An article in the Washington Post last week stirred up the old “Opt-out” argument  of Lisa Belkin by bringing in recent census statistics to investigate patterns of at-home parenting. The article,  Census dispels “opting-out” notion for stay-at-home moms: Most stay-at-home moms start that way, reports that of the 5.6 million at-home moms in this country, the majority of them are young, minimally educated, Hispanic or foreign born. The article concludes that the “opt-out” revolution – which is the idea that there is a growing demographic of highly educated mothers giving up high-powered careers to raise their kids – is “beside the point”, swamped out by huge numbers of at-home moms who are not in this category.
Oh. Okay then. If you believe this, I guess we shouldn’t examine this issue any more. Since the percentage of career-track opt-outs is so small (relative to other at-home moms), evidently there’s no point in actually comparing this data between census records to see if there is any trend resembling the one Belkin suggested in 2003. This article doesn’t. If you’re the writer of a newspaper article, just call the opt-out revolution a myth and be done with it. Why bother.
Or instead, maybe we could appreciate the complexities of those who “opted out” more fully. In fact, this group may not be nearly as small or low-impact as it appears, and thus not be so “beside the point” as this article makes it out to be (even if the census does not provide evidence of an opt-out revolution – which remains to be seen). Seems to me, some terminology and definitions have given at-home parenting the short end of the stick. One problem is that the census definition of this group: those “who did not work in the previous year” has significant problems. For one thing, this phrase should really be stated as “those who did not draw a salary in the previous year” – every educated at-home mom I know is working every bit she can; besides bringing up her kids she pours her training into all sorts of intellectual projects which contribute to society, schools, communities, often her professional field, her children. (In fact, maybe the definition should be “those whose contributions were not financially recognized”). I also dislike the term “Opting-out” – I understand its history comes from the perspective of analyzing parents who have left careers, but it contributes to the false notion that when a parent leaves her traditional paid position, she is out - no longer productively engaged in any aspect of that field and her career would not be worth reviving in the future. Could we override this with a more positive sounding term? (Something like “Opting-elsewhere” to reflect that these at-home moms are integrating their knowledge and skills into other arenas than they might in their traditional career track.)
And maybe the effective size of this group isn’t actually so small. Another problem with the census definition of “at home parent” is the drawing of a line through a broad continuum of how mothers balance work and family. By defining a mom as “working” as soon as she earned even a very minor wage artificially narrows the strict “at-home mom” group, making it seem much smaller than it probably actually is. Where you draw the line in a continuum like this can be politically powerful.
I know that there are many, many moms out there who have stepped away from their targeted traditional career goals to raise kids, often because part-time and other family friendly options don’t exist. These parents go through a lot of angst and unproductive worry about “the other side of the fence” – where they could be had they more fully followed their career. At the same time, many parents cling to their careers even though they really would like to be home more with their families. These are real phenomena. We shouldn’t “opt out” of discussing the at-home group any more than we should stop discussing ways to shift towards a more family-friendly medium in the workplace, or any more than we should put aside discussion of the needs of those who may not have as many familial obligations. All these are part and parcel of one discussion: the modern balancing act. How can academia (and other workplaces) more fully understand and incorporate the far more diverse spectrum of work-family balancing needs of the modern workforce if we ignore a portion of the balancers?