember correctly, Belkin said in a talk I attended that this will be the headline on her obituary). It's been 10 years since that piece appeared. Last week, the New York Times ran a piece from Judith Warner following up on what happened to the opt-out generation. The headline? The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.

The broader story, though, is a bit more complex than a headline can capture. Many of the women Belkin interviewed did intend to work later in life, so now that their kids are 10 years older, getting back in is part of the plan. Getting back in is more complicated for some than others. A few of the opt-out women were smart about volunteering in ways that preserved their career capital, and had kept up connections, and so could land jobs after years out with no resumes or anything. Some hadn't done that and had a harder time.

But to me, the most striking story was Warner's lead one. Sheilah O'Donnel, 44, had been a top sales person for Oracle. At her peak, she was earning $500,000 a year. Then she and her husband (also at Oracle) started a family. She cut down to 3 days per week. Warner writes:

"Even with the reduced schedule, the stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on her marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick. 'All this would be easier if you didn't work,' O'Donnel recalled her husband saying. 'I was so stressed,' she told me. 'I said, 'This is ridiculous.' We'd made plenty of money. We'd saved plenty of money.' She quit her job, trading in a life of business meetings, client dinners and commissions for homework help, a 'dream house' renovation and a third pregnancy. 'I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage,' she said."

It didn't work. They got divorced. Now she's back at work, earning less than before, but happy to be employed. Writes Warner:

"After one emotional session with a friend, her 12-year-old daughter asked what all the fuss was about. O'Donnel told her: 'This is the perfect reason why you need to work. You don't have to make a million dollars. You don't have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to at least earn enough so you can support yourself.' "

Real life is messy, and there was obviously a lot more going on in O'Donnel's life than just the question of whether a mother should work if she doesn't "have" to. Clearly, there were big problems with her marriage. Sacrificing her career wasn't going to help it, but it did hurt her earning power considerably.

I'm not sure what lesson there is to be taken from that. But I do know that if two high earning people didn't want to have "ugly fights" about the laundry and who would step in when the nanny was sick, it is entirely possible to minimize such things. Many of the stresses of being in a two-income household can be mitigated in cases where both partners are earning as much as O'Donnel and her husband did - because I'm guessing that if she was the party to opt-out, he had to be earning around $500k, too.

So let's put it this way: You don't have to quit a $500,000 a year job because you're fighting about the laundry. You really don't need to fight about the laundry if your household income is in the 7 figures. It costs a lot less than a divorce to make sure you never have to fold another shirt in your life.

You could, for instance, hire a housekeeper to come three times a week for four hours at a time. Paying $20/hour for 12 hours is $240/week. Add in payroll taxes and the cost to use a payroll company - which you are probably using if you're paying your full-time nanny legally - and you're still under $300/week. That's $15,000 a year - a rather small chunk of their combined household income - and neither would ever need to wipe down a kitchen counter again.

As for childcare snafus, it's quite possible to build up a roster of back-up sitters. Back when my oldest kid was in daycare, I tried to have 3 at any given time I could call. Many families also rely on extended family or neighbors in such situations. My mother-in-law will be helping us out when my husband and I both have some international work travel coming up and our nanny is on vacation. None of this is a walk in the park, of course. It requires some initial investment of time, or building up relationship capital with people who might cover for you (or producing cute grandchildren, as the case may be). Nonetheless, it's what you do if you want to preserve both of your abilities to make a living while reducing these sorts of frictions.

But O'Donnel and her husband were operating in a world where it's still seen as strange and threatening for a mother to be earning lots of money. In this narrative, in which "working" is the out-of-place variable, when things get complicated, that's seen as the variable that needs to be changed. We saw this in the story of the lawyer who quit from several months ago. But there are other ways to tell this story. And given that O'Donnel's husband is quoted in Warner's article as complaining about her working part-time for the non-profit Girls on the Run, saying such work meant "she put herself in front of a lot of things - family, and ultimately, her marriage," there are clearly a lot of other things going on here beyond the laundry and childcare issues.

What did you think of Warner's article? Or are you tired of this discussion?
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