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Opting Out of the Choice Myths

Last week, Judith Warner’s column “The Choice Myth,” presented one of the best overviews of the issue of women opting out that I’ve read since Lisa Belkin first introduced the concept in the New York Times in 2003.

In the column, Warner brings up the following points dispelling some of the “myths” about women who choose to opt out:

1. A recent study showed that most women who “opt out” are not over-privileged, but instead low income, uneducated, foreign, and for whom the cost of childcare makes it impossible for them to work.

2. In 2005, the Motherhood Project at the Institute for American Values surveyed more than 2,000 women and published a report that said most mothers, given free choice in an ideal world, would choose to be employee—provided their employment didn’t impinge excessively on their time with their kids. In other words, the more choices mothers have, the more likely they are to work.

3. Other than the lowest-income women, the only other group opting out are the very richest. While this is true, Warner puts this in a different perspective:

In 2007, the sociologists David Cotter, Paula England and Joan Hermsen looked carefully at four decades of employment data and found that women with choices—those with college educations—were overwhelmingly choosing to stay in the work force. The only women “opting out” in any significant numbers were the very richest—those with husbands earning more than $125,000 a year—and the very poorest—those with husbands earning less than $23,400 a year.

You might say that the movement of the richest women out of the workforce proves that women will, in the best of all possible worlds, go home. But these women often have husbands who, in order to earn those top salaries, work seventy or eighty hours a week and travel extensively; someone has to be home. Many left high-powered careers that made similar demands on their time. They are privileged, it’s true, but very often they have also been cornered by the all-or-nothing non-choices of our workplaces.

These are all great points. But, there’s another twist I’d like to add to the last one:

The Problem with Uber-Employees
Women (and some men) who opt out for child or elder care have consequently created a species of “uber-employees.” Uber-employees can fly around the world on a company’s whim, never miss a day of work for a sick child or a plumber, and entertain clients any night of the week. How can an employee who actually has to deal with these “inconveniences” brought on by both child and elder care compete with an uber-employee? To be honest, even a single person without child/elderly care responsibilities can’t always compete with an uber-employee who has someone to take his or her car to the shop or even wait for a plumber. This may be why all those studies show that married men with a stay-at-home spouse have the biggest advantage at work (and are the happiest)—they have no responsibilities other than to show up and work. 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Two uber-employee parents with outsourced childcare? That doesn’t sound too good for the kids. And what about single parents? Many of them, esp. the single by choice mothers, don’t have an “other” to even have the “who should be flexible” discussion.

How about taking turns being the uber-employee? I’ve always thought it was progress that young couples were now discussing “whose career goes first?” This sounds like a great idea on paper … unless the husband goes first. In pre-recession days, husbands usually ended up on the fast-track as an uber-employee so that when it came time to make a switch, it was difficult to step off and let the wife have her turn because that usually means a steep cut in the family’s income.

What can we do?
It seems that the perfect formula would be flexible employment for all affordable childcare. Unfortunately, these are not choices available to most people; and it’s a choice that’s in the hands of corporations and the government.

Nevertheless, there is hope—by 2012, some experts claim that more people will be working from home than in an office. This, combined with a recession where some of the uber-employees have been phased out of the workforce (possibly for good), could mean some changes are in store. At least I’d like to think so. But, wouldn’t it be great if all moms and dads (working out of the home or not) got together and solved the child care/flexible employment issue that the corporations and governments couldn’t?! Perhaps when more people are working from home, they can help create their own “village” for their children.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the closing paragraph of Warner’s column.

When mothers can choose, they choose self-empowerment. Because they know that there is no true difference between their advancement and the advancement of their children. Why do we so enduringly deny them the dignity of choice?