Not missing the point here

I have a piece today
in The Atlantic Sexes called “Keeping a Family Together Is Hard, Whether You ‘Opt Out’ or Not:What a New York Times magazine article gets wrong about women and work
in which I criticize Judith Warner’s New York Times piece from yesterday
following up on women who “opted-out” of the workforce ten years ago. Warner’s
piece
itself is a follow-up to Lisa Belkin’s 2003 piece for the NYT called “The
Opt-Out Revolution.”
(Got that? I feel like I need to draw a chart.)

In the 2003 piece,
Belkin interviewed high-powered, highly educated and connected women (mostly
white) who were deliberately deciding to step out of the workforce to stay home
with their children. Warner’s piece is an interview with three of them to find out
what has happened in their lives. You don’t need to read either of the first
two pieces, but you should read mine in The Atlantic. Then come back here for
the things that didn’t fit in that piece (word limit!) or were off topic.

Back? Good. My first
response to the Warner article was, “Oh, more from the NYT about the
super-rich. Cry me a river.” But the more I went into it the more I realized
that not only were they missing the point by only talking about these women,
but they were missing the real story (which these women are a part of but not
the focus): We are all eating a shit sandwich right now.

But let me
bullet-point all my criticisms so I don’t have to waste time writing
transitions. (I use the word “marriage” here but I’m using it as shorthand for
any romantic relationship that also provides a financial and family unit
structure.):

1. These women are
the super-wealthy, super-connected. One woman in the article, Sheilah O’Donnel,
was making $500K a year before she opted out. $500K. Warner goes all concern
troll that O’Donnel has only been able to make a fifth of that now when she
stepped back in (after a divorce, no less). Show me a woman who can go back
into the workforce at $100K after years as a SAHM who isn’t grateful and happy
for that. Show me a woman who, in 2013 after five years of layoffs and
furloughs and “we need to reduce your hours,” isn’t grateful and happy for
$100K even if she’s been in the workforce this whole time.

1a. I’m not really
going to go into the fact that O’Donnel was married to a man who gaslit her. He
was angry at her when she was working. He was angry at her when she was home.
He was angry at her when she took a part-time job. Then he blamed her taking
the part-time job for their split. Sir. O’Donnel played by the rules and ended
up with a husband who wasn’t worth it, and now she’s picking up the pieces.
Good for her. I hope she’s finding herself again and can relearn how to live
without the fear inherent in being with a gaslighter. But this has nothing to
do with her opting out. He’d have blamed her had she stayed in her job. (Hint:
If you’re making almost seven figures and you’re fighting about the laundry,
your relationship is in trouble and it’s not about individual choices.) Also, if this sounds familiar, it’s abuse. You don’t deserve it, and you can get out, and you can thrive. My email is on my About Me page.

2. Warner was gunning
for the women in her article. The second woman she talks about in the article
rose like an effing phoenix to go from a job she didn’t even like pre-kids
to raising $1.2 million and running her own non-profit and loving it. But still
Warner goes after her about marriage problems. I think that if you don’t want
to hang out with your husband when you’re home all day and you don’t want to
hang out with your husband when you’re working all the time, it’s pretty
obvious, and you make your piece with it or leave, and it’s your choice. But if
Warner’s piece is allegedly looking at career progress after an opt-out period,
then why is this woman’s marriage the factor Warner is judging her by? Related: If
anyone would like to send me some “seasonally appropriate” candy I would gladly
accept.

2a. I hope I’m not
the only one who was bothered by the fact that Warner spent so much time
talking about how the only Black woman in the article was hyper-aware of her
privilege in even being able to choose to opt out, but never indicates any kind
of self-awareness or acknowledgment of privilege from the white women. Were they
not aware of it, or does Warner simply not mention it because only the Black
woman should be aware of anything even vaguely race-related? I don’t know
exactly what it is, but it reminds me a lot of Gene Demby’s conversation on
Twitter the other day about being the only person of your race/sex/etc. in a
situation and how you have to represent in an unbalanced way.

3. It’s the economy,
stupid.
Everyone’s in trouble. Everyone. We are barely holding it together.
Even those of us with “great jobs,” who stayed in the entire time. Some of us
cannot afford to work because we can’t afford childcare. What do we do when we
can’t afford childcare?? A friend of mine had a
job (to which she had to wear pantyhose!), requiring two Master’s degrees, that
paid her so little that she qualified for (and gratefully took) food assistance
from the government. Those of us who are fully employed are still relying on a
cobbled-together system of spouses, families, friends, daycare providers, and
schools. No wonder we’re living in the fantasy world of Pinterest–day to day
life is too bleak.

4. Marriage is hard.
Even when you’ve chosen the right person. Even when you work really well as a
team. Especially when you’re both under pressure from jobs, lack of jobs, lack
of forward momentum, fear for your industry, expectations, and all the other
stuff. So much of what Warner talks about in the article was about being aware
of and able to keep your marriage together. The jobs and finances were just
compounding factors, not the cause of the problems, as she implies.

5. And, finally, once
again it’s all our fault. Women can’t win. You are making the wrong decision,
right now, even if you have no choice. And if you made the opposite decision
that would be wrong, too.

You are never going
to win in the NYT, but you always win here. Tell me what you’re thinking about
any of the articles, if they were all tl;dr, how this intersects or doesn’t
with your life? What do you want to see the media cover about people working
and having families?

 

 

26 thoughts on “Not missing the point here”

  1. I didn’t read the linked articles, but appreciate your summary here. I have a very specific answer to your last question, though, which I’ve been thinking about for over a year now (a year ago I had just given birth to my first, and I work full time): I really want to see the media cover (and sociologists etc. research) the complementary aspects of working and having a family, and this applies to women and men. More specifically, rather than obsessing over the fact that the choice of a woman to have kids and still work ultimately means challenges galore (with the underlying claim: thus if you choose that way you’re screwed in your profession), I’d like to see some research about how the competencies developed in parenthood are directly transferrable to the workplace, and how both (parenthood and work life) can be enriched because of this. I have yet to see that news story, and it’s the one I’d like to see because it’s my life. (This is my first comment here btw 🙂 )

  2. I had just read the NYT piece before seeing this. Without having read your piece, I will just say this: feminism may have changed the workplace, but it hasn’t changed men. There is just this expectation of inequality in the home, and there are no regulations against it like there are in the workplace. While a man may be able to talk about all of the virtues of his own mothers’ housekeeping, I think he may do it through a lens where he never considered how it felt to be his mother–whether she felt she had any other choices, or even how she felt about what her choices were or were not. It’s sad to think about a marriage hinging on housework. I suppose it only matters to those of use who can’t hire household help. Doing so is wonderful, because it makes the issue plain–it IS work,and it’s deserving of pay….just like childcare. FWIW I felt that all of the husbands in this article were laying responsibility for marital happiness on the wives, in their own ways. I didn’t see of them "leaning in" to make the marriage better for their wives beyond their paychecks.

  3. There was a great piece over at bluemilk the other day about the problem with extended-hour daycare and after-school programs. Well, not that there’s anything wrong with either of us, but that we’re (okay, not we because I live in the US where there is zero money going anywhere for families at all) putting money into children being in childcare for extended hours, which is essentially forcing all people with families to contort themselves around the demands of business, rather than giving families what they really want, which is flexibility. People are suffering, they feel desperation, and any account of opting out or leaning in or whatever that doesn’t take that into account is failing all of us.

    It continually astonishes me how hard it is to be middle class, and the struggles that we’ve faced have been tiny compared to what most working families go through. No wonder we all take so much medication! I don’t think it’s the economy, though; I think it’s the complete absence of a social safety net. My dad was in a near-fatal car accident recently, with medical bills that piled above a million dollars. We all know our insurance system is garbage, that hospital bills use fake math, there’s no help. (which is why people sue, which we might have been tempted to do, but the drunk driver who hit him had no money.) The system is insanity when you’re sitting there not knowing if your loved one will live or die and you’re crippled with terror because you think you might lose your house to the hospital.

    It was wonderful to see your intelligent article in a high profile place!

  4. I skimmed the 2 articles (due to having a toddler alternate between throwing crayons at me and asking "can we go to the park" over and over again).

    There was a fluff piece on this article on this morning’s Today Show, and I felt that it conveyed the message that being a SAHM is undervalued. Matt Lauer used terms like "these women ‘dropped out’ of the workforce" – but if they had, say, changed to full time study instead, no-one would ever say they "dropped out" of the workforce.

    And he asked "what would you tell an employer who is choosing between someone who has been out of the workforce for 10 years, and someone who has been gainfully employed?"…..now if the SAHM had instead been a nanny or childcare worker for 10 years, no one would ask that question. There’s an implication that SAHM don’t do anything that requires any skills.

    I’d like to see more constructive articles that describe how to transition back into paid work after being a SAHM. The ones I read tend to promote messages like "the women regretted their choices".

    On a side tangent, has anyone watched the "Up" documentaries? It’s a British documentary that filmed a group of 7 year olds, and films them every 7 years to get their take on life, love, family, work etc. I just watched "56 Up" – it really hit home to me how important family is.

    OK must sign out now, toddler has just pulled every single tissue from a tissue box….

    1. That’s a great insight about the employed childcare worker. I think the presumption is that only PAID work is of any value.

  5. I’ve made a conscious choice not to read the NYT article- I’ve got too much other disturbing stuff going on in my life right now, I can’t spare the emotional bandwidth. So I can’t critique it. I think you raise many good points, though.Thanks for taking this on.

    @Donna- an author named Laura Vanderkam with whom I am "blog friends" has written about the way competencies you practice due to parenthood help at work and vice versa. I don’t have time to dig up the link, but here is her website: http://lauravanderkam.com/ I don’t remember is she wrote on it there or in a commercial publication, though. I just remember her asking her audience for examples. I definitely agree there are some- I, for instance, firmly believe that anyone who can get more than one child out the door on time with regularity has the skills required to be a software release manager, and it is a good bet he or she would be a good project manager, too.

    @Erin- I am so sorry to hear about your father.

  6. Quote from one of the husbands: “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

    Wow. That guy must be some piece of work. I didn’t find that the article came across as agreeing with him, though, just as pointing out this kind of attitude as a factor contributing to the difficulties of opting back in. Granted this is an impression gathered from one quick read-through.

  7. The end of the article that really highlighted how reality-challenged this journalist is. Around page 7 she claimed that had they stayed in the work place they could have used their positions of power to create greater flexibility for all women. Yet a few pages before she described how many of these women opted out because… shock! The workplace wasn’t allowing them the flexibility they needed. In other words, had they stayed, they could have gotten what they wanted for everyone, even though they left because they couldn’t even get it for themselves.
    And we haven’t even touched on how opting out is compared to 12 years of finding yourself, while completely ignoring the challenge of raising children is in an age where children are considered nuisances instead of people, and the community in which to raise these children has fractured. For this writer, there is no inherent value other than economic value, and therefore there is no inherent value to raising children. Or to children themselves.
    We can do better as a society than define everyone by their economic utility.

  8. All these comments are so great… Mariah, your comment particularly resonated with me:
    "We can do better as a society than define everyone by their economic utility."

    YES!!! I am soo sick of American culture defining us all by the amount of money we make and our job titles. It is disgusting and dehumanizing. I don’t see any upside to it. At all. When we buy into this way of seeing ourselves (and I have to work with my thoughts daily to not buy into it) I believe we are driven by fears and insecurity and trying to placate the feeling of: "am I good enough".

    Magda, loved your article. I read the Warner article recently and was disheartened and saddened by it. She does a huge disservice to the complexity of what is happening in the economy, the challenges of parenting in 2013 and of being in a marriage relationship by simplifying things in a black and white way with: "bad mommy choices". Poleeeezze. Is this woman really a writer and thinker? Seriously? Scary.

    I am a mother with one child who has flexed in and out of the workforce with part-time to full-time to "no-time" ("unemployed") work the last 6 years, and am currently looking for work that aligns with my values and where I lead with my strengths. Parenting and being a mother taught me to respect myself. Nothing a job could have ever done. Is that worth money? Hell yeah. Am I "paying a price for it" by not having been on a hamster wheel in a full-time job or having… gasp… holes in my resume? Maybe… maybe not. Perhaps, life is a little too complex to ever have a definitive answer to that question. Maybe that question isn’t even the right one to ask?

    "Beyond the place of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there".
    quote by Rumi.

  9. People seem to be saying this in different ways so here’s my story…
    My wife had a brief stint as a SAHM, not by choice but due to a layoff.
    I remember correcting my wife for saying something that implied she wasn’t working.
    I don’t remember how she phrased it that made me chime in, but I do remember telling the kids that just because she isn’t traveling to a job site, or receiving a paycheck, what Mommy does as a SAHM is indeed real hard work. Comparing SAHM to a sitter/nanny etc, is like comparing a part-time employee to a CEO, so to call the choice to become a SAHM "dropping out" I find more than a bit egregious, and incendiary and frankly I had that impression that such a cheap stunt was beneath the Times.

  10. I recall being furious when I first read the Belkin article 10 years ago. It was smug and presumptuous that these women would blithely "on ramp" back to a job that was waiting for them. I recall my mother (married for 52 years) saying that these women should be careful, since the odds are that 50% of the group will ultimately divorce.

    What can I say? Mom was right. A lot of these women ended up divorced and they’re experiencing the fallout similar to what a lot of women went through in the 1970’s when the boomers had their "divorce epidemic."

    And yes, speaking as a media person, the former reporter profiled int Warner’s article is experiencing what a lot of us have been living with for 10 years, regardless of marriage or children. It’s the nature of the beast.

    As for the other women in Warner’s article, there are no easy answers; heck, there are no easy answers for any of us. It’s just life, and life ain’t fair.

    However, when I think back on that first article and how these women naively thought of themselves as "trailblazers of the new feminism," or some such claptrap, I’m reminded of the speech "The Solitude of Self" made by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. it’s long and eloquent, but I always sum it up in one simple sentence:

    If you don’t take care of yourself, darling, nobody else will."

    Link:
    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5315/

  11. Fascinating article Moxie, I loved it – both The Atlantic piece and your thoughts here. Ditto the comments, as always.

    My perspective on this whole topic is hugely personal since I’m a previously high achieving teacher who left the profession to be a SAHM, with a toddler and a baby due in 7 weeks, and we’re also in the UK, so there’s that. I’m mostly very tired of standard media discussions about ‘women and work’ and ‘women and children’. I made this comment on a fb thread recently too, that women are cast as cardboard cutouts, either martyrs who sacrifice everything for their children or narcissists who sacrifice their children for their careers. There’s no in-between, no sense of the many different shades of reality that we all occupy. With the notable exception of your good self, very few writers/publishers seem to be looking beyond these frankly lazy journalistic stereotypes and asking real women – and men, never the men! – about their choices and experiences, and certainly those with lower incomes are largely ignored – at least in the left-leaning media that I tend to consume, and all of that frustrates me, immensely. I ‘gave up’ my career because it was making me deeply unhappy – it coincided with having my daughter, true, as much because I got a full year’s maternity leave to make my mind up about it – but if I was enjoying my job still and if I felt it was still worth the immense amount of additional work, then I’d still be doing it. We are incredibly lucky that I inherited sufficient money to just about be able to pull off living on one modest salary, yet it is a daily struggle, much as it is for nearly everyone I know, whether they are working, studying, or looking after their children. As with so many things in motherhood, from birth choices to feeding to clothing, I feel like women are all too frequently treated as barely cognizant idiots. I’ve been called both ‘a wonderful mother’ and ‘a kept woman’ for my choice to stay home – neither of which are even remotely true.

    It also seems to me that such polarizing of women’s experiences totally ignores that many of us will be more than one thing during our lifetimes, many, many more – I may be a SAHM now but in five years that will be different, and in another twenty, different again. There seems to be very little space for such complexity in Warner’s argument. And to me that just indicates further that the experiences of real women are still being ignored by much of the media and still being wallpapered over in preference of simplistic, reductive cliches.

  12. What do I want to see the media cover? I want to see the media cover news, studies, real information, policy implications, etc. and not anecdotal stories about The Buzz-Generating Topic of the Week. Anecdotes are fun, but they should not be confused for meaningful data.

    Did anyone see the story that came out this week on research that shows that moms with a certain type of dopamine receptor tend to exhibit harsh parenting during stressful economic times and more sensitive parenting during good economic times compared to women with a different version of this receptor? That is fascinating and has major implications for public health and education. We have a government – we spend billions of dollars on research on things every year. Where is the accountability for that stuff? Who is using it? How is it making my life better? This is what I want to see.

  13. Just freaking once, I want to see a story that looks at how men juggle family/childcare responsibilities and work. I was initially encouraged by the NYT story a few weeks back that profiled a middle class WAHM — the logistics of her day, what it takes to make her life run — until I got all the way through and realized there was effing zero discussion of her husband’s responsibilities at home. Negotiating that stuff is difficult and stressful and so, so necessary. And I’ll say again, as you did, that it would be really lovely to read analysis of the structural economic, political and social forces that are putting so much pressure on families these days… something that acknowledges that these issues are not just faced by individual (middle class/upper middle class) (white) women.

    1. Michaela, you make a great point about how the media largely ignores the issue of men balancing work and family.

      Recently there was an article in Redbook about today’s modern, stressed-out dad trying to balance work and family.
      http://www.redbookmag.com/kids-family/advice/working-dad-stories

      The article profiles a couple of dads who are totally stressed-out, working 47 hours a week and staying up til all hours doing laundry and making kids’ lunches. My friend and I were discussing the article, and honestly it didn’t sound like any of the dads we knew. I think men today probably do more around the house than men of previous generations, but in all the families I know, it’s still the woman taking on the bulk of household/child responsibilities.

      I know that’s politically incorrect to admit. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read where either the author or commenters bend over backwards to tell you how great and helpful their husbands are, how if anything she is the lazier partner, how he does everything short of growing breasts and lactating.

      And I just don’t think that’s true in the majority of households. For whatever reason, I think women — regardless of their work situations — still take on more of the household duties themselves. As I always say, a lot of women don’t do more around the house because they’ve cut back on their paid work; they had to cut back on their paid work because they were doing more around the house.

  14. Our society has way too much fun scrutinizing, and puts way too much value, on the experiences of top earners/wealthy/celebrities. That’s why I don’t even read a lot of media, it’s just a lot of fluff/propaganda to me. I feel like there is this huge disconnect right now between the media and the "average" American. I know I can’t be the only one who is teetering on the edge of poverty, while having a full-time sit-down job, but no fancy gadgets whatsoever. I know I can’t be the only one who feels like all the commercials and supposed "sitcoms" that are supposed to be relate-able, just don’t feel that way at all. The 20 and 30 somethings of today’s tv shows are magically able to buy all of the latest fashions, trendy apartments, and fancy phones, and spend half their waking lives at their "local bar." It just doesn’t sit right. We need to stop studying and examining and idolizing privilege. Not only is it highly deceptive, but it is deeply demoralizing to those of us who aren’t keeping up with the Joneses (as if it’s a choice).

  15. 5 made me laugh out loud.

    I am so glad I have learned (okay, re-learned and very re-cently) to not pay attention to other people’s expectations.

    They don’t know.
    I know,

    Yay for us!

  16. There was definitely an undercurrent of Schadenfreude to the article and even more so in people’s reactions to it. As an exhausted working mother, my impulse was to take some comfort in the message that dropping out is problematic.

  17. Read a Salon article recently about what it looks like when Gen Xers have mid life crises. Can’t help but think about the juxtaposition of the Salon article and the state of these three women. Enjoyed your perspective on the subject.

  18. I didn’t feel quite so angry as you seem to be after reading the NYTimes article. It was irrelevant in that it was only about rich people and it missed the point that everyone looking for a job after a period of unemployment is having a very difficult time right now. But on the plus side, it got us talking.
    More than ever, work-life balance is difficult. People who left the workforce by choice or by force weren’t replaced. Those still employed simply had to work more. Those who left the workforce have a harder time finding a job, and those who are employed have a harder time achieving work-life balance. That’s the shit sandwich I perceive.
    I don’t even have a kid and I experience work-life balance problems as my company continuously tries to shrink my department without decreasing the workload. I am on a work call right now, on a day off, in fact! For better or worse, my profession employs a lot of part-time and per diem (no benefits!) positions, so I can hope to "balance" one of those jobs during my upcoming (hoped-for) prime SAHM years.
    My question – how do I push for workplace environments? I hear HR execs complaining when per diems who are routinely used 30+ hours a week ask for reclassification as part-time. The execs say "she just wants benefits and a regular schedule!" The execs overlook entirely that ‘she’ has earned them. They ignore me when I point out the reality…

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