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August 12, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

There’s a lot to dislike about Judith Warner’s piece in the New York Times entitled “The Opt-Out Generations Wants Back In. (New York Times, 8/7/13). It’s a solid nine pages of one highly-educated white woman examining the choice of other highly-educated white (with one exception) women to work for a living or not. It’s like chain smoking; Judith Warner fired up her piece off of Lisa Belkin’s earlier one.

Belkin, you may recall, penned an article in the early 2000s about women opting out of work to care for their kids. At the time, there was little effort made to inquire into whether the opt-out phenomenon was really very widespread or whether the decisions made by privileged elites made much difference to the other 95% of Americans. Unsurprisingly, Warner’s article suffers from the same malady. I know the decision to quit work to stay home with the kids on the part of a woman making $500,000 a year with a husband making more was important to her, but honestly, what can it mean to a waitress making $30,000?

If you want to know the answer to that question, don’t read Warner’s article. It doesn’t tell you or even admit that there’s a question. What it does do is ask women who quit work about 10 years ago to care for their children what their lives have been like since then, would they do it again, would they go back to their previous highly-paying careers, etc. As such, it, like Belkin’s piece, is most importantly a question to and about feminism. Feminists have always shouted that working for a living is women’s true calling. They’ve always questioned the maternal role as a snare set by men seeking to keep unwary women under their heavy patriarchal thumbs.

That of course is addressed solely to the type of women Belkin and Warner interviewed. Less affluent, less educated women know what the answer is to the question “to work or not to work?” It’s only women with high-earning husbands/partners who get to ask it at all.

And, if those who opt out of the workplace find the decision to their liking, then we must conclude that feminism, at least for them, is wrong.

So, the unstated but ever present issue for both Belkin’s and Warner’s women is the legitimacy of feminism for real, albeit privileged, women. For feminism, the results aren’t good.

[N]ot 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.

In short, for those with a husband to pay the bills – even those with the education, the intelligence and presumably the drive to make it – the corporate grind offered little. Now, of course the women Warner talked to were those who’d opted out. Surely women who remain in their high-end jobs would have different opinions. But the uncomfortable fact for feminism is that, in the U.S. there are at least 5.7 million stay-at-home mothers. That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and I say “at least” because the Bureau’s definition of “stay-at –home” mother is so restrictive, there are almost certainly millions more. That definition requires a woman to have not earned a penny in the past 12 months and to have caring for her own children as her major daily activity. How many more women would qualify for SAHM-hood but for a month or so of part-time work?

Speaking of husbands, Warner doesn’t, at least not much. Like every piece of this kind I’ve ever read, the concept of these women’s husbands rarely comes into play. Oh, they get a mention every now and then, but in nine pages of prose, one husband actually gets three paragraphs to express himself and one other a sentence in which he’s asked, not about himself, but about his wife. The simple fact that these women have opted out of the rat race due solely to their husband’s staying in it goes almost unmentioned. Warner interviewed 22 women each of whom must have had a husband or partner to pay the bills, but a grand total of two of those men actually get to speak for themselves. And one, Ted Mattox, is not too happy about his wife Kuae’s choice to abandon her responsibility for paying her share of the rent.

And Ted had kind of had it. Here he was, he said while coming and going from the kitchen where he was making French toast for the Mattox’s youngest child, earning the household income, helping drive the kids around, pitching in on laundry, housekeeping and cooking, while Kuae, in his eyes, was blithely giving her time away — free — to a volunteer organization. He’s a numbers guy, he said. From his perspective, the numbers pertaining to what he called her at-home “journey of self-discovery” just didn’t add up to be a very good deal for him or any husband whose nonearning wife still expects to split household drudgery 50-50…

[I]t seemed natural to him that Kuae, as a self-proclaimed stay-at-home mother, might want to try putting some more time into their home. Into things like “the shuttling of kids, the picking up the house, the laundry, the shopping.” Even, he ventured further, “balancing checkbooks, cleaning, setting up the home Wi-Fi, fixing an appliance or whatever.” A hoot of laughter from Kuae greeted the end of this task list.

He continued: “Being the kind of person I am, Type A, wound, always going after something, I wonder what I could have done, having 12 years to sort of think about what I want to do. I sometimes think, Wow, I could have been an astronaut in 12 years, or I could have been something different that I’d really enjoy and that I never was afforded the financial opportunity or the time or the resources to enjoy. Maybe call it jealousy. Maybe envy. What could I have been in 12 years of self-discovery? I’ll go out on a limb and say: ‘I’d like to try it. It looks pretty good to me.’ ”

I’ll bet it does. Who wouldn’t like to care for the kids part-time and spend the rest of your time “following your bliss” all on someone else’s nickel? But, having duly quoted Ted Mattox, nothing in Warner’s piece indicates she understands that the men paying the opt-out women’s way, or their opinions, matter.

As I said, there are well over 5.7 million stay-at-home mothers in the United States. That’s compared to about 180,000 stay-at-home dads. Apart from the occasional rich uncle, all of those mothers are being supported entirely by husbands/partners and, if the women Warner quotes are any indication, not one of them understands the privileged position that puts her in. Try listening to Ted Mattox. But if a single one of them does, they never say so.

Indeed, they say the opposite. I’m not talking about Kuae Mattox’s frank selfishness that allows her to do only half the domestic chores while earning none of the money. No, I’m talking about the notion that, as one of the interviewees described it “doing what you want to when you want to” while being supported by another person, constitutes second-class citizenship. Warner says these non-working women felt like “a junior member of the household.” One woman sniffed that she felt she was in an “unequal marriage.”

And of course she was. She was the privileged one; she was the one who got to decide whether to work or stay home; she was the one who, if she wanted to watch up-close as her children grew up, could do so ; she was the one who, if the corporate life rubbed her the wrong way, could simply opt out. By contrast, he was the one whose dedication, persistence and earnings allowed her those choices. She didn’t offer him that freedom, he offered it to her. Ted Mattox wouldn’t have minded having that option.

It turns out he’s not alone.  According to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a whopping 30% of men whose wives have opted out of working to pay their share of the family’s bills are either envious or angry about the fact. So men tend not to see foregoing work as second-class status and it’s hard to make the argument that women do either. After all, why would 5.7 million women opt for such a demeaning role, given the choice?

But neither Warner nor any of the women she interviews notices the fact. That type of myopia is a real problem with the approach taken by Warner and the many other commentators on women and work. As long as you mostly ignore the men who make those choices possible, you’re going to get a radically distorted view of the subject. And as long as you confine your inquiry to Columbia and Harvard-educated women, the same thing will happen.

Here’s an idea: the next time Judith Warner takes it into her head to write such an article, maybe she could consider asking a $30k-a-year waitress how she’d feel about being able to get off her feet, see her kids every day and be supported in luxury by a man. It’d be an interesting question, but one Warner will never think to ask and one her interviewees couldn’t possibly answer.

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