Opt-In or Opt-Out: No one gets a hall pass

Courtesy of NY Times

Courtesy of NY Times

This morning, my husband emailed me the link for today’s NY Times article “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” and I, in turn, am including it here.  It’s a follow-up article to the “Opt-Out Generation” essay published in the NY Times Magazine in 2003.  Any man or woman who either 1.) has kids or 2.) is thinking of having kids NEEDS to read this article.


Because it provides one of the few open, honest discussions about the challenges of raising a family.

Whether a woman opts-in or opts-out of her career (in order to focus her full attention on child-rearing), there are sacrifices, consequences and hardships all-around in the house.  Neither wife nor husband gets out unscathed.

How do I know this?

My husband and I are for whom this story was written.  In 2001, I opted out of my ambitious career to raise our children full-time.  I thrived setting my children on the “right path in life” while experiencing first-hand the memories of my children’s infancy and early development years.   I also struggled with my identity and self-worth and probably sustained a low-level dose of depression over those years.  Oh yeah.  I had it all — the good & the bad of opting out.   And then, two years ago, I opted back in to my career.  I was embarrassed by my outdated resume, intimated by the new technologies, excited about the intellectual challenges and empowered by the daily challenges of starting my own business.  I’ve gained 10 pounds, I vacillate between guilt and resentment on a daily basis and I never socialize with my friends.   Again, I have it all — the good & the bad of opting in.

Why do I love this new NY Times article?

Because it speaks the truth.  There is NO easy answer for any couple raising children.

My husband and I spend far too much time talking about how much work we have and how little time we relax.  We’ve had those conversations about who does more work, who’s more tired and whose responsibility it is to call the cable company and request a new remote control.   We’ve had the traditional 1950s household and we now have the chaotic household of two working parents.  Which is better?  For us, I think it’s the “now” version.   Is it more work for my husband?  Absolutely, yes.   Will we make it?  I hope so.  He’s my best friend, my closest confidante and my most qualified mentor.  But that means I have to understand his side of the equation, too.  My opt-out and opt-in has as much of an impact — both good & bad — on him as on me.  Time will tell if it was the right move for him.

In the meantime…

My husband, not prone to typical romantic gestures, included a virtual love note in this morning’s email.  Here’s an excerpt:

I know the past six months have been hard w/r/t Totefish, but you are doing an awesome job…  I never considered how it might make someone feel who left but wanted to get back in the game.  This article made me think how tough it may have been for you.

Raising kids is hard and how a couple structures their home environment is a very personal decision.  But we can agree that both husbands and wives need to communicate.   Understanding and empathy go a very long way.  Virtual love notes go even farther.

9 comments on “Opt-In or Opt-Out: No one gets a hall pass

  1. Melissa says:

    Thanks for this!!!

  2. Gemini Gemma says:

    I understand that you were embarrassed by your outdated resume. However, was this ‘shame’ imparted to you by social pressures such as future bosses, co-workers and friends. Or was it something that you yourself felt? If the former, is the case then I do not think women who did opt-out and then opted back in should be worried. I think it was based on your subjective emotions.

    But yes, I do agree with you communication is key. Any man who willingly fosters communication within the relationship, is a gold mine. Due to traditional stereotypes men tend, not talk and hide their true needs,wants and opinions within the family. But if the couple is able to break through that traditional barrier, I am so proud of them.

    • Deborah says:

      I think my embarassment stemmed from both social pressures and my own emotional issues (I think my identity is more entangled with my sense of having a “career” than I ever knew). This said, I do think there’s a societal bias towards traditional resumes and “jobs” (and a bias against stay-at-home parenting). I often thought of listing all my home/mothering responsibilities on my resume. They read better than a typical CEO’s c.v.

      But alas, I knew that wouldn’t represent well on Linked In…

      • Gemini Gemma says:

        Very true! I actually know someone who got a management position after being a stay-at-home mom all her life. I am not sure whether or not she listed her stay-at-home mom duties or not, but the employer was super excited that she wanted to work for his company. I believe his wife stayed home, so he knew what a hard job it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Nevertheless, I think it is time society begin to recognize the importance of stay at home moms, and we can only do that when we are no longer hiding in the shadows about our choices. In hopes of not getting attacked by career women.

  3. I saw the ladies on the today show this morning! my husband was impressed I had already read it, just yesterday! thanks! I’m the complete opposite, I had a full time job and management position by the time I was 23, now, I can’t return after being injured on the job and needing reconstruction surgery on my knee… now I’m 28, newly married (2 months tomorrow) and trying to start a family, but now I need to find a new career… with luck I can get my certification to be a special needs teachers assistant!

  4. Laurie Newbound says:

    Okay, I will play the age card. I am old enough to remember my mom having consciousness raising women’s meetings in our living room in the seventies, and I saw her and many of her friends struggle with these issues, so I know they are not new. Every generation and every couple has to, as you eloquently say, work this stuff out for themselves. I am kind of a fan of this concept that you can have it all but not all at the same time. I, too, left a career to stay home with my young kids, but it was the kind of career (TV and screenwriting) that, to my honest surprise, turned out to be much harder to come back to than I had thought. So, I have spent the last ten years trying to reinvent myself, trying to dream a new dream as a writer. But here was the kicker—I found out, as a few older mothers had warned me, that the late middle and particularly the high school years are much more demanding of parents than I had thought. Kids are becoming more independent but at the same time they are often pushing boundaries and need more supervision than you (or at least I) could have imagined. And even if you, like me, have “good” kids, it’s hard to predict how many situations come up for them where they need help navigating or just plain rescuing (mom, my ride home FROM SCHOOL at 4 pm is stoned…)or just simply being around—more in some ways than they do at nine or ten, that’s for certain. So, I think your approach is great, to recognize that it isn’t easy, that you will always feel conflicted and that it’s all okay. I have friends who were full time moms, friends who worked high intensity full time careers and friends (the most, like me) who fashioned some kind of work/mom mix, and I don’t really see any difference in how their kids turned out. For me it was about the moment, about being home and, yes, making cookies with them when there was a snow day when they were in first grade, and being there after school to talk about a crush when they were fourteen. But that’s just me, and kids adapt. There’s no one way to do this, and I think the most important thing is to be conscious of how it’s all working, and flexible. You certainly do this. And if you want to be sure of yourself and what you are doing and happy every second? Uh, it’s too late for you, you’re already a parent!
    PS I love your husband for sending you that email.

    • I just saw this comment. WOW. Thanks for being so thoughtful – and honest. I do think these discussions of stay-at-home moms vs. working moms vs. work-family balance are VERY generational. And I think I’m someone who is caught by the generations trying to figuring out what is the best way. But I’ve coming to understand that there isn’t a BEST way… but rather a BEST WAY FOR YOU. When I graduated from college, it was “career” for sure. But when I got married, the swing had shifted to “kids need stay-at-home parenting from 0 – 5 years old because they’re the formative years” (and both I and my husband had traditional stay-at-home mothers ourselves, which clearly influenced us, consciously or not). But when the economy slacked, I think the conversation about stay-at-home mothering did, too. Now, the dialogue of cost to staying-at-home parenting is again upon us. This is enough to leave any woman, regardless of her choice, confused. I think we’re all looking for the holy grail of parenting; the “THIS IS HOW TO DO IT RIGHT” manual. But I don’t think it exists. I started reading a new parenting book last night (“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough) and although I’m only 4 chapters in, his thesis is that children succeed, regardless of their socio-economic class, when they grow up without traumatic stress imposed upon their existence (traumatic stress includes violence, abuse, divorce, dysfunction in the household, dysfunction in the community). This includes having parents who really offer help, attention and an environment where the kids can feel at ease (and thus, in turn, learn the skills of focus, resilience and “stick-to-it-ness”). We all know rich families with stay-at-home mothers that are riddled with dysfunction and an underlying threat of constant divorce — and equally chaotic households of two working parents who outsource their children to underpaid nannies. Neither of these versions work. I hope you’re right that my approach is “great” — although, only time will tell. I can say that I’m committed to my children and committed to my career — but will sacrifice neither for the benefit of the other. Clearly, that model doesn’t work.

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