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The Curious Case of High-Powered Moms Opting Back In



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You haven’t had the time to read Judith Warner’s lengthy New York Times article from last week about moms who “opted out” of high-powered, high-paying jobs to stay at home with their children — who are now looking to opt back in? I finally got around to it, and I pulled out what I think are the most interesting passages.

Ultimately, I always have a hard time with these stories. Though I was quite a go-getter as a young student, poor choices put me in the position of being quite happy to leave my drudge of a job and stay at home while my husband pursued his career path. So I can’t relate — as I imagine the majority of American women who work outside the home (at record levels) also can’t — to the experience of going from the corporate board room to the PTA board meeting.

I also can’t seem to relate to these marriages that suffer so much under the strain of everyday family life and end up in divorce. Though my marriage has had its struggles as we slogged through the quotidian duties of parenthood, there was never any doubt that we were in it together and would make it to the other side as strong as ever. Not judging those who have divorced (my first marriage didn’t last its first year), I just find it sad that so many couples lose their way.

That said, it is still interesting to find that most of these former power brokers don’t regret leaving the workforce (although they had some trouble adjusting to traditional gender roles) and — despite the frustrations they’ve experienced as they try to opt back in — few desire their old careers but instead are looking for a job with a sense of deeper fulfillment.

[The] desire to be emotionally present at home, Pamela Stone, the sociologist, told me, became more pressing over time for the women she interviewed, reshaping their ambitions when they decided to go back to work.

While two-thirds of the women she reinterviewed originally worked in male-dominated professions like banking or corporate law, now only a quarter are employed in traditionally masculine and hard-driving fields. The rest chose more female-dominated, and far less lucrative, “caring, nurturing occupations” like teaching or nonprofit work, Stone said. Only one of the women she interviewed had returned to her former employer (in a “vastly different capacity, much diminished,” she said); and all have scaled down their ambitions. . . .

Many of the women I spoke with were troubled by the gender-role traditionalism that crept into their marriages once they gave up work, transforming them from being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning; a junior member of the household. . . .

The husbands hadn’t turned into ogres. Their intent was not to make their wives feel lesser. But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality. “The dynamic changes,” said Hope Adler, a former manager at the professional-services firm KPMG who spent 10 years at home full time with her four children before starting work again and choosing to take a much-lower-paying job at a smaller consulting firm that allowed her to work some of the time from home. “When I worked at KPMG we did 50/50. . . Then once I started staying home, I was doing laundry, dinner. . . .” But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,” she said.

…But 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.

Warner also found that fathers are seeking to find the balance that their wives are striving for, but the current economy may be hindering their efforts. 

Men, too, are feeling the crunch of excessively demanding work. They now report more work-life stress than women do, according to the Families and Work Institute. They also may be penalized more than women if they try to accommodate their work schedules to the needs of their children, as research appearing in the June issue of The Journal of Social Issues shows. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some husbands find themselves eyeing their wives’ lives at home with envy. “Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” Ted Mattox told me. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.”

To find time for that “something more,” husbands would need to join with their wives in rejecting nighttime networking sessions and 7 a.m. meetings. They would have to convey to employers that work-life accommodations like flexible hours or job sharing aren’t just for women and that part-time jobs need to provide proportional pay and benefits. At a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.



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