A recent article in The New York Times Magazine portrayed a group of women who have decided to step away from careers to raise their young children. The title of the article was "The Opt Out Revolution." While evocative of an important decision that many women face, the article described only one small faction of society.
The "opt out revolution" described in the article comes from an inherent position of privilege. It is neither a phenomenon nor a trend, because it affects a limited number of women with sufficient economic resources to make rational choices. In premise and practice, the idea of upper-class women staying home to raise their children is simply a continuation of the Victorian and Edwardian ideal of womanhood.
What about the rest of us? What about the families who choose to live on the income of one parent, when the paycheck is not sufficient? What about the women who love their jobs? What about single mothers, student mothers, poor mothers, people with disabilities? What about the people who simply do not have a choice?
I was born in 1971 and had cancer as a child. My illness was an extraordinary burden that nearly put our family into bankruptcy on several occasions. Both of my parents had to work to pay basic bills, maintain health insurance and cover medical expenses. There was no social safety-net, no government program to help out. When my grandparents or other relatives were not available, I stayed home alone. When I was old enough, I drove myself to appointments. My mother would have liked to leave work and take care of me, but she simply did not have a choice.
When my daughter was born, I was a working-class teenager. I wanted a different life than the one on offer, so I went to college, graduate school, and then started a career. College professors told me that I was making a regressive choice, that I was being anti-feminist by choosing to parent. The culture at large judged me for being young and ambitious. But my child thrived during those years and is now a confident, smart, savvy 13-year-old. My second child was premature and required a level of care in his early years that dictated my choice to change directions in my career. This was a complicated and personal decision, but in choosing to stay home, I was not electing to work less. When I decided to stay home, I knew that I was assuming a wrenching burden as the sole caretaker of two young children, one of whom needed to be held and nursed almost constantly for over two years. Living on one income translated to living without decent food, new clothes or treats of any sort. We did not have enough money for heating oil or enough spare change to do laundry. When the car broke down, we walked—for three solid years.
Now my kids are older and through a combination of hard work, education and simple good luck, we lead a middle-class existence. Both adults in this household work full time, but we have made a series of decisions that place a priority on raising the kids—we use child care only as a last resort, and we make choices in our jobs to assure economic security without sacrificing the hours that we want to spend with the family.
We do not buy on credit, we do not drive new cars, we do not send our kids to private school. I work from home, which means that I can put them on the bus and meet them again every afternoon. But make no mistake—we both need to work to maintain this lifestyle.
My current job brings me into contact with thousands of families, and the anecdotal evidence indicates that most women do not have many options in deciding how and when to work. The vast majority of families I know live in poverty or in a tenuous version of working poverty, with consumer accoutrements disguising the fact that a missed paycheck may in fact send them stumbling toward economic ruin. If you factor in the (statistically probable) loss of a partner or shifting job markets, the situation is even more grim.
At the same time, I know many women who are fully engaged with jobs in the arts and sciences. They work out of a true vocation and could never conceive of a different life. These women are lost in the shuffle of the discussion because they appear to have the best of both worlds: a job they love and the family they wanted. For the most part these women are so consumed with their work that they simply do not have time to advocate for better benefits, school reforms or programs that would allow them to be even more productive.
Using the word "revolution" in the context of this conversation is particularly repugnant in light of the fact that welfare reform has forced a whole generation of mothers into under-paid employment and their children into sketchy child care. The continuing economic slide and disintegration of social programs will only make the split between poor women and rich women more pronounced and cause deep anxiety for those of us who live somewhere in the middle.
Upper-class women who leave jobs to raise kids are not automatically exempt from uncertainty. Spouses die, become disabled or sometimes simply leave. Women who exit paying careers are choosing a state of dependency that can end at any time by an act of nature or a court decree—and the terms of settlement are not always advantageous.
The women portrayed in the article are certainly decent people who care about the generation of kids they are raising. Mothers who work outside the home care just as much. Neither group represents a vanguard of social change; instead, most of us embody the compromise of an ideal. Setting up false divisions between people who have the same basic goal (raising good kids) splinters any ability that we might have to form coalitions and address inequities.
Historically, the most truly revolutionary social reforms are derived from a combination of upper-class benevolence, lower-class radical agitation, and a healthy dose of middle-class pragmatism. We should stop arguing and start planning. Our kids deserve better choices than those we were offered.
Bee Lavender is the editor of HipMama.com.