Opted Out or Shut Out?

Ten years ago, Lisa Belkin wrote an article for the New York Times about a group of well-connected women educated at elite colleges and universities who had decided to step away from full-time corporate careers to focus on raising their children. These women were "opting-out" of the high-powered working world, despite their feminist upbringings, because their careers were incompatible with raising children and "having a life" outside of work.

In my sweat pants and with my small children hanging on my ankles, I related to this article. Some may ask why, since I had never held any kind of high-paying, high-profile corporate job. Nor had I wanted to. But I had wanted to raise my children myself. And like these career women, who were educated like me, I had found this desire to be involved in my children's upbringing in a very hands-on, "traditional" way surprising. So I related to them. They were my alter-egos. Much more successful than I, but of my generation, of my education level -- and reassuringly, of my way of thinking.

One of the points I took from Belkin's article ten years ago was that my generation of women was making up the script of their professional lives as they went along instead of slotting themselves into a male-dominated workforce. I was waiting to see what they would do when their children got older. Now I know, because Judith Warner recently followed up with them in her piece for the New York Times, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In."

The women Warner followed up with in the recent New York Times piece all had returned to work outside the home in some capacity. I was glad these women were returning to work. Opting back in sounded good. I, too, had discovered a return to professional focus in myself as my daughters grew more independent. Now seems like the right time to refocus on my profession, not only for me, but also to model for them how to navigate the world. So, I was glad to feel, once again, that even though I'm in no way on any kind of career track like the women interviewed for the article, I share a mindset with them.

I found it interesting that the original women Belkin interviewed, with whom Judith Warner followed up, had all returned to some kind of professional work, and had done so with relative ease, drawing on their connections. There were other women discussed in Warner's piece, however, who weren't part of that cohort, who are having a much harder time returning to employment. These other women are a little less connected, attended less prestigious schools, and also -- and perhaps crucially -- were less savvy about their stay-at-home volunteer work than Belkin's group.

So that was sobering. And reflective of my own difficulty finding consistent, quality work commensurate with my abilities. But I'm a different story, since I'm trying to switch careers, not return to a previously established one.

Another thing I noticed in Warner's piece is that none of the women returned to the same jobs they'd had before. Most of them work in totally different arenas. Most make less money. Most have at least somewhat less power. While these women profess satisfaction with their situations, I found them troubling.

Do I think they should have waltzed back into what they were doing before? No, of course not. I see the need to take a step down again to prove themselves again. But what are we to make of the reality that these women are working, many of them, in non-profits or start-ups? This reality is presented as their choice. "These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions."

What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the reality that, as Warner says, many women who return to work choose "more female-dominated, and far less lucrative, 'caring, nurturing' occupations like teaching or nonprofit work." I can't help thinking that they didn't want to go back to the same careers they had before because the reasons they left are still inherent in them. Those careers remain incompatible with a reasonably balanced life.

So that's a bummer. I mean, we women were going to (cliché phrase alert) break the glass ceiling and then remake policy to better suite an equitable society. Well, if all those women opted out before reshaping policy, and if now they are returning to work in different places because they need more flexibility and balance, then who is going to reshape policy and make that more equitable society?

This is the question begged silently by Warner's article. Stephen Marche addressed it in a pointed piece in the Atlantic about corporate America. In it he said that the system doesn't work for most people, male or female. But because it works for a few -- mostly men -- who control it, the system continues, without change. We live in a system that enriches the few, and stresses out and shucks out the many.

The good news is that now these issues are getting attention. I'm no genius, so I assume I'm not the only one asking if these women really had a choice when they "opted out," or if they were shut out. The script for them has so far been predictable. Women are still scarce in leadership positions, even though they are working at lower levels in the workforce in ever increasing numbers, while continuing to be paid less than men for the same jobs.

The positive result of these women's decision to opt out is that they have recognized the value of non-monetary aspects of life, such as cultivating human beings by raising them and by attending to their (our) need for sustenance other than the kind that can be bought. In public. Like Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg, they discuss openly the desire for balance, well-being, meaning. These things have come into the equation. However, more pressing and omnipresent for most people is that, as Marche says, "The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money."

Marche has some unfriendly words for what he calls "plutocratic feminists," by which he means Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. I say plutocratic is better than none. But I agree with him that "We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism."

What are we to do? My generation is still bogged down in the economic struggle of daily life. Thank goodness people like Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Maine, are ready to act again. In a talk she gave a few months ago, Kunin spoke about how after all the struggles for equality her generation undertook, she had felt she had done enough. Yet because the work remains undone, she is willing to stump for it again. She's out there trying to get support for what she calls the New Feminist Agenda. It's a three point agenda: 1. Equal pay for equal work. 2. Quality childcare for everyone. 3. Universal family leave.

I'm no historian, but I believe President Nixon almost passed this legislation. Now that my generation is ready to opt back in, let's hope we'll all opt to join Kunin and other like her who are taking up this failed policy once again. While the majority of leaders are still men, a few women are squirming their ways up. Maybe they're plutocrats. I don't care. Armed with a fuller understanding of the importance of child-rearing and balance, and shoved from below by the rest of us, they can do it. We can do it. It's time to opt back in to more than a career. It's time to opt back in to the struggle. It's time to get it done.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.