Opting Out

I am the prototypical opt-out girl. With two graduate degrees, a handful of publications, and many assurances of some sort of pay-the-bills job in science or medicine, I waddled my 9-month-pregnant self right out of the workforce. The New York Times reminded me I’ve reached a decade of unemployment. And just as Brodie turns 10, Judith Warner revisited women, like me, who in the budding new millennium dropped careers in the name of Motherhood. With the luxury and support of their husband’s income, as well as a shared idea that this was the right choice for their diapered ones, these women might have blushed a bit about becoming June Cleaver… but it was with superior, Family First! aplomb. The article reveals that ten years hence, they want (need) to use their Ivy League brains for something more enjoyable (profitable) than manic volunteerism or soccer halftime snack planning.

In short (which the article is not), many of these women find themselves under-utilized, or unfulfilled, or divorced. Though not a single one of them regrets the opt-out decision, none mentioned the fate of the children they placed ahead of a paycheck. There was, however, a fair amount of bitching about the laundry. The article is well-balanced, and does feature stories of the genera of women I love interrogating over cocktails: the ones who have found a flexible career that celebrates their smarts without sacrificing “quality time”—whatever that entails for their family unit. These ladies often describe their new jobs as “falling into my lap…” which is how work feels when you don’t actually have to do it. These enviable women have the continued support of their husbands (in both a financial and a we’ll-outsource-the-laundry way) and happily traded their yoga pants for pencil skirts and are leading non-profit organizations and small businesses.

But there were more moms whose lives took another turn. As their kids reached less-likely-to-get-head-stuck-in-bannisters ages, they felt the need to redefine themselves as more than crust cutters. These same do-gooding mommies who devoted a decade to poo and Polly Pockets and Legos and laundry now find themselves unable to tackle all of that after an exhausting day in a pencil skirt. And because a woman who lands a demanding new job may occasionally want someone else to wipe the sticky counter, or an appointment to address her dark roots, the confused husband in the messy house sees it like this:

“Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

He sounds just like William H. Macy in Pleasantville: “… and there was NO DINNER!”

Honey... I'm HOME!

Honey… I’m HOME!

This quickly sums up why I found the entire article irritating and depressing. Though masked as The Plight of the Opt Out Mommy, the undercurrent through it all was The Erosion of Marriage as exhausted couples try to do their capital B best at everything, except being very nice to each other. Who would want to live in any proximity to a woman who doesn’t “put value in herself?” What a dick, right? Or, maybe just a sort of sad guy who got sidelined as Wife morphed into Mommy who then turned into Working Woman who isn’t getting the laundry done. (Maybe still a bit of a dick.) I’m stunned and sad. Also, smug and lucky.  I’m Smucky. After ten years, Bernie and I still have regular check ins: Do you care that I bring in not a single penny and yet stand here in Jimmy Choos? Do you want to stop stepping on Legos and finish a residency in critical care? The answers remain no, and no. And even as Bernie brings home the bacon, and I fry it up in a pan, we still keep tabs on The State of Us. Are you happy? Am I happy? Do we still like each other? Yes and yes and yes.

Annoying Smucky Girl might also be an anomaly among Opt Outs. I love the laundry. My favorite part of the day is when all of the beds are made and no one is hungry. I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about flowers. And when asked what I plan to do when the boys no longer require my immediate and unrelenting crust cutting services, I defer to my algorithm (which last night leaned heavily toward the >4 cocktails pathway). Opting out has never affected the value I put on myself because what I do will never be who I am. Also, even though I take pride in my folded fitted sheets and meal-making, these little boys benefit most from watching Bernie and me be nice to each other… which I hope would happen even if I decided to don a pencil skirt and bring home a paycheck.