Regrets Of The Opt-Out Generation: Why Choosing To Stay-At-Home Was Never Really The Problem

This originally appeared on Journey Of Love. Republished here with permission.

By now most have read or at least caught wind of Judith Warner’s New York Times Magazine article The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In. The article centers on stories of affluent women who left high-powered jobs during the so-called Opt-Out Revolution, to become stay-at-home mothers. Now a decade later, Warner checks in with some of these women to see how the choice of motherhood over career played out in the long run. 

The three stories Warner focuses on show women whose marriages are in shambles, whose identities are lost, whose careers must start over from scratch. Though only one of the women interviewed expressed out-and-out regret and bitterness, Warner weaves a tone of regret through each woman’s story—implying, in no uncertain terms, that these women made grave mistakes by choosing babies over business. She encourages the reader to associate failed marriages and missed opportunities with motherhood, when really it is much more complex than that.

The stories of these women, which span over a decade or more, do not simply tell the outcome of one monumental choice. If we were to look more closely at their lives, beyond the agenda of the New York Times article, I’m sure we would see a culmination of many choices as well as factors beyond their control.

The job market has not remained stagnant these past 10 years, and the economic landscape has changed drastically and unpredictably. The choice to be a stay-at-home mother is only one piece of the puzzle in how their lives played out. It is lazy to imply that this was the move that undid them, because life is not that simple. 

Not to mention, their lives are not over. Warner has honed in on these women right as they are wading back into the job market, during a recession no less. They’re encountering circumstantial roadblocks no one saw coming a decade ago. It would be interesting to see how these women respond in interviews in another 10 years time. A lot can change. A lot will change.

Warner glosses over the heart of the matter in a brief paragraph toward the end of her article, where she notes that none of the women she spoke with actually wanted their old lives or jobs back. She writes, “What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been—more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work.” The problem is that such opportunities do not exist. The regret these women feel isn’t rooted in the choices they made, but the fact that more suitable choices were not available to them.

Last year, The Atlantic published its hotly debated article by Anne-Marie Slaughter Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Slaughter delves into the source of the opt-out problem, which is that women are not afforded the opportunity to pursue career and family simultaneously because our economy and society are not structured to support these women. Even the most educated and competent women have to compromise if they decide to incorporate both work and family into their lives.

Perhaps this is where the conversation about the opt-out generation should set its focus. Instead of implying that choosing motherhood over a lucrative career is a sin against feminine progress, let’s question just how far we have come if even the most successful and educated women must choose one or the other. In respect to the New York Times article, little is gained from wistfully looking at the past and wondering what could have been. Because quite frankly, these women didn’t have a necessarily “better” option. They were forced to choose family over career because they did not have the option of family and a career. There was never a happy medium for these women and there still isn’t today.

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer living in Reno, Nevada. She is a monthly contributor to Reno Moms Blog and posts regularly on her personal blog Journey of Love.

Related Links: