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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: My take on "Opting Out"
October 12, 2009 - 9:15pm

Dana Campbell came at the new census data on "opting out" last week from a rather different perspective than mine: the perspective of the opter-out, if you will, rather than the opter-in. And I agree with my fellow Mama, PhD that we need more subtle distinctions and more, not less, discussion of the work-family issues that make career "choice" increasingly a chimera. But I do also, generally, agree with the media "spin" on the census data: "opting out" is just not as big an issue as the Lisa Belkin article that spawned the term, and appeared to document the trend, suggested that it was. Here, to me, is the really relevant data, as Judith Warner reports it: "the more choices mothers have, the more likely they are to work" — that is, as Dana reminds us, to work for pay, since — as the bumper sticker goes — every mother is a working mother. Warner goes on to note that, according to a 2007 study, "The only women 'opting out' in any significant numbers were the very richest — those with husbands earning more than $125,000 a year — and the very poorest — those with husbands earning less than $23,400 a year." The reason those spouses of highly-paid husbands are "opting out," by the way, may not be "choice" in the sense we usually use the term; rather, those high salaries may demand the kind of commitment that usually involves someone else—yes, a wife—at home taking care of family, social life, etc.

Of course there are statistical anomalies—women who fall into neither of the above categories who nonetheless are not fully employed, whether by choice or circumstance. And it would be interesting to know if those statistical anomalies are more or less likely to be in the academy: either the partners of academics or PhDs who could not, or chose not to, find paying work, for whatever reason. But it's another part of Warner's blog post that interests me most: the claim that—as a 2005 study notes—most mothers would, given the choice, prefer part-time work to either full employment or SAHM status. That makes sense to me, and it's an option it seems to me the academy is uniquely positioned to explore, but so far hasn't done much with. Why not offer part-time, but secure, appointments to dedicated teachers and/or researchers? Why not make room for stepping away from full-time work for a few years, then stepping back to it at the right moment? There were years when my husband and I wished we could each work about 2/3 time, when the kids were younger. Just a few more hours a week at home would have made a big difference for both of us, and for the family. But that option wasn't available, so he became the one to "opt out" — hardly his first choice — because I was the one with a tenure-track job. And if you think it's hard for women to opt back in (and I know it is), try doing so as a man in our culture, which has no "script" for the father who's taken time off to be a full-time parent. At least the "opt out" language gave us a way to talk about what some mothers were doing, even if it was fewer of them than we thought.

So I'm not mad at the media for shifting our focus away from the small number of highly-educated mothers who have in fact "opted elsewhere" — their choices are interesting, but perhaps not all that generalizable to the larger population. But I agree with Dana, and with Judith Warner, that the bigger questions of work-family balance remain unanswered, largely because we keep framing them in terms of choice. Sometimes, unfortunately, all the choices are bad — and that's what we really need to talk about.


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