Subscribe to this Blog
Today's Blogs
    The Checkup:

Was There an 'Opt-Out Revolution' or Not?

When people write about choices that parents make, there is a tendency toward hyperbole that tends to obscure the truth and get folks in a froth. Certainly, that was the case in 2003, when Lisa Belkin wrote an intriguing New York Times Magazine piece about a staggering small sample of women (her Princeton classmates) who had stepped out of the corporate rat race to focus on home. The title -- "The Opt-Out Revolution" -- quickly entered the pop culture lexicon.

Of course, extrapolating from a small group of Princeton grads isn't the best way to get a snapshot of America, so I was tickled to read the piece from yesterday's Post that poked holes in the "Opt-Out" theory (there is also an accompanying chat with author Donna St. George):

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called "opt-out revolution" among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

"I do think there is a small population, a very small population, that is opting out, but with the nationally representative data, we're just not seeing that," said Diana B. Elliott, a family demographer who is co-author of the U.S. Census Bureau report.

Except that's not exactly right, either. If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that's hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you're seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That's hardly a "small population."

Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I've taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it's only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It's clear that we're still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I'd love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.

This was a frequent topic in On Balance, and I'm still interested in hearing your experiences, especially from at-home parents. How many of you at home right now (or in a full-time gig) would like a more flexible option?

By Brian Reid |  October 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Work/Life Balance
Previous: When Saying Yes is the Right Thing to Do | Next: A Dad Convention and the Battle Against Isolation



Posted by: youngnovamama | October 2, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

"I've taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it's only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options."

This is poorly worded. "Opting" is by definition a choice. You're saying that you don't think choosing no work is bad, except when it's not a choice. This makes no sense.

Do you mean that just "not working" is not bad per se? And if the ultimate goal is choice, and someone has chosen not to work, then how can that be bad per se?

If you are forced not to work by circumstance, then you haven't opted at all.

Posted by: 06902 | October 2, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

I have an almost 6 month old, and I've been back at work for about 6 or 7 weeks. For my job, I need to really be at the office, interacting with my custmer group, maybe 25-50% of the time. I would love it if I were permitted to work 25% of the time from home, in the evenings after the baby is asleep. That would give me 1-2 hours more a day with her, while she is awake. Unfortunately, it's not an option due to executive officer attitude, not the requirements of my actual work. So I cherish the time I do have with my baby, since "opting out" isn't an option.

Posted by: JHBVA | October 2, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I was surprised when I read that perhaps the opt-out revolution did not happen. It seems like a lot of mothers in my neighborhood are highly educated and stay home. I suppose we also have a lot of households in which both parents work. I feel like I am lucky enough to have the best of both worlds, my daughter goes to daycare for half a day and spends the afternoons at home with me. I work while she naps. I am paid for 32 hours a week but frequently work more, which I do not mind because of the flexibility of my schedule. I also pay for full time daycare which gives me some flexibility if I have an afternoon meeting or travel. An incredible boss and spouse who spends as much time as I do parenting makes my situation doable- I wish it was more commonplace, I know so many of my friends whose only options are the 40+ hour work week away from their children or staying at home. I'm in my mid-twenties; people are often surprised to hear that this option was available considering that I am just starting off my career.

Posted by: CapitolHillLB | October 2, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I don't know if I am part of a revolution or not but I am glad I "opted out" (i.e. am staying home). It was the right decision for me and our family.

Posted by: ishgebibble | October 2, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I strongly believe that if it wasn't just "all" (40+ hours per week) or "nothing" (stay at home) -- i.e. if there were more part-time options -- that far fewer moms (and dads too) that start out working would opt out for staying home with kids. I have 2 young kids and am a lawyer at a large law firm. I work full-time, usually 50-60 hours per week, and I regularly travel on business. I have tried diligently to reduce my schedule to some semblance of "part-time," but it hasn't worked for a whole host of reasons. So for me, it's "all or nothing" in terms of work. Right now I continue to choose "all", though I suspect "nothing" will be my choice in the not-so-distant future. I recognize I am incredibly fortunate to be able to even contemplate this choice, but continue to be frustrated by this issue.

At least amongst my (admittedly narrow sampling of) lawyer-moms, a part-time option enabling us to get home to meet the school bus every day would keep almost all of us working. I'm curious if this is much different for other professions, such as family practice doctors, dentists, and the like. Is it easier there to create a schedule where, for instance, you only see patients until 2pm every day? I can imagine it would be plausible to job-share in other professions, whereas in mine it is not.

Posted by: JenDC | October 2, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

JenDC, I'm your flip side. When I got pregnant with my first, I was an associate at a large DC firm, working the standard 50-60 hours/week. They were fond of telling us there that they were willing to allow part time schedules, as long as the part-timer was available to work full time when needed (still for reduced pay, of course). And every part-timer I knew was either working far more than planned or being derided behind her back for her lack of commitment to the firm (sometimes both). So I chose "nothing." If I'd thought that there were real, viable part-time options available, I may have made a different decision.

I plan to return to work within the next year, but I'll admit I have no idea how to go about it. We're now in a different state where I have no professional contacts. I'm thinking of changing my area of practice to better accommodate a part-time schedule, though frankly, I'd be thrilled even if I could find a straight 9-5 gig.

Posted by: newsahm | October 2, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I only read the article the Post wrote, which means I probably didn't get the true story, but nowhere do I see statements about whether the "at home" Moms had income producing activities.

It's been my experience that Hispanic women, at least the ones I've encountered in the DC area are not slouches. In fact, many are quite entrepreneurial.

Just because they aren't in the official work force doesn't mean they aren't generating income.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 2, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

newsahm, if you haven't already, you should check out the information put out by the Project For Attorney Retention ( Lots of useful information there including interesting studies on part-time lawyering. Not sure I believe everything I read (there or anywhere else), but some of the materials might get you thinking. Best of luck as you ramp back on.

Posted by: JenDC | October 2, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Most of the moms (and one dad) I know didn’t opt out, but rather did everything they could to balance the needs of their jobs and their families. In the end, they felt as if they were pushed out of the workplace because they didn’t want to put in 50-60 hour work weeks with small children. And it wasn’t just some philosophical, “I don’t want my child in daycare that long,” but an issue of both parents working long hours so they can’t find childcare to accommodate their hours unless they hired a nanny. In most cases, their jobs became more demanding after they had kids due to the economic downturn. (We’re in the Midwest, so it happened a little earlier here.)

My job was a bit different—my position was eliminated in a reorganization and the new position I was offered, my job combined with my boss’s, was impossible to do in under 60 hours a week. (I did both jobs whenever my boss went on vacation, so I knew how demanding it would be. It’s why my older son was born 3 weeks early.) My husband also worked long hours, and when we looked carefully at our finances, it made more sense for me to stay home.

One reason I don’t think the research numbers play out is I know a lot of moms who are at home but still doing some kind of work, anything from selling Mary Kay to writing freelance articles to teaching online college courses, myself included. So we’re not classified as SAHM, but we basically are. We all plan to return to the workforce at some point, but most of us have realized what we call the “Take it in the shorts” theory of working parents. That is, one parent has to have a job that can take it in the shorts—do the daycare pick ups/drop-offs, take off when the kids are sick, etc. If both parents have jobs that are inflexible, as many jobs are now, one parent will have to make major changes, unless they’re willing/able to hire a nanny.

The most extreme example among my circle of friends was one where the parents, both medical residents, got a surprise pregnancy and ended up sending the baby to live with his parent, visiting on their days off, because after 4 weeks off for the mom after the birth, they couldn’t reign their schedules in , and couldn’t afford a nanny. They were unwilling to flush medical school and 2/3 of a residency down the toilet. It was awful for everyone involved.

When I go back, it will be in a more family-friendly line of work than before, but it will also require a new college degree. Sucks, but it was worth it to spend the time with my kids and not be sick with stress over childcare issues.

Posted by: sjneal | October 2, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

actually, the idea of opting out is that it is an OPTION. For most of those in the study, I think they didn't have the OPTION not to work, therefore they are working, but many would like to not work.
The point of the opting out was that these were highly motivated, highly educated women who decided to STOP their careers because they didn't care so much about it once they had kids. So I'm not sure this study actually proves what it thinks it does.

I quit my job about 1 1/2 years ago. I told them that full time was not going to work. I would do anything they wanted (part time, contract, whatever, however) and they decided (despite a whole pamphlet on part time employees, there is not one in the company of over 200 employees) - that they didn't need me. They were trying to cut costs anyway, and it worked out for them.

At this point, DH and I are both looking for jobs (I've officially turned down three of them) - we're looking for something that works with our family in a place that works with our family. We're seeing our options as slim. In the meantime, DH goes to the corporate job he hates, and I have to tell him: bye bye honey, see you soon, i'll be home playing with the kids.

Two full time working parents did not work for us - even with full time live in help. We were stressed all the time, and it's better this way. I do wish we had the income, but it's not worth it.

Most employers want you to be beholden to the job, wherein you are so dependent on them, you can't leave. I think employers think part timers are there 'leisurely' and therefore aren't so dependent. Only those eemployers who are more secure (or bosses or whatever) would allow part time and/or flexible situations.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 2, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I'm happy with my situation. Everyone at my small company gets paid hourly. If you work 40+ hours you get more benefits (health insurance, long/short term disability insurance), but several moms in the office, including me, have chosen to set our own hours and are not expected to put in extra time. I currently work full days MWF. We obviously have a flexible and supportive boss. All the part-time employees have masters' degrees.

My husband is happy with his job situation too. He works at home 4 days a week and in the office one day a week. Luckily, the entire family can be on his health insurance plan. Because of his flexible schedule, he's able to play golf or fish during the day once or twice a week and work after the girls go to bed. His schedule also allows me to attend a work meeting once in a while during my off days and for him to do day care pick-up.

We're also lucky in having found a day care provider who is caring, local, and allows us to pay less for part-time care. If we had to pay for full-time day care for two, I would have to work full-time.

My sister is a family practice doctor and has worked part-time since finishing her residency. I believe her schedule now is part-days 5 days a week because she has 2 school-age kids and rotates on-call schedule with the other doctors in her practice equally. In the past she has worked 3 full days a week. She just has fewer patients than the doctors who work full-time.

I remember my mom giving advice about making yourself invaluable at your office so you can negotiate a part-time schedule when you become a mom. When she went back to work when I was 6, there was no part-time work available for MBAs. She felt like she was working in a very male-dominated culture.

I think things have improved since the 1980s and early 1990s when she was working, but I still think it's hard to find a new part-time job. On the other hand, I know of a few moms who in the past year have negotiated new jobs that are part-time.

Posted by: lwood321 | October 2, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms..."

This stat shows that the moms who decide to stay at home is relatevely independent of their level of education/earning potential. Good for women! They get to do what they want to do, much more so than men. And good for America too, for one can measure the strength & stability of a society by how well the men treat their women.

As for brian's comment on how it's bad for women to be "forced" to opt out (an obvious oxymoron) to spend time with their children, he has it back assward. Being "forced" to take care of your own kids is a hardship??? Cry me a river. What is much, much more undesirable is to force mothers out to the work force because she has no other means to provide for her children economically. Either way, far better for all of us that women have a choice in the matter.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 2, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I don't know if it is just my friends, but it seems like the women I know my age are all very much against staying at home. I started telling friends last week that I am pregnant and the majority of them (all childless) had the first reaction of, "Well, you aren't going to stay home are you?" Yet, I know a lot of women a little older with kids-mid 30s-who have advanced degrees and have chosen to stay home. Not sure why my generation seems against it or if it's just my particular friends. I haven't decided yet.

Posted by: sunflower571 | October 2, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I have that lucky option of working part-time, and I am definately noy seriously considering wotking full-time or stopping work alltogether here.

If I didn't have the part-time option I would be in a serious dilemma. With three small children and my husband working 60+ hours a week and frequently travelling, I really don't think having me working 50+ hours a week would be fair to them, and it could really only work if we had a line-in nanny, who would then be their primary care-giver.

On the other hand, I admit that I would sorely miss having the "adult time" using my education if I didn't work at all.

Still, putting it into words I think the choice would be clear, without part-time I would be stay-at-home, but slightly whistful.

Posted by: Mmex | October 2, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Sorry about the typos: should read "not seriosly considering working"

Posted by: Mmex | October 2, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and I would fit into the "opt-out" category, as I have two masters degrees, which actually gives me one "hat" more than my husband.

Posted by: Mmex | October 2, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Reading the chat with Donna St. George is interesting. Just look at the number of people writing in who think their particular situation is typical - e.g., the woman from Oak Hill, VA who posted:

"I have been home raising my kids for the past five years. My husband has a 6 figure income and my career in education is on hold although I have a B.S. from Virginia Tech and M.A from The George Washington University. This pretty much describes the background of all of the women in my "playgroup" in the D.C suburbs. Why do you think we aren't represented in the study? "

St. George's answer was spot on - um, because there aren't very many people like you nationwide. You're an outlier, as are your friends.

It's somewhat common for people to read studies like this and assume it's wrong because it doesn't reflect them, or assume that the average/mean/median MUST be true of everyone without outliers.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 2, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I certainly don't fit the female opt out revolution. Back to work full time just eight weeks after older son was born (due to the cesarian delivery it wasn't six weeks), and six weeks after younger son's birth.

DH's role reversal - leaving his job to be the SAHP while I was pregnant the first time - doesn't fit either, because he doesn't have a college degree. He was a senior IT professional with a lot of technical skills and training, though.

In the past month, nearly eighteen years after leaving his last regular full-time job, he's been gradually easing back into part-time work. A friend owns and runs a book store, and has DH coming one or two days a week for 3-6 hours. He's been unloading deliveries, stocking shelves, and last week was given a key and the security code so he could go in a couple of hours before the store opened to mop the floors.

Quite a step down from his last job, designing computer applications and supervising the staff developing his applications. But the owner is very family-supportive, she knows our sons (they call her auntie), and older son's special needs, and she's happy to be flexible so that DH can be with the boys before and after school. If he sticks with it, he could eventually work up to full-time, if he chooses to do that, or he can add more days or more hours to his current part-time schedule, but still keep it as part-time.

It's still not an option that a lot of parents would choose. DH is paid in cash under the table. He has no benefits, of course, but that's not an issue for our family because my employer offers really good benefits, including high-quality low-cost health insurance for the entire family.

So, I don't see a nation-wide revolution. But I do see gradual changes. More people who want something besides the 40+ hour work week are able to find or create that flexible job and schedule. I don't think it's available to everyone who might want better different options, but I think it's much easier for my generation than it was for my mother's generation, and from here, it looks like it's going to be even better, easier, and more flexible for the next generation.

Posted by: SueMc | October 2, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Things have improved since the 1980s and early 1990s that allow parents to work from home (I work as an shop star ambassador for and am a stay-at-home mom. This discussion has been really insightful of the revolution that we are experiencing.

Happy parenting,


Posted by: KatLuvsShoes | October 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Is it "opting" when the job market in your field tanks right around the time your first kid is born?

Also, whatever their prevalence, one reason some college educated women do not go back to work is because they live far from any relatives due to their, or their husband's, work. It's harder to go back to work if you don't have a support system in case of emergency, illness, etc.

Posted by: di89 | October 2, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm at home-- economically I had a choice, since my husband can support both of us. However, physically and psychologically I don't think I had a choice-- being as ill as I was after both births, and exhausted caring for my two. I just don't have the energy to devote to a new community or caring for others. I can't do it. Maybe in a few more years.
This is something I don't hear much about. What we are asked to do as mothers is something physically difficult!!! I don't have wings and I can't fly-- neither can I care for my family, myself, and also a whole community of others (I'm a nurse)

Posted by: liziko | October 2, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Brian: You hit the nail on the head. There needs to be a middle place between having a 40+ hour-a-week career and being at home. I left a magazine career in NY when it became clear that my husband and I couldn't both be working more than full-time at demanding jobs with long commutes and also care for our son (and, later, two daughters). The nail in my career coffin came when a layoff led my husband to take a job in another city and we had to relocate. Would I be considered someone who "opted-out" by choice or necessity?

While caring for kids I wrote a book called "The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-tested strategies for staying smart, sane, and connected while caring for your kids" (Seal Press/Perseus 2008). The SAHMs I interviewed had similar fork-in-the-road experiences as mine, and they had similar concerns about being able to someday get back into the traditional workforce. (Will we be viewed as too old, too removed, too burdened by family obligations? In the eyes of potential employers, will being out of the workforce for five or so years to care for small children negate our education and past workplace experience?)

I know the best solution for me would have been to have career-oriented part-time or location-flexible work. (While I freelance from home, the income can't compare to that of having an actual job.) In so many ways it's illogical that childrearing is something women--and men--are expected to do on the side, as a hobby from "real work." In the years since leaving my corporate job the Internet has erupted and working remotely is so much more viable. It would be nice if the technology were used to help people balance work and family rather than just work more. I hope future parents are able to live in more enlightened times.

Posted by: brimeli | October 2, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Sunflower571, it's not just your friends! I've been a stay-at-home mom for over seven years now with two kids ages 7 and 2 1/2, and friends and family still ask me when I'm going to get a "real" job. I just look at them and reply, "What do you think I'm doing now?"

My husband and I had crunched the numbers before we tried to start a family, and we discovered that my paycheck would basically be going for daycare, gas, and car maintenance-that's assuming we could even FIND a daycare that jibes with a security guard's weird hours! I don't plan to go back to that line of work for the same reason, so when I do consider working again, I want it to be something I can do from home. That way I'll still be there for the kids, but at the same time I'll be able to pursue something involving my talents. There's plenty more options out there these days, and there's a market for those of us who are artistically inclined or "crafty" people. Somebody who can knit, sew, or design things like jewelry can find a niche, and someday I might even put my writing skills to use and try to get a book or two published as well (again, something I can do during school hours).

Liziko, I agree with you 100%! Compared to a 40-hour workweek, being a stay-at-home mom is a nonstop marathon, especially when they're small. Even after they're in school, the job doesn't stop (those of you who use the school hours to get the housework done or run errands then know what I'm talking about). And everybody knows that kids don't conveniently come down with the latest bug that's going around during the daytime-it's always in the middle of the night (the only time that kids slow down enough for the bugs to catch up with them!). And heaven help you if you get sick enough to have to spend the day in bed...if your spouse is one of those who thinks housework is an alien concept, you can emerge from the bedroom to discover the house looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina! And people wonder why stay-at-home parents sometimes grumble about deserving a paycheck for what they do...that would be a good economic stimulus if ever there was one!

I have no regrets about choosing to be there for our kids...I'd rather they learn our values and mores from one of us than take our chances with what the daycare teaches them and spend evenings trying to undo it if it clashes with our values and beliefs.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | October 3, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

In the highest income brackets and education levels, there is most certainly an opt-out revolution going on. The census statistics miss that when they categorize everyone making over $75,000 in household income as affluent. At this level, losing one income makes a big difference in terms what people home/neighborhood a family can afford to live in and what school and activities you can afford for your children. Families making more than double the census threshold would more accurately reflect the trend towards more flexible employment for at least one parent.

In our home, I stayed home with my children when they were little because we could do it financially and we believed it was best for our children to spend most of their waking hours with a family member rather than a paid childcare provider. I believe the investment we made in our children has paid off, but it did cost me significantly in my career. I have no doubt that I can make up for lost time in my career. I could never make up for lost time with my children.

Posted by: occasionallyinformed | October 8, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company