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The ‘Opt-Out’ Problem We Don’t Talk About

There’s a looming economic disaster for stay-at-home moms who get divorced.

I was eight months pregnant with my first child when Lisa Belkin introduced the concept of “The Opt-Out Revolution” in The New York Times Magazine. It was October 2003, and the last year or so had seen a flurry of books and articles devoted to the challenges (to put it politely) of working motherhood. There was Allison Pearson’s comic novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, in which the protagonist, a perpetually frazzled hedge-fund manager and mother of two, finds herself in the kitchen in the middle of the night “distressing” store-bought pies so that they will appear homemade. In a New York magazine cover story, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers shamelessly trashed each other’s parenting choices. More grimly, Sylvia Ann Hewlett noted in Creating a Life that nearly half of women earning $100,000 or more were childless. The implications were clear: If you have children and work, you’ll be poorly paid, your neighbors will ostracize you, and you can forget about having time to bake—let alone have sex, work out, or do anything else you might have enjoyed in your previous life.

Is it any wonder that Belkin’s article struck such a nerve? Looking around at her well-to-do friends and neighbors, Belkin had noticed a trend: As if the clocks had rolled back to the 1950s, women were once again, in increasing numbers, staying at home with their children. The difference was that they were choosing to. “Why don’t women run the world?” Belkin asked, and she answered, “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.” But, as the article progressed, it became clear that, if women were opting out of work, their decision owed less to an emotional desire to spend more time with their children than to a punishing workplace deeply inhospitable to mothers’ needs. “I wish it had been possible to be the kind of parent I want to be and continue with my legal career, but I wore myself out trying to do both jobs well,” said one of the women interviewed. The article closed with an optimistic account of the accommodations made by some companies, such as flexible schedules and additional family time off. Such changes, Belkin concluded, represented “a door opened but a crack by women that could usher in a new environment for us all.”

Alas, we don’t live in that new environment yet. “The Opt-Out Revolution,” with its quotes from content Ivy League grads and MBAs who had all downscaled their work schedules after having children, was nothing if not a document of the pre-recession era. As I noted in TNR two years later—after having my first baby, becoming pregnant with my second, and experiencing some of the work-motherhood conflict myself—a study by Hewlett had found that 93 percent of women who took time off wanted to return to their careers at some point—but, unfortunately, only three-quarters of them were able to do so, and only 40 percent could return to work full time. This was before the economic crisis. An article that appeared in the Times last year, headlined “Recession Drives Women Back to the Work Force,” found that some women who had quit working to stay at home with children were seeking to return, either because their husbands had been laid off or because they feared layoffs might be imminent. But many were having great difficulty finding jobs. One former lawyer at a prominent firm, out of the workplace for nine years, took a position as an unpaid intern after job-hunting unsuccessfully for nearly a year. Women lucky enough to find paid work found themselves with lower salaries than the ones they left to stay home. “Studies have found that for every two years a woman is out of the labor force, her earnings fall by 10 percent, a penalty that lasts throughout her career,” the Times reported. (Meanwhile, truly flexible work arrangements—for women or for men—are still unusual enough to make news, as this recent Times piece about the accounting industry demonstrates.)

I was prompted to revisit the scene of this crime by “Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom,” by Katy Read, which appeared in Salon last week. (Apparently I’m not the only one who can’t stop thinking about this article, an unscientific survey of the blogosphere reveals.) The piece begins with Read fondly reminiscing about all the time she spent with her sons when they were young, at beaches, parks, playgrounds, savoring every quickly-rushing-by moment. “Now I lie awake at 3 a.m.,” she writes, “terrified that as a result I am permanently financially screwed.” Divorced, she finds that her income from freelance writing, child support, and “a couple of menial part-time jobs” doesn’t even cover her expenses, “let alone my retirement or the kids’ tuition.” Despite her attempts to “scrub age-revealing details from my resume,” her work history speaks for itself, “making me simultaneously overqualified and underqualified.” When she left full-time work 15 years ago, she and her husband were both newspaper reporters, earning the same salary. Now, he earns $30,000 more, while she has been turned down for jobs paying $20,000 less.

This is as it should be, Read’s critics will say; a person who has been steadily employed for the last 15 years should, by rights, command a higher salary than one whose career has been on hiatus. But does it follow that a woman who cuts back on her career should be left stranded if her marriage happens to fail—and in the middle of a bad economy? Few people seemed to consider this long-term view eight years ago, when opting out was suddenly all the rage. Read tells a frustrating (and sadly familiar) tale of losing out on the best assignments once her “well-meaning” editors put her on the mommy track. Why not stay at home and freelance if her full-time work was both time-consuming and unrewarding? What could go wrong? “It was as though at-home mothers could count on being financially supported happily ever after,” Read bitterly concludes. After all, no one expects their marriage to end.

This is the real story of Read’s piece—not just the difficulty of returning to work after a lengthy break, but the disaster that divorce can spell for a woman in such a situation. After Belkin’s article—in which divorce never came up—appeared, Katie Allison Granju published “The Case Against ‘Opting-Out.’” She was once one of those “smug” women herself, Granju writes, “a thirty-something, married mother of three with a college degree, a nice house, a flexible, work-at-home writing career, and a husband with a good job providing health insurance.” Then, she got divorced. Her health insurance and 401(k) evaporated. “As I read Belkin’s article, I shook my head sadly as I applied current divorce statistics—including the rise in no-fault divorce and the virtual disappearance of alimony from most divorce settlements—to her interview sample,” Granju wrote. As the statistics suggested, of course, “around half of the happily fulfilled, college-educated, para-homemakers” could be newly single at some point within ten years post-opt-out, which meant, Granju concluded, that “their choice to ‘opt out’ of their formerly promising career trajectories may also mean that they have ‘opted out’ of not only the lifestyle extras they seem to take for granted, but also fundamentals like a house, health insurance, and retirement funds.” If the legal system isn’t going to look out for women, Granju concluded, we need to look out for ourselves. She suggested that women thinking of “opting out” ask their partners to sign an agreement spelling out how their contributions at home would be valued in a divorce settlement, should it come to that.

Like Read, I’m a single mother myself now. I’m lucky enough to be financially secure, with a flexible job that provides me with health insurance and accommodates my desire to spend a certain number of daylight hours with my children. I credit my former partner, who shares custody with me, for treating me equitably and providing generously for our children. But I read all this with a lump in my throat. If men continue to out-earn women in virtually all occupations, as a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research demonstrates, and society continues to push mothers to stay at home, then it’s little wonder that women continue predominantly to bear the financial cost of divorce. This was true for my mother’s generation, and it’s still true today—whatever “revolutions” may have taken place in the meantime. Meanwhile, I’m just glad that I held on to my job.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.