Are We Really Screwed If We Leave Work To Raise Babies?

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opt-out-workplacePhotographed by Miha Matei.
This week, The New York Times published a story titled "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In" — a heartbreaking look at what happened to a lot of women who "opted out," leaving their jobs to raise their children, full-time, in the early aughts. Ten years later, these women are looking at divorce, depression, difficulty reentering the workforce, and jobs that pay a fifth of their earlier salaries.

It's a bit confusing, because on the whole, author Judith Warner confirms: "The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms." And also that, "a certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home." And yet, each of the anecdotes she shares are about women disappointed with their current situations — women who were coaxed into leaving work by husbands who later left them; women who felt real inequality in their relationships, after a few years of staying at home; and women who felt real financial crunches they hadn't previously anticipated.

It's a story worth telling, certainly, but it feels a bit uneven to us. Partially because it seems like something of a judgement on women who do find happiness staying at home with their kids. Partially because we never get to hear from the women who re-acclimated relatively easily into the workforce after a few years, as planned. And partially, because the story doesn't really address the issue of workplaces that don't offer working mothers (and fathers) any middle ground but to leave the workforce, if they want to spend more time at home. It's a nuanced conversation that requires many more column inches than we have here, but certainly one that's worth continuing to have.

To that end, we checked in with a few young mothers who are currently struggling around the ideas of leaving work or adjusting their hours, to find balance — and gauged their reactions to the Times story.

Amanda*, 31 an expecting mother who's hoping to come back to her investment banking job post-maternity leave and work out a job-share situation, has one main concern: "You can't put people in buckets like that – and there’s a lot to every story that isn’t in these articles..." She says, "I just think everyone has their own set of circumstances (financial/career/relationship/family) – and while it’s helpful to hear others’ viewpoints and experiences, at the end of the day I’m probably somewhere in between leaning in and opting out. But, it’s nice to have the luxury of choice."

Similarly, Nadia*, 29, who just this summer, left her finance job to stay at home with her two-year-old, doesn't read about these women and feel fear regarding her own future (in which she does hope to eventually return to work). Rather, her main concern is around the anecdotes the story chose to highlight, and the bias they represent. "It'd be nice to see a real academic study rather than what feels like fairly ad hoc interviews to get a better sense of the picture. I have a tough time believing they could find only one mom who quit work to stay home and ended up with a happy, fulfilled life."

She continues: "I think they chose a sensationalist way to say that it is important to continue to do things to personally fulfill and improve yourself beyond just family and home, when you stay at home. I think that's why these women said they lost their sense of self-worth."

That said, she admits that there are some serious issues she grapples with in her transition to saying at home. "I've found it hard to adjust my definition of 'success' after years of defining it through my progress at work. It's difficult to feel like my 'contributions' are the same as my husband's now, since I no longer make any money. But, that's just part of my adjustment."

But, she agrees that the most critical piece of this discussion is around the changes that need to be made at the workplace. An issue the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter has delved into in a much more in-depth fashion, Nadia reminds us that there were some serious problems in the workplace that probably wouldn't have been addressed if she hadn't left. She says, "I've actually gotten positive feedback from other moms in my group [at work] who think that me leaving (and the other mom who subsequently left) made our bosses more sensitive to the demands that come with motherhood and even more willing to adjust workloads."

Ultimately though, Amanda sums it up best: "The conclusion that I’m coming to with the whole Sheryl Sandberg/ Anne Marie Slaughter / "Can Women Really Have It All’ debate really comes down, once again, to the wise words of Cher Horowitz: It’s a personal choice that every woman has got to make for herself." The wisdom of Clueless — always relevant, right?

*Names changed, at the request of the women interviewed.