Friday, May 25, 2007

"Opting Out" at the tipping point?

The "opt-out" phenomenon has reached a tipping point with new books and media coverage coming out this spring.

In my new podcast episode I talk to Opting Out? author Pamela Stone. Opting Out? provides a clear-eyed look at the lives of stay-at-home mothers. As a sociologist, Pamela Stone conducted extensive interviews with 54 women to trace their life-career paths. This research is just what was needed to shine a fresh light on this often-divisive topic.

I had an insight this week that the heated discussions over different views of the opt-out phenomenon can be seen as a battle for the definitive narrative of mothers' llives. (The following interpretation is mine, not Pamela Stone's, so if anyone doesn't like it they can be upset with me.)

Leslie Bennetts has written a narrative based on scary stories of economic dependency.

Linda Hirshman comes from a philosophical background that is internally logical, but in my opinion is an inaccurate and limiting sterotpye of mothers' lives. I believe that you can live a full and meaningful life as a mother who has taken leave from the paid workforce, because I've seen many women do so.

Lisa Belkin's original Opt Out article sparked this discussion with a narrative built around choice feminism. She gave us the term "opt out" which has had incredible staying power even though it may not be the most accurate descrption for the workplace pushes and family pulls that lead women to exit the workforce. I get the feeling that Lisa Belkin didn't foresee the controversy she was unleasing with her Opt Out piece, and I give her credit for continuing to follow this developing storyline in her Life's Work column

In Mojo Mom, I wrote a guidebook for women who were navigating the identity transitions of motherhood. I embraced motherhood as a catalyst for transformation, saying that change was going to come anyway so you might as well make the best of it. It was a delicate balance between individual strategies and advocating for systemic changes, which I have continued to work on since finishing my book. I am proud of the fact that I researched and wrote my book while I was still in the process of raising a young child. My goal is to create mom-to-mom conversations with an eye on the larger culture.

Pamela Stone gives us the research background that combines women's own stories and sociological analysis. Written with respect for her subjects, Opting Out? provides the fairest and most objective map of the landscape that I have seen.

Just this month there has been an incredible amount of discussion about mothers and the workforce. Interestingly, the data themsevles pesent us with a Rorschach blot of ambiguity. Depending on the time period you are studying, and the significance you assign to the fluctuations between approximately 70 and 75% of college-educated, married mothers of preschoolers in the workforce, you can either see huge changes or a trend that has been remarkably consistent over the years.

Is the glass half full or empty? A little emptier than five years ago, and what does that mean? It's open to interpretation that varies widely depending on your point of view and storyline of choice. Is it time to come up with a new term to replace "opt out"? Can we come up with a new phrase that is just as sticky and memorable, but more accurately reflects the work-life tradeoffs women face?

More coverage you should know about:

Helaine Olen did a Q&A with Pamela Stone on that dovetails nicely with the topics that Pamela and I discussed on my podcast.

Harvard Business School Press has just published Sylvia Ann Hewlett's new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, which presents the business case in favor of offering flexible employment.

Ellen Goodman, my favorite columnist, wrote a brillant Mother's Day piece on women being marginalized as "A third gender in the workplace" when our complicated lives are actually the norm. She wrestles with the "deep-seated bias that puts the image of a 'good mother' at odds with that of an 'ideal worker.'"

Sharon Lerner on reminds us of the limitation of the opt-out storyline in her article, "The invisible mommies."

And finally, let's not forget the other scholars who have been writing about gender and the workplace for years now. I am planning to go back and really study Joan Williams' Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.

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Blogger PunditMom said...

This is wonderfully thoughtful post that really sums up where we are in the media discussion today. I, too, have bee wondering where we come up with a new/better "sticky" phrase -- will it help if we do?

12:51 PM  

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