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?