Judith Warner has a new New York Times magazine piece on the opt-out fallout. She looks at the lives of women who, armed with prestigious degrees and high-powered jobs, decided to leave their careers behind in order to become full-time caretakers a decade ago. (Many would call them stay-at-home-moms but I won’t, because I find the term, with it’s passive “stay,” pejorative. As much as you might like to, you never “stay” anywhere when you are home chasing kids all day.)
I recommend you read Warner’s piece in full because the reporting is excellent, as are the issues she raises. Still, like all good writing on work-life issues, it left me with more questions than answers. The one nugget of insight Warner took away from looking at these families is that husbands need to do more to demand work-life accommodations from their bosses in order for our work culture to change. She says this is no longer so much a gender issue, but an economic one, because these days parents need two salaries to survive, but they also need two jobs that allow them to parent.
Otherwise, we are left with the inconvenient truth about life in a world in which both men and women want a career and a family. This is the fact that someone needs to watch the kids and, in most circumstances, it is probably best that at least a quarter of the time that person is a parent.
This isn’t an endorsement for one-gender to quit their jobs, just an acknowledgement of the fact that in most families, it is just not possible or ideal, emotionally or financially, for both parents’ careers to go full-steam ahead while they have young children. Someone needs to sacrifice something.
So the question to contend with now is who should be sacrificing what. As I already mentioned, Warner makes the point that husbands need to be sacrificing more in terms of supporting their wives in the uphill battle that is being a working mom. Workplaces need to sacrifice in terms of better accommodating parents, particularly new parents — which, studies show, is an investment that pays off. And women, who have been sacrificing a whole lot for a long, long time, still need to make the hard decisions about how much time they want to give to their families and how much time to their careers.
These are the choices every family with two ambitious parents and young children must face. Better policies like paid leave, flexible workplaces and affordable childcare and preschool will ease this process, but those choices aren’t going anywhere.
Follow Elissa Strauss on Twitter @elissaavery.