The "Opt-Out Revolution" Is A Myth

Media outlets, and in particular the New York Times, have frequently suggested that mothers – and in particular, well-off, well-educated mothers in their 30s – have been more and more frequently “opting out” of jobs and careers in order to become full-time homemakers. Linda Hirshman recently declared in The American Prospect that “among the affluent-educated-married population, women are letting their careers slide to tend the home fires.”

All of these articles were based on a mixture of anecdotes, bad data, and quasi-relevant data. The most relevant data – the labor force participation rates of women with and without children – is collected by the federal government, but hasn’t been looked at in these articles. Economist Heather Boushey has put together the data and published the unsurprising truth: women with children are not more likely to opt out nowadays than in previous decades. In fact, the “child penalty’ to the likelihood of women working has been in steady decline for years.

Labor Force Participation Rates by Motherhood

The above image, simplified and adapted from Boushey’s analysis, gets the central point across. Although all women have been less likely to be working in recent years (due to the job market’s slow recovery from the last recession), the labor force participation rate (LFPR) of women with children hasn’t gone down any faster than the LFPR for women in general. And although it’s true that mothers are less likely to work than non-mothers, that difference has become smaller over the years – just the opposite of what “opt-out revolution” articles claim.

How about those highly-educated thirtysomething moms the media has been so focused on (even though such moms are only 3.2% of all U.S. moms)? According to Boushey, these folks are the most likely to work of all American mothers; and, contrary to media claims, their LFPR has been steady or rising, not dropping.

(However, Boushey also made the interesting finding that among women who don’t work, highly-educated thirtysomething women are especially likely to have children at home. Part of the reason for this is that women with more education are more likely to have put off having children until their thirties. Another reason may be that for women with really good job prospects, nothing short of children at home is enough to convince them to “opt out.”)

I wonder if the media will give the empirical evidence the same coverage they gave the opt-out myth? I won’t hold my breath. Boushey’s full report can be read here.

UPDATE: The New York Times business section has a decent story on it.

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63 Responses to The "Opt-Out Revolution" Is A Myth

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  4. 4
    nobody.really says:

    National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” reported on this study today.

  5. 5
    Donna says:

    Alter.net posted a great (but long) article addressing this issue as well:

    America’s Stay-At-Home Feminists

  6. 6
    Mendy says:

    Linda Hirshman makes marriage sound like strictly a buisness merger. I for one am glad that everyone doesn’t take her advice on carreer selection or we would have no educators, no nurses, no police, and most certainly no EMS. She seems shocked that not everyone in the world values money, status, and power to the same degree as she does.

    I’m going into the sciences, and I don’t expect to get rich in my chosen career. To me my happiness and fulfillment is more important than the end of the year salary amount. However, I live in a balanced household where my husband does an equal share of what everyone describes as the “unrewarding domestic drudgery”. Though, personally I don’t find child rearing to be very boring or so distasteful.

    Is choice such a bad thing? If women only have the choice of Ms. Hirshman’s path how is that better than what we had before (not in an economic sense)?

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    Alter.net posted a great (but long) article addressing this issue as well

    Far from being great, that’s one of the articles I’m objecting to – lots of steam, very little worthwhile empirical evidence. Unlike the article, I’m not convinced that pursuing a strategy of trying to increase women’s (and men’s) choices has failed.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    I wonder if the LFPR accurately shows some changes in a mother’s work pattern, though.

    As a f’rinstance, what if a woman works as a lawyer in a high-powered practice, clocking 70 hours a week plus commute. Then she has a baby, and she goes home with the baby, but instead of going back to the office, she starts a home practice, doing 20 hours a week of legal consulting for her old firm from home (no meetings, no office work), and another 20 hours a week on a casual basis starting a marketing consulting firm for law firms. She’s working 40 hours, only now its in a way that she can still schedule in being a primary caregiver for her infant – she puts down the case file when baby needs to eat, she reschedules her marketing phone calls for times when baby has gone down for a nap, and so on.

    In terms of LFPR, nothing has changed – she was in it fulltime, she’s still in it fulltime, the graph doesn’t move. But in terms of her professional priorities, she’s made a huge change. She’s home all day. She gets up with her baby, puts her baby to bed, etc. The baby is the focus of her life, for a couple of years anyway, with work as an enjoyable sideline, filled in around baby-tending.

    This scenario fits in very well with the “back to the nursery” articles the press has run, but it wouldn’t show up in the statistics.

    (Me, I really don’t know the truth of the matter. My wife works from home and hasn’t worked outside the home since adolescence. Our circle of friends are mainly older folks whose kids are past the wanting-mommy-home stage.)

  9. 9
    Donna says:

    I liked the article a lot (obviously). I agree with her ideas on choice. I think many women use the security of “choice” to defend their decisions to revert back to stereotypical/traditional female roles of mother and wife. While I do believe that women are perfectly capable of making their own decisions without being conflicted by societal notions of femaleness (at least I should hope so being that I am female), I also think the idea of “choice” is sometimes a cop-out of the truth. I have nothing against women choosing to be stay-at-home mothers and wives, but what does bother me is how the word “choice” gets thrown around so easily without realizing that even “choice” has implications. One of my favourite Canadian feminist writers, Leah Rumack, said in an article she wrote:

    Choice … is a dangerous word. Can a woman really have choice when totally immersed in a patriarchal culture that defines, among other things, the parameter of the question? If I choose to wear makeup and submit my body to Hair Management 101 does that mean I’m choosing to give in?

    I think Rumack and Hirschman make good points about choice. The only thing I would object to about Hirschman is her attitude towards women’s choice of careers. I think women can lead fulfilling lives employed at Walmart, if that is what they enjoy. Just because there aren’t a lot of female CEOs doesn’t necessarily mean that every woman should go out and become one.

    Actually, there are two things. I also object to her critique of domestic life. Her view of families was “repetitious” and “socially invisible.” She marginalizes families in that way and perpetuates the notion that domesticity (motherhood and wifery) is unimportant and inferior in comparison to having a career and leading a public life. Such a belief really doesn’t solve anything and reverts us back to a problem that women have had for centuries: the devaluation of “women’s work.”

    Those are really the only two criticisms I have of the article.

  10. 10
    Mendy says:

    This is one area where I would call myself a moderate. I don’t see anything inherently anti-feminist with a woman deciding to stay home and raise her children. Nor do I see anything wrong with a woman that decides to work full time and have children.

    Choices are what open the world up for us, not the means of stifling us. It is liberating that I do not have to choose between college and career or marriage and motherhood, but I can have both and meld them together in a way that works for my life.

    That’s why I think choice is important. Not just choice in public life but also the choice to be domestic without the fear of needing to defend your decision to others.

    I’m curious if anyone has any ideas on how to elevate the domestic job of child rearing to the level of being something positive and worthwhile. It seems a bit counter intuitive to me because we obviously need the next generation if the species is going to survive.

  11. 11
    silverside says:

    My biggest concern is not whether a “signficant” number of women decide to “opt out.” I’m far more concerned that “opting out” will suddenly become a cultural ideal that will be increasingly used to beat up on moms (sort of like the idea that you should have abs like Britney Spears 4 weeks after giving birth). In other words, the experiences and lives that most of us cannot have, at least without great difficulty, will be used to increasingly attack the rest of us as “bad moms” who made “bad choices.”
    I find it amazing that working moms are everywhere, and yet you can go into a family court in my county and get smeared for being a mom who works outside the home, whether you wanted to or not. The fact that most moms in this county, even with young children, do work, doesn’t even register. All because this ideal has been set up that few people can achieve, but you will still be held to it.

  12. 12
    Robert says:

    I find it amazing that working moms are everywhere, and yet you can go into a family court in my county and get smeared for being a mom who works outside the home, whether you wanted to or not.

    Smeared? Or simply held to the same standard as a man?

    When there is a custody battle, the family courts look at who works outside the home and how much as part of the effort to determine which parent has historically provided the most child care.

    Obviously, working outside the home is not the be-all and end-all of the question “whose taking care of these children most of the time”, but equally obviously, it’s material. If mom and dad are both claiming to be the primary caregiver, and mom works 20 hours as a part-time receptionist while dad is pulling 80 hour shifts at Microsoft, well, obviously Dad is full of shit.

    Evaluating the working patterns of a family may make someone feel “smeared”, particularly if they have personally bought into some story about family structure and the way things ought to be, but that’s then a statement about that individual’s emotional composition, not about the court’s wicked motivations in questioning a mother’s commitment to her kids.

  13. Other studies support the one Ampersand discusses. In other words, these new puff stories are exactly that: puff. A way of increasing circulation because everybody gets upset about this stuff.

    A recent economic study notes that married women’s labor market participation rates now respond a lot like married men’s rates. This means that women no longer act like secondary earners in the family.

    Link:
    NBER Study

  14. And OT, but does anybody know why I get an empty page recently when I try to download pdf files?

  15. 15
    Linda Hirshman says:

    HEY WAIT A MINUTE!
    You can’t tag this Boushey business on me. Try it out on the New York Times’ Opt Out Queen Lisa Belkin if you’re looking for a target.
    Here’s why:
    1. One woman’s laborer is another woman’s part time opt out. Let’s start with the most obvious issue: what is labor force participation? Boushey says “Nearly three-quarters (73.2 percent) of highly-educated women in their thirties with a young child at home are in the labor force, controlling for other demographic characteristics and cyclical effects. Nearly eight-out-of-ten women with a graduate degree who have a child under age 18 at home are in the labor force, a rate higher than for all other educational groups in this age range.” As she states, she starts with census numbers. I know these census numbers. Census numbers are friends of mine. What she never tells you is that CENSUS NUMBERS ARE FOR PART TIME WORK, AS WELL AS FULL TIME WORK. Read my lips, er, article. According to the census, 64% of mothers with graduate degrees and infants are working (Boushey’s higher 73% is probably a slightly different age slice) , but only 46% of all mothers with graduate degrees and infants are working full time. 17% are working part time. Women with older children? Again, a big number altogether (77%)(Boushey says “nearly eight out of ten”) but only 59% full time.
    For purposes of my analysis of social power, part time work is not full time work. Never was and never will be. Boushey is entitled to collapse all those part time women into her study as much as she likes, but she ain’t debunkin’ me with them part timers.

    2. As to my spoiled elites, Boushey and I are pretty much in agreement. I said explicitly that I was looking at highly educated thirty something mothers, because they have options, create a regime effect, and are the candidates for positions of social dominance. I’m a political philosopher and I’m interested in power.
    Boushey says “highly educated, thirty-something mothers . . . [are] advantaged compared to other prime-age mothers in terms of not only educational attainment and earnings potential, but they are more likely to be married (91.2 percent versus 78.3 percent of all mothers aged
    25 to 44) and are highly likely to have a spouse who also has very high earnings potential. Further, they are more likely to be in the kinds of jobs that provide the benefits and workplace flexibility that makes work/family balance not entirely an oxymoron.”
    RIGHT!!That is why I am interested in them: they have choices that we can evaluate. They do not work to eat.

    I said “college educated mothers work more than others.”
    Boushey says “Not only are highly-educated, thirty-something women with children at home a relatively small share of the population, but, compared to other educational groups, they are also more likely to be in the labor force if they have children.”

    I said “economists . . . contend that more mothers are working or that the falloff in women without children was similar [to the mothers]. However, even if there wasn’t a falloff but just a levelling off, this represents . . .a loss of hope for the future.”
    Boushey said there was a reduction in the ‘child penalty’ for groups I did not write about but for the women I did write about the child penalty did not improve. “for women in their thirties with professional or advanced degrees . . . there is no statistically significant change over time.” I said “levelling off” so I don’t need it to be statistically significant. But according to Boushey’s own analysis, insofar as it changed, the child penalty for my demographic — thirtysomething high achievers still went up (the only group where it did go up) since 1993, notably from .6 to 2.5 between 2000 and 2004.

    3. Boushey found more stuff to support my argument. She says
    “However, it is also the case that the majority of highly-educated, thirty-something women who are not at work have children at home. In short, the overwhelming majority of thirty-something women with advanced
    degrees do not opt out if they have kids, but if they do opt out, they have kids. This is less the case for other women, making this group truly exceptional.” She seems not to have interviewed anyone but speculates that “the group of highly-educated women is so attached to the labor force that, for most of them, having a child may be the only reason not to work.” My interviewees were mostly dabbling, but they were so expensively and elaborately educated that even their junior level jobs were pretty nice.

    Conversely, “if working . . . highly-educated thirty-something women are less likely than other women to have children at home. Among those in the labor force, three-quarters (76.2 percent) of women without a high-school degree have a child at home, while only six-out-of ten (57.7 percent) women with a graduate degree have a child at home.

    I said the gender ideology of female housekeeping has a chilling effect on women’s ability to rise especially to rulership. Children, high status work. Take your “choice.” Just don’t call it choice.

  16. 16
    Sean says:

    The ‘liberal’ media loves to do these stories that make it appear far more americans are upper middle class or rich than the reality. I don’t have any statistical information to back this up, but just from consuming quite a bit of media over the last decade I have to say this is something I’ve observed.

  17. 17
    Broce says:

    In no way would I define being a stay at home parent as “anti-feminist.” I would, however, through personal experience and observation, define it as a generally unwise choice.

    While you’re at home, you are not building Social Security credits. Generally, you are not keeping your skills up to date. You are putting yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position, financially. I would advise any parent choosing to stay home to work out some sort of financial arrangement with their spouse which recognizes the worth of the work being done at home. That doesn’t balance the risk, but it at least gives the stay at home parent a nest egg to fall back on for retraining or survival in the event of a divorce or sudden death of a spouse.

    No one wants to “plan” for a divorce, and even then, no one wants to think a loving spouse can turn vindictive and unwilling to support his or her kids…but considering the number of marriages which end up that way, I think it’s foolish not to at least be aware that it *can* happen, and not to have *some* contingency option.

  18. 18
    mythago says:

    I wonder if the LFPR accurately shows some changes in a mother’s work pattern, though.

    Different issue. The stories Amp is addressing are not claiming that women are cutting back slightly or are going to part-time jobs, but praising women who Drop Out Of The Rat Race and become full-time-at-home parents. Lawyers whose firms let them do part-time consulting are probably not enough to skew the data significantly.

    the choice to be domestic without the fear of needing to defend your decision to others

    Do you never wonder why this is a choice only women are supposed to consider?

  19. 19
    Mendy says:

    Do you never wonder why this is a choice only women are supposed to consider?

    While it is true that more mothers make this choice, I have personally witnessed the stigma placed on those men that do decide to take time out and stay at home and be homemakers and caretakers.

    As a woman, if I decided tomorrow that I’ve had enough of working 12 hours per day, physical damage to my body, and trying to be everything to everyone then I can quit and no one would blink an eye at my decision. Let my husband make the same choice, and he will be defending himself against men and women alike.

    I believe that the option to stay home with kids should be equal to both parents. I just know that when I was a stay at home mom (many years ago) that most of the flak I took for not working was from other women. And yes that in itself contains elements of sexism, but the point I’m making is that women need to validate the decisions and choices made by other women even if they aren’t our choices.

    I said explicitly that I was looking at highly educated thirty something mothers, because they have options, create a regime effect, and are the candidates for positions of social dominance.

    And yet this group of highly educated, wealthy thirty-something women are the minority in terms of what women face on a daily basis. The fact is that most women in this country and virtually all women around the world do “work to eat”. To me this says less about the success or failure of feminism and more the American materialism and elitist thinking.

    Mythago,

    Another choice would be to have the working spouse fund a separate retirement investment account for their non-compensated spouse. This provides a nest-egg in the event of divorce. My understanding of the specifics are hazy about the particulars. As for planning for untimely death, then my best advice is to ensure that both partners are fully insured and that beneficiary listings are current.

    In my experience, most couples wouldn’t be able to afford to pay in to social security for the uncompensated spouse without creating significant additional burdens to the whole family. But then again most of the people that I know actually do “work to eat”.

  20. 20
    B says:

    So every fourth woman in the US is without a job? I never would have guessed at such a high figure. How relevant is access to childcare and care for the eldery in this? Is this still seen as the woman’s job?

    I can’t but help to think on the impact this whole-sale economic dependency on men must have on the entire struggle for equality in the US. Not to talk about how this situation of dependence effects politics.

  21. 21
    Laura says:

    Spoiled elites? Yeah, I suppose if you go trolling for them in them in the marriage listings in the Times, you’ll find what you are looking for — traditional dropouts. Lots of well educated, middle class women face all sorts of obstacles in finding full time work when the kids are young, but plan on returning in the future. Also, lots of well educated, middle class women have no interest in becoming corporate wage slaves. Hell, a lot of women (and men) find raising their kids rewarding work.

    We have to allow that women (men) have different preferences. We have to find solutions, rather than blaming the victims. We can’t sacrifice other liberal ideals in the name of gender equality.

  22. 22
    silverside says:

    Well, no. The attitudes of the public and the courts are not anti-working “parent.” They are anti-working mother. The hostility I faced was clearly related to the fact that I am a mother, not a “parent” per se.

    That’s why there are a growing number of working mothers losing custody to working fathers, who are able to argue that their new unemployed/underemployed sweety can raise the kid better than the mom can. Hence, the primary caretaker is not the mother or the father, but a stranger. But somehow this non-working stranger is better than a working mother. That does reflect a deep-seated bias against working mothers, especially when single mothers have no choice but to work.

    And no, I don’t think there is any hostility against “stay-at-home” fathers. Au contraire. They are quite the rage these days, frequently featured in all the more liberal and trendy publications like our friend, the New York Times. What’s more, there is no particular distinction between true stay-at-home parents who take on all the responsbilities of the homefront, vs. chronic unemployed types, who do nothing either at home or in the workplace, but in fact leave everything to the parent in the workplace. Unfortunately, there are quite a few men who still believe that housework and child care are beneath them. Unfortunately, some of these same men also believe that paying work outside the home is beneath them as well. And in fact, most families aren’t so much actively “choosing” to have father stay home, as have it thrust upon them through disability or layoffs or unemployment. If it were truly a progressive thing, then you’d see lots of middle-class white families choosing this option. In fact, the biggest concentration of “stay-at-home” dads is among low-income minority men who are unemployed (for whatever reason).

  23. 23
    Q Grrl says:

    I’m interested in why women working part-time from home is not a relevant statistic to enter into the equation when defining “career”. The majority of professional men that I have met and worked for (mostly in the medical ethics field) fail to work, in the traditionally defined sense, more than 20-30 hours per week. A great deal of their time is spent traveling and attending conferences, all of which is billable time, but which is also, if one is honest, comparable “work time” for which women are being socially stigmatized when they have a baby on their hip. The productivity of professional men, if scrutinized for actual hands-on work and in-office work, is minimal. A great deal of what they “do” is done by assistants and associates (most of them women) but for which they garner statistical weight. In fact, I would wager that by the time a man is in full career swing, the actual work that he does has decreased to the least common denominator: he presents to his office staff and delegates.

  24. 24
    mythago says:

    most couples wouldn’t be able to afford to pay in to social security for the uncompensated spouse without creating significant additional burdens to the whole family

    You have it backward–you think that a couple can’t afford to pay into Social Security, a mandatory tax, but could afford to set up an IRA for the at-home spouse?

    And no, I don’t think there is any hostility against “stay-at-home” fathers.

    Sure there is–from other men. Whatever the NYT may think of it in their articles about people for whom holding jobs is optional, employers don’t think much of men who give priority to women’s work like childrearing.

    We have to allow that women (men) have different preferences

    Which are made in a vacuum, with no economic or social pressure towards any particular choice.

  25. 25
    Lee says:

    If a sufficiently large sample of anecdotes morphs into data, maybe we should start the anecdote-collecting here. (Although the liberal nature of this blog might skew the results some, it’s a start!)

    1. I have a master’s degree, my husband has a PhD, we have 2 kids, we both work full-time (although my husband has applied to reduce his hours to 30 hours a week). My husband does the morning shift – he gets the kids up, dressed, fed, and out the door to school. He also takes the kids to doctor’s appointments, stays home when they are sick, goes to meetings at school, etc., about 40% of the time. (He travels for work about 30% of the time, which is why it’s not 50-50.) I pick the kids up from school, make sure they do their homework, feed them dinner, and get them into bed. I do the bulk of the housework, he does the bulk of the yardwork, we split the shopping. We are both in our 40s.

    2. My younger sister has a master’s, her husband has a bachelor’s, they have 2 kids plus her husband’s frail and elderly mother lives with them. She did not return to work after kid #1 was born but plans to work out of the house part-time after kid #2 is in school. Her husband does most of the cooking and all of the yardwork and takes the kids to their extracurriculars that occur on weekends. She does all of the housework and shopping and most of the sick kid care, plus all of the doctor’s appointment stuff for her mother-in-law. They are both in their 40s.

    3. My youngest sister has a PhD, her husband as 2 master’s and is working on his PhD, they have one kid. She is back to work full-time after having 6 months maternity leave and 1 year of part-time work. They split everything 50-50, but in chunks depending on their schedules (so that he stays home for one illness, she stays home for the next, he does the dishes one week, etc.). They have part-time childcare for the times when they both have to be at work, and they both travel about 10% of the time for their jobs. They are both in their late 30s.

    As for the rest of my family, I have three cousins and a sister-in-law who are full-time stay-at-home moms (3, 2, 3, and 3 kids each, all parents with at least bachelor’s degrees), and three cousins and a sister-in-law who are full-time working moms (3, 2, 2, and 4 kids each, all parents with master’s or MDs). All are in their 30s.

    So from my perspective, the 50-50 split appears to be about right, and it would also appear that most of the men are pulling more weight than in traditional family roles. But hey, this is just anecdotal so far.

  26. 26
    Josh Jasper says:

    Linda H. – Wow! Impressive rebuttal! Please stick around and chime in here form time to time.

    C’mon Amp, you ought to give a direct response to her comment.

  27. 27
    Robert says:

    That’s why there are a growing number of working mothers losing custody to working fathers, who are able to argue that their new unemployed/underemployed sweety can raise the kid better than the mom can. Hence, the primary caretaker is not the mother or the father, but a stranger. But somehow this non-working stranger is better than a working mother. That does reflect a deep-seated bias against working mothers, especially when single mothers have no choice but to work.

    Perhaps I’m missing something. How is this biased against working mothers?

    “Single mothers” are generally no different than “single fathers” in terms of whether they have a choice of whether or not to work. I think most of us would assume that, assuming the basic decency and competence of everyone concerned, most children would be better off with a working parent and a stay-at-home parent, rather than a working parent on his or her own.

    You seem to be interpreting any custody decision which does not assign special bonus value to motherhood (versus fatherhood) as being biased against working moms. I’m not seeing it.

  28. 28
    Phaeton says:

    …but the point I’m making is that women need to validate the decisions and choices made by other women even if they aren’t our choices.

    What do you mean by validate? If you mean that women should acknowledge that every woman has the right to make choices about her own life even if we disagree with them, I agree with you. If , on the other hand, you mean that, as feminists, we should approve of every choice that a woman makes – then no. No, we shouldn’t.

    Feminism is an ideology. In every ideology, some things are bad and some things are good. By bad and good, I mean that some actions, beliefs, thoughts fall in line with it and some don’t. Some reinforce it and some undermine it. Some help it and some hurt it. Now, according to (every type of) feminism, patriarchy, sexism, and gender inequality are to be overcome. If you are doing something that I think, according to my definition of feminism, will lead to or reinforce patriarchy, sexism, and/or gender inequality how can I validate that? I can’t tell you that that is an okay decision (within the frames of feminism) because it’s not. That’d be like a Muslim validating another Muslim’s decision to go to the noon buffet during Ramadan.

    If choice was all that mattered then women who choose to protest at abortion clinics, women who choose to condemn their children for being gay, women who choose to abort female children because “girls are just too much trouble”, and women who choose to acquit a rapist because the victim wasn’t wearing any underwear would all be making feminist decisions.

  29. 29
    Mendy says:

    Phaeton:

    What do you mean by validate? If you mean that women should acknowledge that every woman has the right to make choices about her own life even if we disagree with them, I agree with you.

    That is exactly what I mean. I see women attacking women for becoming mothers, for choosing to work, for choosing to stay home, and everything in between. Sometimes, I see that feminists spend the majority of their time arguing amongst themselves about what it is to be a “feminist” that we’ve lost some of our power as a group.

    If choice was all that mattered then women who choose to protest at abortion clinics, women who choose to condemn their children for being gay, women who choose to abort female children because “girls are just too much trouble”, and women who choose to acquit a rapist because the victim wasn’t wearing any underwear would all be making feminist decisions.

    Of course these things shouldn’t be praised and considered “good” choices. They are neither in line with feminism nor human decency in my personal opinion. I was speaking to the more “normal” choices that women face during their lives: to marry, or not. to work, or not. to become mothers, or not. These are all valid feminist choices, and as feminists we should support a woman’s right to lead a life that is fufilling to her.

  30. 30
    Smithie says:

    Robert, look at it this way: in a family where both parents work, the children are either in daycare or at school plus an aftercare program. In most cases, their mother shoulders most of the home-making load into terms of cooking for them, cleaning for them, planning their activities, staying home when they are sick or working a less than full-time schedule that meshes with their school hours, etc. This is one of the reasons that so many married women with children work part-time.

    If a divorce occurs and the father has found a new woman who is willing to provide full-time care to the kids, the choice is not between mom’s care plus daycare/school or dad’s care plus daycare/school. The choice is between the care of parent and the care of a stranger. Mom plus daycare/school is continuity and stability. Dad’s new wife is a completely disruptive experience.

    I’m all for fathers continuing to be present in the lives of their children after divorce. I’m even in favor of fathers playing an INCREASED role in things like picking up the kids, taking the kids to the doctor, arranging summer activities for the kids, etc. now that Mom has to work more hours and earn more money. But Dad’s new wife has no right or responsibility to be involved in the care of his children from a previous marriage. That the court assigns a positive value to her involvement reflects a bias against mothers, who are far less likely to be partnered with a stay-at-home-spouse immediately after their divorces. It also shows a deep disregard for the parent/child bond and the child/caregiver bond, suggesting that the relationship between a child and the person s/he sees every day after school (be it mom or grandma or babysitter) has less value than the non-relationship between a child and the new spouse of their father, a woman who they do not know and may not be interested in knowing.

    I think the marital/relationship status of the opposing parties in a custody suit is entirely irrelevant and should not even be alluded to during the proceedings, barring extreme circumstances such as an abusive stepparent.

  31. 31
    Robert says:

    In most cases, their mother shoulders most of the home-making load into terms of cooking for them, cleaning for them, planning their activities, staying home when they are sick or working a less than full-time schedule that meshes with their school hours, etc. This is one of the reasons that so many married women with children work part-time.

    And in those cases, the mother is generally awarded primary custody of the children, on the entirely legitimate basis that the mother is the one to whom the children have formed a primary parenting bond by virtue of the time expended together. So this whole paragraph we can throw out.

    If a divorce occurs and the father has found a new woman who is willing to provide full-time care to the kids, the choice is not between mom’s care plus daycare/school or dad’s care plus daycare/school. The choice is between the care of parent and the care of a stranger.

    Huh? The new wife or girlfriend is no more of a stranger than the daycare and school staff are – that is, they’re strangers at first, and then a relationship builds over time. So the choice here is between mom’s care plus daycare/school or dad’s care plus a stepmom/school. Isn’t it obvious that, broadly speaking, it’s better to have a loving step-parent with one or two kids, than a loving paid provider with twenty?

    Mom plus daycare/school is continuity and stability. Dad’s new wife is a completely disruptive experience.

    Don’t think so. Mom plus daycare/school is a disruptive experience, too. Dad’s gone. Life has been upended. Dad plus stepmom/school is similarly a disruptive experience. Mom’s gone. Life has been upended. Neither scenario has a clear superiority.

    That the court assigns a positive value to her involvement reflects a bias against mothers, who are far less likely to be partnered with a stay-at-home-spouse immediately after their divorces.

    Perhaps so, but it is not within the purview or competence of a court to create a balance in post-divorce socialization. The court is restricted to considering the best welfare of the child. A loving stepparent who wants to raise a child is making a bigger contribution to the child’s welfare than a loving childcare provider can, simply on the basis of hours in the day.

    It also shows a deep disregard for the parent/child bond and the child/caregiver bond, suggesting that the relationship between a child and the person s/he sees every day after school (be it mom or grandma or babysitter) has less value than the non-relationship between a child and the new spouse of their father, a woman who they do not know and may not be interested in knowing.

    This is absurd. It isn’t optional for children to know or not know their families; if one parent remarries, then the kids are going to know the stepparent whether they like it or not, unless they are virtually out of the house anyway. The child and the stepparent have a non-relationship at the beginning of their relationship – just as they did with teachers, grandma, the mailman, and everyone else they meet.

    This position doesn’t hold up. You are arguing that fair and equal treatment is biased, because it doesn’t privilege one set of parental relationships (the maternal) over another (the paternal).

    Mothers generally get primary custody because they generally have a substantially stronger bond with the children and because the courts generally find the children’s welfare will be best served by preserving that bond. This is as fair and equitable a resolution as we can expect. It is equally fair and equitable that in those situations where the father’s situation is going to be better for the children’s welfare – such as a situation where the parenting resources available are clearly and substantially superior – the father receives primary custody. That’s not bias against working moms, it’s bias in favor of children’s best interests.

  32. 32
    Phaeton says:

    Mendy, Ah, okay then. Sorry if I came out as attacking you, but I kind of have a knee jerk reaction about this. I think there’s a difference between saying a woman’s choice is bad and disagreeing with it from a feminist point of view. I’ve seen a lot of women say that their choices should be free from feminist criticism because they chose it. And that really, really annoys me.

  33. 33
    Mendy says:

    Phaeton,

    I understand.

    Currently, I’m wearing a bunch of different hats. And I’ve been accused of not being a feminist because my children are important to me. I’ve been accused of being a bad parent because I work, and of being selfish because I’m continuing my education. I feel these are all very valid choices for me, and I have the support of a feminist husband.

    I think the article struck a nerve with me because it (the author) assumes that her version of feminism is the only “right” one and dismisses those women that choose not to follow her mold of a “real feminist”. And because she devalues and degrades one of the most rewarding aspects of my life — the rearing of my children. I personally feel that one of the greatest ways to make social change is in the education of the next generation. There are no “women’s jobs” or “men’s jobs” in my household — only jobs that need to be done.

    I feel like criticism is different from the hostility and condemnation I’ve experienced because of my choices. Criticism can be constructive and informative, but condemnation is always negative.

  34. 34
    Susan says:

    I’ve seen a lot of women say that their choices should be free from feminist criticism because they chose it. And that really, really annoys me.

    Hm. Well I’m older than most of you, and I’ve been married almost 40 years. In that time I’ve been the primary breadwinner and my husband has stayed home with the kids; he’s been the primary breadwinner and I’ve stayed home with the kids; we’ve both worked and put the little children in daycare and allowed the adolescents to fend for themselves; I was in grad school for a while and he supported all of us; he was in grad school for a while and I supported all of us; at one time nobody was working and the whole family was on AFDC.

    It never occurred to either of us to ask anyone much about whether they approved of any of these situations. It never occurred to me to solicit anyone’s opinion about whether any of these situations was “correct” according to some feminist (or any other) ideology, and if anyone had volunteered their negative opinion on any of this – and probably, for all I know, someone or other did – I wouldn’t have (didn’t) care enough to hear them even.

    So be annoyed and/or criticize away, Phaeton.

  35. 35
    Barbara says:

    Working part-time equals working. When you go to your next job interview after you decide to reassume the intense mothering part of your life you don’t have to put on your resume that you were part-time. The problem with dropping out of the work force completely is that it’s hard to get back in. Part-time work is the way to avoid having to make harsh choices. Notwithstanding, I worked full-time all through my 30s, with young children, and became part-time in response to work, not work/life, burnout. Given my field, my “part-time” work is probably more demanding than full-time work in a lot of other fields. And the dirty secret to a lot of work situations is that working more after a certain point in your career (the learning curve part, where having children really is a liability) is frequently detrimental to your prospects — it keeps you off the golf course, or whatever it is that constitutes the kind of extracurricular activities that enhance your overall career potential. This realization is finally what drove me to part-time status.

  36. 36
    Barbara says:

    That is, after you decide to emerge from the intense mothering part of your life.

  37. 37
    LMYC says:

    I don’t see anything inherently anti-feminist with a woman deciding to stay home and raise her children. Nor do I see anything wrong with a woman that decides to work full time and have children.

    And once again, relegated to invisibility …

  38. 38
    Smithie says:

    Robert, a man’s new wife is not a child’s new parent. The presumption that she will do the work of a parent for her husband’s children, and that she is better than a daycare worker because she will not be paid for this work, is really offensive.

    Of course, if you were correct in stating that custody cases usually take into account a working mother’s greater responsibility for her children (schedules, housework, cooking, selecting care providers) then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation, because the only men who EVER received primary physical custody of their children would be men who were the more involved parent before they ever got divorced. I’m fine with that. I’m just not fine with newly divorced fathers finding a new woman to do the work they’ve been avoiding all along. It’s pretty much the most selfish act I can imagine, and the child’s welfare is nowhere in the picture.

  39. 39
    Mendy says:

    “And once again, relegated to invisibility …

    LMYC,

    So, you would have a woman sacrifice her own personal happiness and fufillment for the sake of “visibility”?

    Statistically speaking, how many women to you think could actually achieve the kind of “visiblity” that the article is discussing? And what of those women that find child rearing to be rewarding work?

    And when did motherhood and any other activity become incompatible? I guess I’m mistaken that many powerful women have children and still manage to be “visible”.

  40. 40
    Susan says:

    Odd as it may seem, being “visible” isn’t one of my big life goals.

  41. 41
    Smithie says:

    I wouldn’t mind being visible, but strangely, I don’t consider myself an “untouchable” because I change and wash my child’s diapers. The more times I reread Hirshman’s article, the more obvious it is that she can’t analyze the situation competently, because she can’t even PRETEND to respect the work of caring for children and the home. Since it’s such vile soul-sucking drudgery, clearly men won’t be lining up in droves to do it anytime soon. So who will take on the work of this “necessary part of life?” Robots? Undocumented nannies and maids? Or maybe we could just grow our children in vats until they’re old enough to drive and do their own laundry?

  42. 42
    Robert says:

    Robert, a man’s new wife is not a child’s new parent.

    Generally this depends on the decisions that the individual family is making, Smithie. My experience in blended families is that generally a new spouse is a stepparent, not just some random adult. YMMV.

    The presumption that she will do the work of a parent for her husband’s children, and that she is better than a daycare worker because she will not be paid for this work, is really offensive.

    Be offended all you like. Are you under the impression that your emotional state changes reality?

    The presumption is not based on the fact that a parent is not paid; it is based on the fact that a parent has (a) generally more motivation than an employee, and (b) generally has one or two children to deal with in a domestic situation, versus having ten or twenty children to deal with in a day care setting.

    If you would like to argue that one-tenth of your time is more effective than one-half of your time, feel free, but don’t expect me to take your thinking seriously.

  43. 43
    nobody.really says:

    High-stakes poker:

    It also shows a deep disregard for the parent/child bond and the child/caregiver bond, suggesting that the relationship between a child and the person s/he sees every day after school (be it mom or grandma or babysitter) has less value than the non-relationship between a child and the new spouse of their father….

    Well, presumably the father retains the authority to seek help from his mom or the babysitter, so that situation need not tip the balance in either party’s favor. But this is an interesting point: If the primary care giver is a third party (grandma, babysitter, Mary Poppins) who is loyal to one of the parents, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Parent + Primary Care Giver beat Parent + Stepparent.

    Smithie is clearly hacked off by the injustice of custody battles, and with good reason. Consider: A and B marry and have a kid. B has an affair with C, which eventually leads to the break-up of A and B. But precisely because of B’s infidelity, B is on the fast track to marry C, ensuring that the custody battle will be two-against-one. A’s position in the custody battle is undermined precisely because A was faithful.

    That really sucks, regardless of the genders of the parties involved. Yet I can’t escape the logic of Robert’s argument. In awarding custody, the judge must act in the best interest of the child, not as a chit to remedy some grievance between the parents. And, all else being equal, Secondary Working Parent + Stepparent seems like a better hand to me than Primary Working Parent + Daycare.

    Of course, all else is never truly equal. I wouldn’t be surprised if the court would give a larger share of the marital property to A than to the faithless B, perhaps including the house. So maybe Primary Working Parent + Best Daycare Money Can Buy + Homestead trumps all. Dunno….

  44. 44
    Robert says:

    I can’t escape the logic of Robert’s argument

    I wish you had a useful screen name instead of the credibility-destroying “nobody.really” so that I could use that as a tagline.

  45. 45
    jack.abramoff says:

    I can’t escape the logic of Robert’s argument.

  46. 46
    Robert says:

    Aw, be Pinochet at least. That way I get credit with the serious anti-communist crowd.

  47. 47
    jrochest says:

    I’m just not fine with newly divorced fathers finding a new woman to do the work they’ve been avoiding all along. It’s pretty much the most selfish act I can imagine, and the child’s welfare is nowhere in the picture.

    Speaking as a woman who has been offered such a ‘position’, I concur.

    “Hey! I’m looking for a woman who will quit her job to cook, clean, do laundry and run errands, so that I can take my three kids away from their b*tch of a mother!” is not the best foundation I can think of for a marriage, but I’ve had a guy make the offer. On the first date, no less.

    And then he wondered why I didn’t want a second date.

  48. 48
    alsis39 says:

    Probably the same type of man who grumbles about how potential dates avoid him like the plague “just because” he has kids. :/

  49. 49
    LMYC says:

    The “invisibility” I was talking about is how the feminist debate is basically centered on working MOTHERS and SAH MOTHERS. Non-reproductive women might as well be dickless men as far as feminism or ANY debate is concerned. We’re the ballbusting ones, those evil mannish awful execu-bots that everyone points to to distance themselves. Working mothers are quick to point out that they aren’t like us — we didn’t go THAT far, we’re not THAT threatening, we’re the good girls — and SAHMs use us as the boogeyman to scare people: “If feminism goes too far, you’ll end up like HER! No husband, no kids, and just a Soulless Corporate Existence!” My soul is doing just fine, thanks.

    Yeah, you’ll end up like me. A happy social life, disposable income, time to spend on things I love, and friends that I value above gold. Along with that loveliest of things: independence.

    And yet we either disappear from the frigging discourse every single time, or we’re used like Star Trek fans use the geeks with the Spock ears: we may be a little weird, but we aren’t like those freaks over there. As long as we’re out there on the crazy-lunatic fringe of career-no-husband-no-kids (whoo-ee, we’re just batshit nuts) we make any woman who’s ever been insecure and defensive about her life choices look like Mother Theresa. We’re like drag queens are to the gay rights movement.

    And whenever the possibility comes up that we are actually growing in number, the right wing rushes in to condemn us as selfish, unnatural harpies, and the left wing rushes in right with them to say, “Now, the growth of that segment of the female population is ust an unfortunate side effect of empowering women.” We’re the ones that took all that empowerment advice a little too far, didn’t we?

    Problem is, as a woman, I’m still exposed to the wage gap, still being paid less than a man would be, still open to all the accusations of being less smart, too emotional, and still stuck working for the occasional psychotic woman-hating CEO who changes his trophy babes once a month. Happily, I’ve found jobs without that sort of blatant woman-hating, but I coudl tell you some stories, and I’m still at risk for it as a woman.

    I’m still at risk for rape. I’m still at risk for breast cancer — more than most since my mother had survived it. I’m still at risk for harassment. I still live in a country where some embarrassingly low percentage of people like me are in ANY decision-making capacity in the government or business. Implying that my desire to be visible in the feminist arena despite having the nerve to not reproduce is childish (“Thanks, but *I* don’t NEED visibility” scoff-scoff) is disgusting.

    I’m sick of being left out of all of these damned debates. I need feminism, as much as any mother. Every woman does, whether she’s used her genitals in the heterosexually approved way or not.

  50. 50
    Lilith says:

    Nice strawman, LMYC. Maybe you should let him take a turn up there on the “childfree” cross. I hear martyrdom gets very tiring.

  51. 51
    Mendy says:

    LYMC,

    Where in my statements did I not validate your choice. Where did I call those that make similar choices “freaks”?

    I also work a full time job, and when I finish my degree and begin in my chosen field, I will be subject to that same wage gap, the same sexist behavior.

    I am still at risk for rape, breast cancer, and the ills that befall everyother woman. I don’t marginalize the choices you’ve made. Despite what you may think I still need feminism as well.

    When I speak about validating a woman’s choice, this is the kind of thing I am talking about. I have a great number of friends that are childless by choice and not partnered.

    Visibility, money, status, and power are not my personal goals. If they are your goals that is fine, and I won’t belittle you for making those decisions. But don’t, in turn, treat my decision to blend the traditional with a career as a less feminist choice than yours.

    This is what I mean when I talk about women dividing the movement to the point that as a group we aren’t as effective as we were in the beginning. I don’t see us able to effectively fight patriarchy if we are busy fighting amongst ourselves. Is there not room at the table for everyone?

  52. 52
    alsis39 says:

    I find self-righteous assholes to be fairly well represented amongst both moms and non-moms. Of course, I’m in the latter category and plan to stay there, but…

    I don’t know what to tell you, Mendy. I agree that finger-pointing is not helpful, but OTOH, we are all different, and not discussing our differences won’t make them magically disappear. :/ LYMC is right about the “dickless man” perception in the sense that women who don’t want children often feel that we’re looked at askance in feminism by women who do. My feelings are often along the lines of, “I want to be supportive, but this mom over here probably would rather hear from some other Mom who actually shares her experiences. I’m just gonna’ look like some clown whose slumming. Plus, I don’t want to be chosen as her permanent backup, because that just seems like stereotyping all over again. Why do I have to back her up ? Where the hell are the men in her life ? If tending to children is beneath their dignity, why is that my problem?”

    This is not a slam at you, or LYMC, or anyone else this board. But as I said before, this sort of discussion inevitably ends up bruising all parties involved. I wish there was a way to have it without that being the case, because not having it won’t help us, either.

  53. 53
    Mendy says:

    I agree that there are stereotypes that need to change the “dickless man” and “ballbuster” are but just a few of them. We can have this discussion without bruising people by realizing that the choices women voluntarily make (having kids, not having kids) are both valid. The issues of patriarchy affect all of us regarless of our reproductive choices.

    And as a mother, I find it helpful to have insights from women who aren’t mothers (by choice or not). Their insights sometimes help me understand that feminism isn’t soley about working women without kids, sah moms, or about woking moms…feminism is about equality for all women, and about making those choices available to all women.

    Why do I have to back her up ? Where the hell are the men in her life ? If tending to children is beneath their dignity, why is that my problem?”

    You don’t have to back her up, in the sense of actually babysitting or providing childcare. But you need to realize that there are moms out there that do not have men in their life either by choice (adoptive moms, moms that used AI without a partner) or by life’s design (death of partner, abandonment by partner). These women often need support from the women in their lives.

    I’m not slamming you or anyone else. I just believe that things cannot change until we have an open discourse about the needs of all women in this country without dividing ourselves along the lines of reproductive choice or professional choice.

  54. 54
    Mendy says:

    LYMC,

    I need to apologize to you. I just went back and read the entire thread, and now I understand why you say “And once again relegated to invisibility”. I am sorry that I didn’t include the happily childless woman in my list of choices for women. Of course your choice is valid, and so I am guilty of the same cardinal sin I see in so many other debates. Though in truth I was responding the the tone of the original post that visiblity is a goal that all women should strive for above motherhood or anything else.

    So, please accept my heartfelt apology, and I will make certain in the future to include every group in a list of feminist choices.

  55. 55
    alsis39 says:

    These women often need support from the women in their lives.

    Yeah. I think what sometimes raises the hackles of women who opt for childlessness is the societal assumption that babies and children are such a non-stop joy that any random woman really wants to be tapped for the task of raising them– no matter how much she might protest. Deep down, it’s what she really wants, don’t you know… Yarrghh.

    I don’t think that perception should be dumped solely at the door of feminism, however. It’s a general problem.

    And I agree wholeheartedly that monetary support in the form of taxation is important, and that there’s no legitimate reason for me to duck out of it simply because I have no kids of my own. Truth is, I would rather be compelled to offer money than time. Money is easier to get back once it’s gone than time is– at least in my experience.

  56. 56
    Smithie says:

    OK, this is my last word on the custody debate: Stepparents can be great. Stepparents can be awful. Stepparents can, in time, become a parental figure to the their spouse’s kids. Stepparents can decide that they have no interest in being a parental figure, and kids can decide that they don’t want a stepparent as a parental figure. Only time will tell.

    Since a judge in a custody hearing is not psychic and cannot know how any of this will shake out, the existence of a new stepparent should be deemed irrelevant.

  57. 57
    Mendy says:

    I don’t literally mean support as childcare, but support as emotional support and feeling like they aren’t alone in the world. I have friends on both ends of the spectrum, and I have never asked a friend that is childless by choice if she would keep the kids, unless she had first offered to do so. But then I regard that as common courtesy.

  58. 58
    mythago says:

    It never occurred to either of us to ask anyone much about whether they approved of any of these situations.

    See Amp’s other post about ‘privilege’.

    I agree with you that anxiously wanting to please strangers is stupid–see the fable about the father and the son taking their donkey to market–but it’s naive to think that one needn’t worry about the opinions of anyone else, ever. (Unless you are independently wealthy and thus really don’t have to.) The opinions of employers is not something you can shrug off as you might ignore blatherings on a Usenet group, for example.

  59. 59
    reddecca says:

    I’m a little slow in catching up in the Hirschman kerfuffle. And while facts and figures are useful, I’d still think she was wrong even if it was true that women in overwhelming numbers were leaving the workforce.

    I really don’t think feminism is about whether or not women participate in the workforce as it stands, but about changing the workforce, and the division of unpaid labour.

  60. 60
    Nina71177 says:

    I don’t know….seems to me that Hirshman’s points are worth debating. I say debating the state of feminism is inherently important. Yet I’ve read so many (not here necessarily) knee-jerk “Don’t you judge my choices!” or “This doesn’t apply to most women anyway!” responses that do little more than reinforce the false dichotomy of theoretical abstractions v. practical realities.

    I don’t buy the response that because most people work to eat, this debate is moot. I don’t think it’s irrelevant to consider the choices and experiences of a small, elite class of women who, for better or for worse, do set an example. Hirshman rightly points out that elites often work for the decison-makers, the agenda-shapers. So if legions of elite women get on the (condescendingly termed) “Mommy Track,” that leaves mostly men to fill these positions of tremendous influence.

    Hirshman also cites the regime effect, which does exist. While it is charming to believe that we all make choices (when we are afforded choices) that are best for us, and everyone else’s opinions be damned…well, methinks there are a LOT of guilty feelings out there, conscious or otherwise, among working moms, whether they work by choice or not.

    With all the rampant materialism, overconsumption and competitiveness in our culture, most of us succumb to some degree of comparison with our peers. So, to insist that “The Joneses” don’t influence our thinking or our major decisions just reeks of denial. If elite, educated women are dropping out of the workforce in greater numbers, how are they NOT reinforcing the idea that to stay at home is preferrable? How are they NOT perpetuating the perception that being a SAH is a luxury? I submit that many women who ‘work to eat’ aren’t afforded the ‘luxury’ of not feeling guilty about having to put their kids in daycare, even if they like their jobs or profess to not care what other people think.

    Thirdly, maybe it’s my naivete, but I find it really bizarre that women would bother to bust their butts and wallets getting elaborately educated only to work casually or not at all. And I’m not satisfied with the breezy explanation that they’re simply exercising their choices, daaahling.

    Baloney.

    I want to know why we shouldn’t wonder if something’s rotten in Genderland, both in the workplace AND at home. Hirshman makes the case that it is STILL women who bear the bulk of the childcare and household responsibilities. And others have made the case that the workplace is still not family friendly (for either gender). So I think it’s worth questioning whether these elite women are really making choices and examining to what extent they are influenced by slow-shifting expectations and persistent limitations of gender roles.

    Yeah, my choices are mine, and ultimately no one else bears responsibility for them but me. However, I DO worry about the impact of my choices on other women. Yet some of my female friends practically shriek that they should not have to sacrifice their personal happiness to advance the cause of feminism–and I find that knee-jerk, debate-dousing response MOST alarming.

    Now granted, even *I* don’t expect anyone to be miserable for the sake of feminism, but to not even be willing to consider the social and historical forces that shape your individual choices, or to not acknowledge that the choices you make may have an impact that’s at least worth discussing?…These are choices I cannot abide.

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