Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guest Post: Why Opting Out Isn't The Whole Story

Long, long ago in a land far, far away, I had an office job. My kids find this hard to believe, but it's true. I was many things through the years from an administrative assistant to a graphic designer to a training consultant to a training developer. Oh, and did I mention that year I worked at a criminal justice agency in New Jersey? If you asked me to describe my career path, I would not use the word "typical."

But I do not consider myself to be unusual, either. In fact, I know a whole township full of women like me, searching for the best ways to find fulfillment in a sea of choices that go far beyond stay-at-home or go-to-work. And one of our biggest challenges is not to lose ourselves or our happiness as we search for a career/family balance that fits.

Becky Beaupre Gillespie and Hollee Schwartz Temple have written a book entitled Good Enough Is The New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood, and I was so excited to receive a review copy a few weeks ago. These authors have spent years speaking to women about work, home, families and expectations. I'll have a full review of their book later this week, but at this time, I'd like to present to you a guest post written by Becky and Hollee.

Authors Hollee and Becky

Guest Post: Why Opting Out Isn't The Whole Story

Becky never wanted to be a part of the Opt-Out Revolution.

Not because she didn’t want to stay home with her daughters — she did, and she has a gap on her resume to prove it — but because she didn’t want the label. Opting out felt so … permanent. And, in her mind, she’d left the door ajar; her years at home were more of a break while she prepared for her next act.

The Opt-Out Revolution (a phrase New York Times writer Lisa Belkin popularized in 2003 to describe a rise in stay-at-home moms) is a concept we encountered numerous times while reporting Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood (Harlequin Nonfiction, April 2011). It’s a controversial idea; not everybody is convinced that such a revolution really exists. The thought of highly educated women abandoning their careers to stay home and raise children really seems to tick people off.

A bit of background: For decades, workforce participation rates of married mothers were on the rise — then suddenly, around the turn of the millennium, they began to drop. People assumed women were choosing this path — and, of course, some of them were.

In 2003, Belkin gave the trend its name, and, in 2007, author Leslie Bennetts took on the issue in her provocative bestseller, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?

But some commentators thought the outcry was overblown. They said the numbers really reflected the recession of the early 2000s, not a sociological shift toward stay-at-home motherhood. In late 2009, The Washington Post again called into question the whole “obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life,” saying new U.S. Census figures largely debunked the myth. These newer statistics showed that stay-at-home moms tended to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes.

Opting out, one sociologist told the Post, "is not and never has been and will not be a revolution," she said. "Far more women are in the workplace than not, and there is no evidence to show that that will turn around."

OK, so what does this all mean? Are droves of highly educated women leaving their careers to be stay-at-home moms or not? When we examined numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for our book, we specifically looked at college-educated mothers of infants. In 1997, nearly 71 percent worked; by 2007 that number had dropped 11 percentage points. (It then climbed slightly the next year). This seemed simple enough at first, but Becky’s years writing data-heavy stories for newspapers reminded her that numbers can be misleading. Often, there is more than one way to interpret a single statistic.

The numbers don’t tell us why these women were home, and they don’t indicate whether they’ve opted out for a year — or 10. They don’t tell us what each woman was doing while “opting out.” Some were probably planning a return to the workforce or crafting a business plan for their newest venture.

The numbers may well indicate an opt-out revolution, but they are still merely a snapshot.

In the interviews we conducted for our book, we found many women who took time off to stay home — then jumped back in stronger and more successful than ever. If surveyed during their time home, they would have been classified as “opting out.” And for some, that time out was merely a short break or a chance to regroup. Which brings us back to the one thing we really know about this debate: It strikes a nerve. Well-educated women relegating their days to sitting under a parachute at Gymboree makes some people uncomfortable. Period.

In arguing that the “opting out” numbers can’t possibly be true, are the commentators subtly suggesting that they shouldn’t be true? (That’s what David Leonhardt of the New York Times Economix blog thought this debate was really all about when he wrote about it in 2009). Between the lines, are they really implying that there is something wrong with staying home?

Maybe what we need to do is step back for a moment and look at the big picture. There are a lot of options between “opting out” and “opting in.” And the research we’ve done shows that this is where our generation has found the means to take control of our lives.

Somewhere in the middle.

The women of our generation might take a few years at home — then launch a business or ease back into the workforce part time. We might move sideways before moving up, or we might work from home while still working our way to the top of our field. “Opting out” for many of us is simply a stop on a very long journey. For some of us, it’s a longer stop, and that’s OK too.

And this is where the numbers fail: They don’t tell the entire story.

Becky and Hollee’s new book, Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood, is available at http://amzn.to/newperfect . They blog about parenting and work/life balance at http://TheNewPerfect.com.

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