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Aug 14 2013

What the Opt-Out Generation Really Wants

By at 10:59 am

working mother with babyI am a non-practicing lawyer, a freelance journalist, an aspiring novelist (where does the time go, anyway? Let me look in my 10-month-old’s mouth to see if she ate it like she eats everything else) and mother of four, soon to be five. I work from home when I can, in scraps of time salvaged between carpools and Mommy and Me classes and library time and cooking. I suppose that in the macro scheme of things, I have “opted out.”

I am not on a partnership track. I do the proverbial hustle for new assignments as often as I can and that in and of itself is full-time work. There are no lockstep promotions or bonuses in being a work from home mother. There is also no guarantee that at any point, you will be able to work outside the home again, in an environment where a 2-year-old doesn’t carefully water your computer keyboard with a sippy cup or where you don’t have to pry open the 10-month-old’s mouth to retrieve your letter “l” key (seriously, she eats EVERYTHING).

All this is why I read the New York Times Magazine article, “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In,” by Judith Warner in which mothers who left their high-flying jobs a decade ago revisit their choices. As the title implies, with the benefit of hindsight, they are not particularly happy with where they now find themselves professionally. One finds she can’t get back into the profession she left. Another, divorced from the husband who facilitated her stay-at-home life, regrets having let her hands slip off the rungs of the corporate ladder and financial independence.

I’d rather spend less time discussing what the article says, though, than what it doesn’t say:

1. The article’s characterization of child-rearing resorts to familiar tropes rather than substance.

Fights over who would do the laundry, cooking “healthful meals” and coming up with “clever art projects”–as the article characterizes the act of parenting–ain’t even half of the story. It’s the stuff of parenting sitcoms, not of substance. I haven’t come up with a clever art project since…yeah, it’s probably best that we don’t go there. Yet I still consider myself a good, ever-trying-to-get-better mother. HOW DARE I? (And while we’re on the subject, let’s note that I didn’t leave a career as a culinary genius to work from home, and haven’t exactly transformed into one in the meantime.)

Being a parent is about establishing a meaningful and loving presence in your child’s life. It’s about being the person your child wants to confide in about a bully at school, or about their insecurities. It’s about being the person who models the behavior you want your child to exhibit, being kind to others and generous with your heart so that when your child is not with you, they *know* how to behave and be because you have given them the internal compass with which to find their way through their lives.

Not once in this article did any of the parents mention whether or not they think their presence made any difference, positive or negative, in the lives of their children. It’s a telling omission because the work I mention in the last paragraph–and hell yeah, it’s work, TRUST ME–is not valued because it does not come with a paycheck or pricetag. It is not a line on a resume. It is not valued as much as occupations for which we are paid, or experience for which we can be said to be furthering ourselves professionally.

All of this speaks to the larger problem in American society of not valuing the importance of familial concerns, whether those concerns be caring for children or elderly parents. And thus we arrive at my second point:

2. For any of the dynamics in the article to change, the US and individual workplaces both must rethink perspectives on workplace respect for familial issues.

I’m not just talking about making things more family-friendly for moms, or for parents, for that matter. This applies as well to people coping with illness, whether in themselves or parents or siblings, and for people at large juggling other elements of their lives with work. Articles such as this make it blatantly clear that people forfeiting their professional lives in order to preserve their personal lives, or vice versa, at the end of the day do not end up with choices leading to fulfilled and happy lives.

I’ve written about this before for Kveller, but in an article like Warner’s, it’s the elephant in the middle of the room: how long can workplaces ignore that the people working for them are people, with personal needs?

Productivity can only be enhanced in a dynamic workplace that understands the needs of workers of all genders and marital statuses–you give more, and more willingly, to a workplace that you feel wants to return the favor.

A system where flex-time and telecommuting are real options bereft of stigma is one in which a family can live and its members can live with the choices they make. Warner herself notes briefly in her piece, “Most people don’t make life decisions based on statistics or the collective good. And not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

I believe we can make that ideal world. My university had a motto that I feel applies well here: “We will find a way, or we will make one.” Our future happiness depends on it.

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