Studying for an Mrs. Degree in 2005

New York Times discovers rich women like having options

In October 2003, the New York Times Sunday Magazine carried a feature story entitled "The Opt-Out Revolution." Work/life issues reporter Lisa Belkin profiled eight Princeton graduates who, having proven they could conquer the world, chose to leave the workforce and care for their children at home.

We've…lost track of the fact that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Women -- specifically, educated professional women -- were supposed to achieve like men. Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was leveled, they were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half. The women's movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power -- making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law. It was about running the world.

A growing number of women, the story intimated, were concluding that professional success, particularly success as defined by men, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Ivy League MBAs and law degrees notwithstanding, the women in the story opted out in favor of the more fulfilling role of mother. Having proven that they could compete, the mothers Belkin interviewed at playgroups and Starbuckses insisted, they felt empowered to quit.

The story caused a maelstrom of controversy: Academics came forward with hard numbers that put the lie to the "trend," let alone the "revolution." And it was riddled with other reportorial holes big enough to drive a double stroller through. It did contain a few disclaimers—-that its subjects are all wealthy enough to have a choice about working, that women who are fulfilled by their work or who enjoy working do exist—-but none so strong as to combat the "Revolution" headline.

We’ll dissect this revolution in a moment, but first, here it is in today’s New York Times, essentially the same story written by a different journalist and cast upon a different generation of women-—college students-—at a different elite school—-Yale.

At Yale and other top colleges, women are being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.

There is just one problem with this scenario: many of these women say that is not what they want.

Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

Does this make anyone else feel a little ill? Never mind the snickering tone--"Hey girls, we told you you wouldn’t like it here"--I'm infuriated by the elitism. It’s okay to leave a career so long as it’s a choice—-the empowered woman’s equivalent of catch-and-release fishing? (The accompanying photo doesn’t help, either: a co-ed wasp and her mother beam from matching rocking chairs on a veranda so crisply white it would make Martha--pre-prosecution, anyhow--green with envy.)

Back to that dissection. My main problem with both of these stories is that they present a terribly distorted view of mothers’ working lives. As a culture, we assume that our elites have access to The Best; the fact that we can’t attain a status where we, too, can make that best choice is something to be ashamed of. It’s a nasty little circular argument that allows our political and civic leaders to get away with painting having a family as an individual choice about which a parent (okay, preferably two, one with an innie, one with an outie) should exercise personal responsibility. That virtually every other country in the world of any means at all sees nurturing its children as a collective investment is irrelevant.

Belkin’s story brushes up against, and nearly breezes past, what for my money is the real story: "The talk of this new decade is less about the obstacles faced by women than it is about the obstacles faced by mothers. As Joan C. Williams, director of the Program on WorkLife Law at American University, wrote in the Harvard Women's Law Journal last spring, 'Many women never get near' that glass ceiling, because 'they are stopped long before by the maternal wall.'"

Hitting the maternal wall means arriving at a place in time when it becomes clear that in terms of bringing up baby, you are really and truly on your own. Few workplaces offer flextime, reward part time work in anything approaching equitable fashion, or offer reasonable family leave for either parent. The most notable change in the American workplace since our mothers’ day is that workweeks are now longer. Ever wonder why fast-food restaurants advertise the lunch shift on the drive-through window as perfect for stay-at-home moms?

For most families, childcare options are terrible. Good childcare is terribly expensive—easily more than $10,000 a year in the Twin Cities--and using substitute caregivers is thought to be an "irresponsible" or "selfish" choice for all but the poorest women, who we now demand work whether they can afford care or not. Minnesota, it was announced this week, has fallen to the bottom rungs of the rankings in terms of supporting families who can’t afford childcare. Again, parenthood is now a choice; how you work out the particulars is your business.

Good luck complaining about any of this, by the way. The embodied, invested mother has become the heroine of our age, a Subaru-driving, DayTimer-toting multi-tasker whose talents—-early childhood educator, developmental psychologist, life coach, rugby referee, Pilates ace, judge and jury in all matters concerning Other Mothers-—are just too dynamic for the average boardroom. (I contend that these squads of fiercely competitive and ambitious mommies are contributing to a culture that’s not good for any of us, least of all the kids, but then again I am definitely one of the Other Mothers.)

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