Ten years ago, as a reporter and soon-to-be working mother, I read with extreme personal interest the spate of stories revealing the new "opt-out revolution" among well-educated and well-off new moms who had chosen to stay home with their babies.
I had a partner, a career and a graduate degree from an elite university, too, but I didn't have the option to opt out. (I still don't.) Honestly, I resented opt-out moms. I remember talking with my husband at the end of my first maternity leave and beginning to cry. Would my working hurt my baby girl? How would I handle the work-mom juggle? (I wasn't even thinking about the rest of my life at that point.) Should I find a way to opt out, too?
Fast forward 10 years, and I'm editorial director of Working Mother and also direct the Working Mother Research Institute. I live and breathe our mission to help not only working moms in their personal and work lives, but their employers as well. For 28 years, our signature initiative, the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, has set the bar for employers nationwide to create better family-friendly work environments for everyone, male and female.
A decade into working momhood, I'm glad I didn't opt-out. As my career has grown, so has my salary, my influence and my ability to work flexibly. (I've created a flexible work environment for my staff as well.) I also have two kids who are doing just fine, thank you. And yes, there are days that I need a nap, but opt for a Diet Coke instead.
Lately, I've come to know many stay-at-home moms, both through our research and my personal network, who are shocked to find their path back to work nearly blocked. Their professions may have contracted or changed significantly since they left. Their years away have made it harder to compete for jobs -- and the only jobs available to them are at a lower level or lower pay. In our "What Moms Choose" survey of 3,700 moms, 35 percent of career-oriented stay-at-home moms pointed to child care costs as a key reason they hadn't returned to work. Meanwhile, 55 percent of these moms told us that while they would prefer to work, most aren't interested in a traditional full-time arrangement.
Still, new moms need to think hard about a decision to opt out: How will it affect their feelings of self-worth? How difficult will it be to opt back in? What if something led to their needing to support their family on their own?
Looking back on my first maternity leave, here's another point that comes to mind about returning to work: My husband wasn't in tears. I don't think it even occurred to him -- or me -- that he might want to opt out. He was, however, already starting to stress about what we now call work-life issues. (The pattern we established all those years ago -- he picks up the kids twice a week, I do three; he does the laundry, I handle the housecleaning -- still stands.)
Now comes The Sunday New York Times August 11 cover story, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In" -- which challenges us to re-examine the choices opt-out moms and their partners made- - decisions that would cement paths for their marriages, their long-term financial outlook and their search for purpose and self-worth.
The Times article (written by the incredibly thoughtful Judith Warner) makes many interesting points, but one that hits home for me is the idea that the while women might consider a fallback position of staying home, few dads do. And yet, while that topic may be out of reach for most men at this moment, work-life is becoming an increasing topic for working dads. "Young men are realizing they have to do more at home than their fathers did, and today's young men want to do so," according to Stew Friedman, management professor of the Wharton School in his research on working parenthood.
I love the idea that men are feeling the pull of finding work-life satisfaction, that stay-at-home dads have entered the public discourse (and along with that, breadwinning moms and that the concept of opting out might be something for men to consider. I love these male trends because it rightfully helps move the work-life conversation beyond working moms to include all employees. Let me be clear, however: We have not solved this question for working moms by a long shot, but adding men to the mix adds more fuel to the fight.
I'm glad I still have my career. I support my family, I am valued at work, and I'm a role model to both my daughter and my son. My career has also forced my husband and me to develop a fairly equitable approach to running our family, from divvying up chores to choosing new jobs. Do I wish I had more free time? Always. But my boss' embrace (and advocacy) of the power of flexibility has helped me not only to grow in my career, but also to negotiate life's complex twists and turns as well.
As always, working moms lead the way on work life. Men are joining up fast.