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The Opt-Out Revolution: A Boomer Perspective

As a "working mother" since the late 1980s, I've read - even written - countless stories over the years on challenges of trying to juggle kids and a career.

Working Mom

Media attention to the topic always kicks up a conversation: From the mommy track and the mommy wars to opting out and leaning in, these articles have all wrestled with the same basic question: Is it really possible for women to  "have it all" - or at least a manageable balance?

The latest installment in the saga is The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In by Judith Warner in this week's New York Times Magazine.  It's a 10-year look back at  The Opt-Out Revolution that ran in the same magazine in 2003. The original piece was about well-educated, high-achieving women who had walked away from promising careers to stay home and raise kids. I remember the passionate debate the article sparked among my working mom friends as we commuted home after a busy day to begin our second shift.  "Maybe if I'd married someone who earned as much as those husbands did, I'd opt out too," one lamented, though I'm not even sure she really meant that.  But we were very mindful of the fact that most women worked because their families needed the income.

Fast-forward 10 years to this week's article, which revisits some of these opt-outers to find how they're fared. Turns out, in the words of one of them, "It wasn't the perfect fairy-tale ending."

Divorce.  Imperfect marriages. Husbands with diminished earnings.  Difficulty reentering the workforce.  These are what the women who had embraced stay-at-home motherhood are dealing with now.  Still, none of them seems to have any overwhelming regrets.  Like all the articles on the topic, this one arrived at the same conclusion:  It's complicated!

For most boomer moms like me, the angst over the issue is all in the rearview mirror. The frazzled years are over, and I managed to raise two successful and well-adjusted kids while pretty much working full time. Maybe I didn't climb the career ladder as quickly as I might have if I didn't rush home every night to help with homework and get dinner on the table. But maybe I would have stalled for another reason, or I would have reached a higher rung and fallen off in the bad economy.  Who knows? Life is filled with maybes.

Point is, I have no regrets and the same goes for most of my peers who followed all sorts of paths: mothers who opted out, ones who took the mommy track, and moms who were leaning in long before the term reached the popular lexicon. In the end, we all seem to feel the same way: We've made choices and those choices had consequences.  Maybe none of them brought perfect fairy-tale endings but at least we had choices. And over the years we have come to respect and appreciate one another's - those cover stories about the mommy wars notwithstanding.

There's still a lot of unfinished business:  How do we make the workplace more family-friendly? (Though it's certainly better than in the early days of my career when moms had to fake illness to take a kid to the pediatrician.)  What can be done to better equalize the lifetime earnings of men and women? (From this vantage point, the gender imbalance in retirement income and Social Security seems like a major unsolved problem.) How do we shift the focus away from always being on the mothers and explore more deeply the role of the "working dads"?

Our daughters - and our sons - will grapple with these questions.  Because no doubt more articles like the latest one by Judith Warner will keep the conversation going.


Photo: Stegsie via Flickr


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