There are a number of problems with the moms-go-home storyline. First, such articles focus excessively on a tiny proportion of American women—white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs. Just 8 percent of American working women fit this demographic, writes Williams. The percentage is smaller still if you’re dealing only with white women who graduated from the Ivies and are married to high-earning men, as Belkin’s article does. Furthermore, only 4 percent of women in their mid- to late thirties with children have advanced degrees and are in a privileged income bracket like that of Belkin’s fellow Princeton grads, according to Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That group is far more likely than average women to be married when they give birth (91 percent, as opposed to 73 percent of all women), and thus to have a second income on which to survive. But because journalists and editors increasingly come from and socialize in this class, their anecdotes loom large in our personal rearview mirrors—and in our most influential publications. Such women are chastised for working by Caitlin Flanagan (a woman rich enough to stay home and have a nanny!) in The Atlantic, and for lacking ambition by Linda Hirshman in The American Prospect. But such “my-friends-and-me” coverage is an irresponsible approach to major issues being wrestled with by every American family and employer.
The stories are misleading in a second important way. Williams’s report points out that “opt-out stories invariably focus on women in one particular situation: after they have ‘opted out’ but before any of them divorce.” The women in those articles often say their skills can be taken right back onto the job. It’s a sweetly optimistic notion, but studies show that, on average, professional women who come back after time away—or even after working part-time, since U.S. women working part-time earn 21 percent less per hour worked than those who work full-time—take a hefty and sustained pay cut, and a severe cut in responsibility level. Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, according to the latest census figures. While numbers are lower for marriages in the professional class, divorce remains a real possibility. Williams points to Terry Martin Hekker, one of the ur opt-out mothers, who in 1977 published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled," The Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood in ‘An Age of Do-Your-Own-Thing .’ In 2006, Hekker wrote—again in the Times, but demoted to the Sunday Style section—about having been divorced and financially abandoned: “He got to take his girlfriend to Cancun, while I got to sell my engagement ring to pay the roofer.”
In other words, interview these opt-out women fifteen years later—or forty years later, when they’re trying to live on skimpy retirement incomes—and you might hear a more jaundiced view of their “choices.”
The opt-out stories have a more subtle, but equally serious, flaw: their premise is entirely ahistorical. Their opening lines often suggest that a generation of women is flouting feminist expectations and heading back home. At the simplest factual level, that’s false. Census numbers show no increase in mothers exiting the work force, and according to Heather Boushey, the maternity leaves women do take have gotten shorter. Furthermore, college-educated women are having their children later, in their thirties—after they’ve established themselves on the job, rather than before. Those maternity leaves thus come in mid-career, rather than pre-career. Calling that “opting out” is misleading. As Alice Kessler-Harris, a labor historian at Columbia University, put it, “I define that as redistributing household labor to adequately take care of one’s family.” She adds that even while at home, most married women keep bringing in family income, as women traditionally have. Today, women with children are selling real estate, answering phone banks, or doing office work at night when the kids are in bed. Early in the twentieth century, they might have done piecework, taken in laundry, or fed the boarders. Centuries earlier, they would have been the business partners who took goods to market, kept the shop’s accounts, and oversaw the adolescent labor (once called housemaids and dairymaids, now called nannies and daycare workers).