The Opting-In/Opting-Out Conflict

The conflicts women experience – based in reality or feelings – about work and motherhood are always grist for the media mill.  There have been great social changes in the last 50 years of which the changes in women’s lives have been a major part.  Women asserted their wish to break out of their prescribed social role of housewife/mother, fought for their place in the workforce, and helped by a changed economy assumed an even greater role as breadwinners.  The media, documenting these steps along the way, have proclaimed “having it all”, “juggling”, “balancing work and family”, “opting out” and now, “opting in”, each in turn as the new reality for women.

Each of these “new realities” is put forward as the answer to Freud’s question, “What do women want?”  In fact, they all reflect the many attempts at solutions to conflict – both internal and external – that women experience as they try to express their needs and wants as whole people.  As has been recounted many times, both women and men were constrained by prescribed social roles, closing off important parts of themselves.  Today, many more men than before are also asserting their wish to express other aspects of themselves, particularly in relation to children.

Although the changes in both men and women have been noted, the changing lives and behavior of women have drawn greater attention because of their impact on child-care, marriage, and the workplace.  The fact is, that men’s role as breadwinners – despite the impact of the economy – is still perceived by them and others as primary. Mothers working full-time – or even part-time – however, has raised the unsolved problem of child-care, and has created new conflicts of needs between their children’s, their jobs’, and their own.

Some years back, attention was focused on the phenomenon of successful career women leaving their jobs having opted out of the stress of managing both work and family life.  Motherhood suddenly became the new ideal again, and magazines featured cover photos of pregnant celebrities.  Now the pendulum is swinging again, and the story is becoming that of women who are trying to opt back in and having a hard time doing so.  The point is the penalty paid for taking time out to be a full-time mother.

Many years ago, when the early part of the modern women’s movement was in full flower, I attended as an observer a meeting of a group of mothers who met regularly to discuss issues of motherhood, marriage and work.  This was a time when keeping your own name after marriage was a statement of liberation.  All of the women had marriages based theoretically on an equal sharing of housekeeping and child-care.  The women talked about how once there were children the old, traditional division of labor slipped back into place, and discussed the strategies their husbands used knowingly or unknowingly to avoid their share of household work.

Many of the conflicts they were experiencing then sound familiar today.  Issues that were just starting to surface then, continue to be unresolved today.  Author Judith Warner, who some years ago wrote “Perfect Madness”, deploring the state of American motherhood, has now written an article following up on a number of successful career women who left work a decade ago opting for full time motherhood.  These women are now opting back in, talk about the choices they made and the price they paid for those choices.

A number of themes emerge from the voices of these women.  The motivation for becoming full time mothers was in large measure the stress of two working parents  once they had children.  Some wanted to have more time with their children.  For some the idea that it was a choice they were making was important.  Others felt it was what their husbands wanted, and would make their lives run more smoothly.  Although unspoken, an idealization of full-time motherhood seemed to be involved.  The less ideal aspects of the job are not understood until they are experienced.

The negatives the women speak of are also familiar.  The traditional division of labor led to housekeeping now once again being considered women’s domain.  There were stresses in the marriages as men functioned in the larger world and women were involved with children’s activities.  One mother expresses her anxiety about her worth as a mother, while all refer to their loss of identity and diminished self-confidence in their new roles.  In some instances these tensions led to divorce.  All of the women followed have returned – or want to return – to work, but find they cannot return at the level they had been at, either in terms of salary or position.

The point really is not that the grass is always greener on the other side.  Rather it is the need to recognize the inherent conflict women face in their wish both to nurture children and to function in a hard-driving work world.  This is a conflict men are now also starting to feel.  As both men and women assert the importance of family needs, the work place may gradually become more responsive.  In the same way, hopefully there will also be increased recognition that an over-investment in children can be as limiting as an over-investment in work.

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