WOMEN
08/09/2013 04:28 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

I Wrote The Original 'Opting Out' -- Here's How Little Has Changed

Lisa Belkin

Ten years ago, the chatter filled my inbox.

Today, it is filling Twitter and Facebook.

But while the medium is different, the message is surprisingly the same -- and the deja vu I feel watching the debate over a New York Times Magazine cover discussing "Opting Out" says a lot about how much has changed in ten years, and how much has not.

A decade ago, the byline was mine, and the title was "The Opt-Out Revolution", a look at the surprising choice by ambitious, educated, achieving women to "opt-out, ratchet back, and redefine work" after having children.

Today the byline is Judith Warner's, and the title is "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," a look at what happened to those women. "Had they found the 'escape hatch' from the rat race that one of Belkin's interviewees said she was after?" asks Warner (who, full disclosure, is a friend.) "Were they able, as a vast majority said they had planned, to transition back into the work force? Or had they...made a colossal error?"

Her conclusion: yes, and no.

"What do you think?" I've been asked by friends, and readers and TV interviewers since the Times posted this latest look. Thousands of words have been written on the subject of "Opting Out" over the decade, in books and articles and blog posts and comment sections, so at the risk of adding to the pile, here are some initial thoughts:

Both articles serve as Rorschach tests. What you see is what you bring in the first place. After my piece ran I heard from people who read it as an indictment of the decision to stay home and from others who read it as a declaration that every woman should do so. And now I hear the same about Warner's. From where I sit, the main conclusion of her article is that women who opted out paid a price for their pause, but it was one they were willing to pay.

She writes:

The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women -- the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks -- found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.

Not everyone saw it that way, though. As one of my own Facebook commenters wrote, after reading that same quote: "What a shocker! It's 10 years later, and most of them are divorced, unhappy at home, and trying to re-enter the working world."

Why the disconnect? There is nothing so personal as the choices that construct a life, and when you are uncertain of your own path it can feel like doubt at best and condemnation at worst if someone else takes the opposite road. Mothers today are no less comfortable with their decisions than mothers were a decade ago -- mostly because they face essentially the same ones. For all the debate over workplace flexibility and the demands on two-income households, change is still more theoretical than actual.

So, what about the striking number of divorces among the women in this latest story? Warner starts with the tale of Sheilah O'Donnel, whose marriage slowly fell apart after she quit her $500,000 a year job in the tech industry. There are two other women who are profiled in detail in the piece, and both of them talk about tension in their marriages, though they are both still married.

Is the logical conclusion, then, that leaving work destroys marriages? That is impossible to say without a "control group" of women who didn't leave. Warner interviewed nearly two dozen women in depth. In addition, I have followed up, over the years, with the more than a dozen who were the main subjects of my article. Of all those, a handful are divorced, less than the national average (though consistent with the rate of highly educated women.) Money problems, marital problems, self-doubt -- are these things that happened to these "opt-out women" between their mid-thirties and mid-forties? Or are these things that happen to ALL women over those same ten years? (O'Donnel, for one, believes that her marriage had huge cracks before she left work, and in fact her decision to do so was because she thought it was the only way to save her marriage.)

Moving on, there is no Opt-Out Generation. Sure, the headline Warner's piece says otherwise, but headlines are attention grabbers, not summaries. (While we are on the subject of headlines, let me stop to add that the one on my 2003 piece, which coined the phrase "Opt-Out Revolution" took some liberties, too, because one can definitely quibble with that last word. The collection of decisions did not mark a "before" and "after" the way a true overthrow should. Similarly, the choices made by those women were but a variation on those made by women ten years before that and, I would wager, ten years from now.

True, there was one striking worldview that united the women I wrote about ten years ago: they were the first to believe (for awhile) that they didn't have to choose. Raised by women who busted down the barriers, they were taught that the playing field was level and that they could "have it all". The real news was not their decision to walk away from work when it collided with life, so much as it was their surprise at the very fact that they had to make any choice at all.

But does that make them a "generation"? That's too neat a closing of the chapter. Because the next generation will opt-out (they already ARE opting out) and also opt back in.

Speaking of titles, I also question the idea that this cohort, or generation, or group, "wants back in" -- which seems to imply that they have learned their lesson and changed their minds. These women are not returning to the workplace now because the "opt-out thing" didn't go as planned. Returning almost always WAS the plan. On average, women "off-ramp" as Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes it, for an average of 2.2 years, during the most intense years of parenting, then they go back to work.

So if the lesson isn't that Opting Out leaves you broke and divorced then what IS the lesson?

There are three, actually.

First, keep your hand in. The return to the workplace was, for many, far tougher than they'd expected. In part that's because the economy spiraled downward and jobs are harder for everyone to find, especially workers with a gap in their resumes. In part it's because many who opted out were naive. Readers pointed this out when the original article ran, warning of the risks of being financially dependent on a husband, and in fact nearly every woman Warner interviewed said they would exit differently if they were to do it again. Rather than walking away completely, they would work part-time, or consult, or try harder to find a job with more flexibility.

Second, this is no longer just about women. I didn't quote a single man in my Opt-Out piece -- a reflection of the fact that this was entirely a conversation by, for, and about women. In the interim decade, though, men have increasingly questioned the toll that work takes on their own personal lives, to feel pulled between job and family, and to chafe at the fact that they don't see a way to combine the two. They are opting out, and staying home more.

Finally, the workplace needs to (continue to) change. Several of the women in my original article did try to craft more flexible schedules before they finally left, and their employers weren't interested. I suspect those same employers would have different responses today, as employees insist on new ways to work. The next generation has long told pollsters and HR departments that they will not work the way their parents have, but will demand a life that allows for stops and starts, pauses and recalibrations. One where opting out in the first place is less necessary, and returning is more normative.

In another ten years, maybe we'll see another cover story titled "Children Of The Opt-Out Generation Wonder What All The Fuss Was About."

I'd opt for that.

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.

CONVERSATIONS