Working Mothers Who Opt Out Have Big Regrets

Laura Vanderkam
Working Moms
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.