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The Retro Wife Opts Out: What Has Changed, And What Still Needs To

Until we find that new path, women (and men) who can afford to step off the existing path, will continue to do so. And we will have the cover story equivalent of "Groundhog Day" -- as each new cohort finds itself conflicted for the first time.
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This week, New York Magazine, in an article titled "The Retro Wife," reports that women are choosing to leave the workplace to care for children. "Young, educated, married mothers find themselves not uninterested in the metaconversation about 'having it all'," Lisa Miller writes, "but untouched by it."

Ten years ago, I wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine titled "The Opt-Out Revolution," and reported exactly the same thing. "The scene could be the 1950s, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have MBAs," I wrote of educated women who'd chosen children over career. "Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to."

In the decade between the two articles, the reasons for upper-middle-class women's choices about work and motherhood have been debated, studied, lamented and heralded. The trend was given different names -- economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett coined "On-Ramps and Off-Ramps"; legal scholar Joan Williams described it as "hitting the maternal wall"; author Leslie Bennetts warned it was "The Feminine Mistake"; now Sheryl Sandberg talks about "Leaning In" and, to a lesser extent, "Leaning Back." Technology advanced, providing new tools that allow telecommuting and flexible schedules. Employers embraced new paradigms, also with catchy names, like "Results Only Work Environment," "The Corporate Lattice," "Back in Business" and "MomCorps."

All this was supposed to remedy the work/life equation for women so that they would stay in the workforce, and succeed. And yet, how much has actually changed? After 10 years of talking and hand-wringing is a subset of women --the one we thought would, by now, have staked their claim to leadership in business and government -- still making exactly the same choices? If so, why? And how do we change that?

Some data (none of it, incidentally, to be found in the NY Mag article, which is made up mostly of one long anecdote about former social worker Kelly Makino) suggest that women are still pausing in their careers. Shortly after my opt-out piece appeared, Hewlett conducted a study that found about 31 percent of working mothers were leaving the workplace (for an average of 2.2 years), most often precipitated by the birth of their second child. Today, Hewlett told me during a recent interview, that percentage is essentially the same. Even with a bruising recession that you'd think would have made it less likely for anyone to walk away from a paycheck.

But while that rate of exit, and even the reasons for leaving, may be the same, the context is different.

Mothers who choose to leave the workplace today do so with more information than they did in 2003. Women educated during the '80s and early '90s -- the women that "Opt-Out Revolution" was about -- never talked about limits and constraints in their college dorm rooms, they only talked of achievement. As Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift (published in 1989, a look at the added job working women took on every night when they came home), described it when we spoke recently, undergraduate women at Berkeley in the 1980s were "bright, bright dragon-slayer kids" who "didn't have a clue" of the trade-offs to come.

Now, Hochschild and I, and others like us, spend a lot of time talking on campuses to groups of young women who invite us because they do talk about life and work. The students have heard Hewlett's warnings that women lose 18 percent of their earning power over a lifetime by leaving the workforce for two years. Not yet 21, and they have devoured Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic essay, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," about how she could not sustain her high-powered job working for Hillary Clinton's State Department while raising two teenagers. And these young women have met, in life or through media, Gen X and Boomer wives whose plans were upended by the death of a spouse or a messy divorce and who regretted years of dependence.

Also different now are men and relationships. Millenials, who are college students, new graduates and young parents, are defined by their emphasis on equality. In one study that Miller does cite, the Families and Work Institute found that 75 percent of this generation (those born roughly between 1981 and 2000) believe they will create life partnerships that do not follow traditional gender norms. Miller dismisses this as idealism that will be tamped and tempered by real life, and she may be right, but even if they do not live exactly as they plan, the fact that millennials begin with different expectations has already transformed the work/life conversation. A study by the Pew Research Center released last week is the latest of several to find that the gap between what men and women do at home is closing (though it's definitely not closed -- women still do twice as much housework as men, compared with eight times more 50 years ago) and that today's fathers are more conflicted than mothers about whether they're doing all they should as parents (probably because women have had a head start on figuring this out and men are nearer to the beginning in redefining their roles).

The third changed variable in the work/life equation is the workplace. The overwhelming trend for companies is toward allowing workers more control over where, when and how they work (recent controversial decisions by Yahoo! and Best Buy to curb flexibility notwithstanding). Eighty percent of the professional women surveyed by Accenture in a report also released last week said a flexible schedule was important or very important, with 58 percent saying it was the most important factor in their job choice, compared with 45 percent who said money was their top criterion. Businesses have been providing more flexibility in direct response to the trend of women opting out, on the realization that retention makes economic sense.

It's interesting that Miller spends almost no time discussing the constraints and frustrations of Kelly Makino's workplace. There is one mention of a frustrating day when Makino's need to be home for her children collided with the needs of one of her clients, a 12-year-old rape victim. ("Kelly attended to the girl and alerted the school authorities," Miller writes; "after she got home, she put her own kids to bed and then was on the phone making a report to protective services until midnight.") Miller chooses to describe Makino's decision to quit her job as an almost spiritual one, motivated by the belief that women are just plain better at parenting than men. ("Women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully," she tells Miller.) But beyond this sample size of one, most women who leave the workforce are pushed more than pulled.

"Working mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and are offered an average of $11,000 less," said Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at the Hastings College of Law and author of a paper called "Opt-Out or Pushed Out?" What feels like a choice is made in a context, she said, and while women might feel they are "choosing" what is best for them and their families, they are limited to the available options.

"If you have lots of career-development opportunities, and you have a real prospect of getting promoted, you feel that you are on track and surging forward and have the respect of your colleagues and control over your work, then you are much more likely to not be tempted to take time off with that second child," says Hewlett. "You figure it out. If on the other hand, you get passed over for a promotion, or it's made clear to you that you are marginalized, or you are working all the time for no appreciation, then your 2-year-old looks a lot more appealing."

Looking back over 10 years and a lot of reporting, I have come to see my mistake when writing "The Opt-Out Revolution." I confused being pulled toward home with being pushed away from work. True, I spent a lot of time describing the way that Sally Sears, a local Atlanta TV anchor, was refused flexibility when she asked for it, and how Katherine Brokaw, a young lawyer, left her partner-track job at a law firm after working 15-hour-days, seven days a week, while still nursing her 4-month-old. I did not fully understand, though, that what looked like a choice was not really what these women wanted most. Had their workplaces been ones that adapted to a world in which workers no longer have other halves (read: wives) focusing on home so that they can focus on the job, and where technology could be used to free employees from their desks physically rather than tethering them metaphorically, and where the "ideal worker" was understood to have priorities outside of the office -- in other words, if they'd had a third path -- they might well have taken it.

Sears is back in TV work -- part-time -- now that her son is older. Brokaw is the Dean of Students at Emory Law School. But while they both successfully re-entered the workforce (not all women in the piece did; they asked not to be named in this article) the past 10 years have hardly erased the work/life conflict for most women. I would argue that most of this new flexibility and vowing of equality are mere window-dressing when what's required is a complete overhaul of the workplace. Williams would too. She told me that while corporate lip-service to workers' needs may have changed, society's definitions have not. The "perfect mother," she says, is still "someone who is always available to her children," and the "perfect worker" is "someone who is always available to work. They are both flawed ideals, but anyone who doesn't live up to it is going to be stigmatized."

Hochshield said she has reason to hope that the ideal itself is changing. "We need not just to demand equality," she told me, "but to ask 'equality to what?' Do we want to be workaholics, and work equal 10-hour days, and have thin, drained-out personal lives? I think not."

Until we find that new path, women -- and men, it's important to note -- who can afford to step off the existing path will continue to do so.

And we will have the magazine cover story equivalent of "Groundhog Day," as each cohort finds itself conflicted for the first time.

"Every generation discovers it for themselves -- each of us discovers it at different times and you aren't ready to hear it until it resonates with you," Anne-Marie Slaughter told me recently of how there seems to be a "women are choosing to leave!" media storm every few years. "We are chiseling away," she said.

But we need better tools and bigger change if we want to move beyond the old, recycled, insufficient, "retro" possibilities.


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