Ten years ago, the Opt Out Revolution was in full swing. A 60 Minutes feature and a New York Times Magazine cover story reported on a growing number of elite, well-educated women leaving high-powered careers to stay at home full time and raise kids. Pushing strollers for the camera and telling reporters how fulfilling their new lives were, these women were heroes to some and villains to others.
Now, the Opt Out Revolutionaries are back in the news with another New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” A decade later, many of the women are back in the workforce either due to divorce, economic necessity, or pure preference. After “off-ramping” to raise children, they are now back on the career path only in lesser positions and with lower salaries.
Which raises the question - was opting out a mistake?
The issues surrounding the choice to stay home are as complex and diverse as the women making them. Some simply don’t have a choice and cannot afford day care. Some simply don’t have a choice and cannot afford to stay home. However, for many women, there is a choice.
I walked a weird middle ground with my initial decision to stay home in 2009. On one hand, I had an advanced (and expensive) degree. I had worked in both the high stakes world of presidential campaigns and Congressional politics. After Griffin was born my initial plan was to practice as an attorney, so much so that I took the bar two months after he was born.
On the other hand, my experience in politics was only in low level positions and had little applicability in my new life in Paducah. I wasn’t walking away from some high flying career. I had yet to really choose a career. Instead, it felt like I was just putting my career on hold.
Also, as Griffin grew and then as we added Amos to the fold, I realized how much it meant to me to be with my children. I wanted to be there for every milestone, every moment - not because I thought it was necessarily better for them but for my own selfish reasons. I wanted to enjoy a time in my life that I knew would be over quickly.
Then, as a new and more flexible career began to present itself, a return to full time work seemed less and less likely.
I would never categorize my reasoning - or anyone else’s - as wrong or right. However, I do think this new examination of opting out raises one important issue. An issue that was never really addressed in the initial reporting and that every woman (or man) needs to be very honest about when she choses to stay home. An issue I think about a lot.
Staying home is an incredibly risky decision economically.
The reasons behind staying home or going to work are complex but the impact financially is clear. It costs the woman dearly. When I graduated from law school, I received Leslie Bennetts’s The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? Leaving the Mommy Wars to others, Bennetts - an economist - deals strictly with the numbers. Simply put, 95% of women will be alone at some point in their lives, either due to the death of a spouse or divorce. Staying away from the workforce for as little as three years can reduce a woman’s future income by up to 40%. Off-ramping for a decade or more can mean over a million dollars in lost wages.
I think about this all the time. I see my friends who stayed in the workforce and the raises they accrue year after year. I see marriages I thought were stable fall apart. I see families forever changed by tragedy.
I know what I’m doing is risky. I hope the skills and connections I’m building by working part time will serve me well should I ever have to face radical changes in my own life but there is no real way to know.
Ultimately, the economics of my decision were not the only factor I considered. For good or for bad, the emotions of the moment outweighed the cold hard numbers of the future.
Whether or not that was a mistake? Only time will tell.
Tell me. Do the economic risk outweigh the emotional benefits? Should the financial implications even matter?