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Jun 21 2012

The Case Against “Opting Out”

By at 12:08 pm
woman working keyboard

Would women be better equipped to fight the war if more highly educated mothers went back to work?

Get out your virtual pitchforks. I’m about to defend Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Last week, the writer-turned-lawyer curried ire with many a stay-at-home mother (#sahm, in Twitter verse), when she denounced “1% wives”–referring to America’s most privileged, educated women–as collaborators in the “war on women.”

In her red-meat-for-the-blogosphere polemic, Wurtzel argues that “being a mother isn’t really work” because it’s not selective. “A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation),” she writes.

The essay is patently reductive and mean-spirited, as Kveller’s own lawyer-turned-writer Jordana Horn has noted. Wurtzel suggests that round-the-clock motherhood is little more than “making okay meals and decent kid conversation.” Wurtzel implies that all highly educated women who “opt out” do so because they’d rather spend their days going to yoga classes and getting pedicures and shopping at Chanel while someone else is looking after their children than, say, put their Ivy League degrees to use pursuing a partner track at a white-shoe law firm.

She’s wrong, of course, about mothering and about the vast majority of women who stay home to do it. During my first few weeks back at work following a four-month maternity leave last year, I remember thinking how much easier it is to go to work each day–to write, edit, give presentations–than to stay home, and feed and change and soothe my baby in a loop throughout the day. It was a joyous loop, but one that was a whole lot more physically demanding and emotionally exhausting than working a job in the earned-income sense of the word.

So are the women who do this demanding, exhausting work to blame for the “war on women,” as Wurtzel claims that they are? Definitively, no. But would women be better equipped to fight the war if more highly educated mothers–among the most likely to drop out of the workforce–went back to work? I think so.

We’re most likely to hear about “war on women” in connection to those mandatory vaginal probes (and the rules and restrictions that make getting an abortion both harder and more wrought). But the body is just one front in this war; the workplace is another.

The persistent wage gap, which Wurtzel addresses in her piece, is part of it. But so, too, is the prevailing workplace culture that expects employees to put in protracted days, to be on call around the clock, to not expect any flexibility from our employers.

Most of us need not be reminded that the United States is one of the few countries–Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the others–that do not mandate paid maternity leave. And talk of comprehensive legislation that would make it easier for working families to find (and afford) childcare has been tabled for four decades. (Wurtzel’s essay makes no mention of the professional women who simply can’t afford to work because the cost of childcare exceeds their take-home pay.)

Who is going to lobby to make the workplace more hospitable to those with responsibilities beyond their professional ones? Who is going to make workplaces better for the majority of American women for whom going back to work is not a choice but an economic necessity? Who is going to mentor younger women, or make the case that she should be promoted even though she has to leave work every day at 5:30 on the dot so she can pick up her kids from daycare? Men who work 80-hour weeks because someone else is home scheduling check-ups and driving carpool and teaching their children how to sound out words (it’s not all yoga and mani-pedis and shopping sprees, after all)? I think not. Rather, our best shot of getting what we need is staying put, not opting out.

Because as long as unpaid housework remains largely the domain of women, as study after study has shown that it does, working women, not their husbands, are going to be the ones expected to do most of the juggling. They are the ones who know what they need to make possible having a rewarding career and a rich family life. Fighting for the family-friendly policies that will make the workplace more humane for everyone–women, men, people with children, people without children, single mothers, mothers who choose to go back to work and mothers who need to go back to work–for now, that’s still women’s work.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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