Friday, August 9, 2013

All This "Leaning-In" and "Opting-Out" Is Giving Me Whiplash!

Thanks to a New York Times piece following three women who "opted-out" of high-power careers to stay home with their children a decade ago, there's a lot of buzz about mothers' career decisions hitting the blogosphere right now.

In this thorough and well-written piece, Judith Warner reveals that many of the women who were at the center of the controversial choice to forgo powerful careers in place of motherhood have some regrets. Many of these women are now wanting to get back into the workplace and are finding it hard, especially if they didn't have a wealth of powerful connections before they left.

Most interesting to me, though, are the reflections on how these decisions have impacted not their professional lives, but their personal ones. In particular, I was drawn to the passages about the impact their decisions had on how they saw themselves, and--in turn--what impact that had on their marriages.

Warner surveyed two dozen women, but her piece focuses on the more personal stories of three of them. On the first, Sheilah O'Donnel, Warner had this to say about the deterioration of her marriage to Mark Eisel:
O’Donnel and Eisel agree the job drove a destructive wedge between them. “I look back on it as the beginning of the end of our marriage,” Eisel said when we talked by phone last month. “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.”
What interests me the most about this is how O'Donnel's return to the workplace seems directly connected to her sense of identity and--disturbingly--that her husband feels her own identity should not be the core of her sense of self. Working made O'Donnel see (and value) herself in a different way, and Eisel saw that as a competition with her other duties to the household.

The second woman profiled, Carrie, similarly notes how work made her feel, focusing on what it meant for her sense of identity:
She was excited, revitalized, virtually glowing, like a person in love. “I’m so energized by our success,” she told me. “I feel like I’m fulfilling the professional potential that I never did before. I feel smart. I feel successful. I feel like I escaped a whole slog level of my career. I got to stay home with my kids and yet I got to come back to a leadership position. And I’m earning a living.”
The third woman and her husband, Kuae and Ted, noted some similar tensions in how Kuae's opting-out of the workplace gave her time to volunteer and develop a new sense of self worth:
He’s a numbers guy, he said. From his perspective, the numbers pertaining to what he called her at-home “journey of self-discovery” just didn’t add up to be a very good deal for him or any husband whose nonearning wife still expects to split household drudgery 50-50.
Wedding Rings 

This tension between married couples revealed in Warner's piece led to some spin-off commentary in The Nation. Here, Bryce Covert is interested in tracking how marriages that started out as equally shared and egalitarian spaces of negotiation reverted to traditional gender roles once the woman in the marriage "opted-out":
It seems, then, that the actual circumstance of having a wife stay home changes men from being egalitarian to being far more traditional in their expectations of what they should get from their wives. Chimerne Irvin comments, “I think a big issue is that we both want to be taken care of at the end of the day, and neither of us has any energy to take care of the other. It’s the proverbial ‘meet me at the door with a martini and slippers.’ Don’t we all want that?” In fact, we do all want that—and men may get overly used to it when they get it.
While it may sound shocking on the surface that these men turned into traditionalists who expected a clean house and warm dinners after their wives chose to stay home to raise children, in truth we're all pretty adaptable as human beings. We tend to get used to the norms that surround us, and it can be really, really hard not to fall into traditional gender roles, especially when economic realities come into play. Some may use this study to suggest that the husbands are backward-thinking or chauvinistic, but that ignores the chicken-or-egg element of the problem.

Do patriarchal expectations force men and women into traditional gender roles, or does acting out traditional gender roles create patriarchal power structures? 

For these couples, couples who agreed upon egalitarian roles early in their marriages and only adopted more traditional roles after their circumstances changed, it seems that the latter might be the case. We project our own experiences outward and upward. We look at the world through the lenses we wear.

A Sunset Through Rose Colored Glasses 

Annie at PhD in Parenting and Jessica at School of Smock each have some personal reflections on the implications of these studies and how the lenses that we've put on might play out in our lives.

Annie writes about how frustrating it is to see egalitarian relationships revert back to the confining gender roles and how hard it seems to be to reverse course:
Is there no way back? I hope that's not the case. I think that the same type of conversation that should happen before someone decides to stay home (about "us" and "our", not about one person telling the other) should also happen on a continuous basis and certainly happen when anything changes.
Jessica says of her own career path:
I didn’t mean to opt-out. I didn’t mean to be leave the work force permanently. My intention was to “lean in,” but it didn’t quite work out the way I expected. And I do want to opt back in. But I want it to be on my terms, with no regrets.
Both of these women are trying to figure out what this means in a very pragmatic sense. How do we "lean in" after "opting out"? When should we "lean in"? When should we "opt out"? What do these choices mean for our marriages, our children, and--sometimes lost in the fog--our sense of self?

Annie ends with something of a call to egalitarian action:
I'm sick of talking about women opting out or balancing or having it all or leaning in. I'd like to talk about how to get more men engaged in the conversation so that it isn't always about the women.
And that, ultimately, is where I'm at: sick of it. Maybe even sick from it. Like seasick sick. Sick of the back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.

In fact, I think I'm getting whiplash.

Jessica also astutely asks in her post if these terms ("lean in," championed by feminist businesswoman Sheryl Sandburg; and "opt out," created by the media to describe the "crisis" of the modern businesswoman/mother) are just "media creations intended to make mothers feel guilty."

I don't know that they're intended to make us feel guilty (though that is certainly one outcome), but I do think they are media creations. They are, in fact, oversimplified summaries to try to capture something as complex and overwhelming as life choices into a simple phrase.

The media message seems to be simple. If you "lean in," you are like a rocket ship on a trajectory to the stars. You are forever facing forward with very little opportunity to put on the brakes or even slow down to see the scenery. You zoom past your children's precious moments of crayon drawings and first steps in an attempt to reach new heights. (Do you know what happens to rocket ships when they slow down too soon? They crash. That's what happens.)

Rocket Ship 06

On the other hand, if you "opt out," you are like an old anchor that has sadly broken off and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, wasting your usefulness beneath the murky debris of diapers and dirty dishes. You are forgotten, washed up, and fixed without much opportunity to move at all.


But that's not what lives are like!

We are neither stuck in a perpetual state of leaning forward, forever destined to miss life as it zooms around or stuck in a perpetual state of immobility, forever destined to watch life pass us by. We are active, agent-filled, decision-making creatures who get to "lean in" and "opt out" and everything in between on a daily, no hourly, basis. Decisions are not final. Life is not a take out menu that you order from at the beginning of adulthood and then sit back and wait as your courses come to the door. Life is dynamic, ever-changing, and full, full, full of options.

Here are some ways that I have leaned in the past week: I conquered my fear of the squat rack and lifted more weight than I ever have in my entire life, I read a book for my PhD exams, I volunteered to be on two panels, and I started crafting my syllabus for the next semester.

And here are some ways that I opted out in the past week: I went and watched Gilmore Girls re-runs while eating a brownie instead of reading another book, I cuddled with my toddler on the couch instead of answering emails, I planned trips to the zoo and a play instead of making more syllabus updates.

In the grander scheme, some think I lean in too far because I am working full time while finishing a graduate degree and parenting a toddler. Others think that I am setting the feminist movement back two decades because I  opted out by choosing a career path at a two-year community college instead of setting my sights for a research one position.

The lesson? You will never please everyone. Ever.

So instead of seeing myself as a rocket ship blasting toward new heights of career success or as the anchor slowly sinking to my outdated demise, I see my life like a Tilt-a-Whirl. 


At times the trajectory of life will throw me forward. I will lean all the way in. At other times, I will be thrown back, opting out. Most of the time, I will just be holding onto the bar and doing my best to hold onto my balance (and my cookies) in a whirlwind of life that is unpredictable, fast-paced, and ever-changing. 

One final note, I hope that I don't come across as trivializing these discussions or the decisions that women and men have to make about their families and their work-life balances. These decisions are important to me as an individual and to our society as a collective. Finally, all of those choices are severely limited by poverty, unequal workplace practices (the social difficultly of paternity leave and the challenges of breastfeeding from work, for instance), and the complicated web of privilege, oppression, and unfairly applied opportunities across the board. Not everyone can lean in or opt out when they want to, and even having these discussions is usually a mark of economic and class privilege. 

I mainly want to highlight that these media narratives, these tales of what options are available to us and the impact they will have upon us, need to be deconstructed. If it's difficult to lean back in after opting out, then we need to dismantle the story that tells us life is a Choose Your Own Adventure Book without the option of backtracking. 

We do that by, as Annie mentioned, making sure that women and men are involved in the conversations and decisions about childcare, work, and housekeeping and ensuring that workplace policies are making these options possible.

Wherever you are in your life right now--leaned in, opted out, doing the hokey pokey--don't let this snapshot of your life define you or confine you. We are more than any one decision in our lives. We are more than a collection of all of the decisions in our lives. 

Life is like a Tilt-a-Whirl and--as a great doctor once said--"Buy the ticket. Take the ride."  


  1. Excellent post. I'm going to try and spread it around.
    One substantive comment, on the bit about seeing more men engaged in domestic balancing conversations. It's a common point, but I wonder how useful it is at this point. I certainly wouldn't exclude them from the conversation, but many are pushing 'get the men more involved' as the solution. But history suggests otherwise.
    We've seen dramatic improvement in men's participation in domestic life. Our husbands do far more than our fathers, to say nothing of our grandfathers. But it still isn't enough. We have the opt out, lean in whiplash (great description, btw) worse than ever. Shouldn't it have gotten better?

  2. Thanks!

    You make some great points, and I do think more men than ever are involved on an individual level (more men are doing the grocery shopping, laundry, and changing diapers), but I do wonder how much men are brought into the conversation on a societal level.

    I'm thinking here of the way that Stephen Marche talked about a "hollow patriarchy" in his Atlantic article on the topic:

    "We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism. This generates strange paradoxes. Even women with servants and powerful jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars feel that they have an institutional disadvantage. And they’re right. Women in the upper reaches of power are limited in ways that men simply are not. Various men’s movements have emerged, purportedly to provide a counterweight to feminism, but this proposition is inherently absurd. The greatest power still resides in the hands of a few men"

    I think we've made spaces for men to negotiate for egalitarianism in individual cases, but the societal standards are still mired in patriarchy (which might be why its so easy to revert back to those old norms once a wife chooses to "opt-out.")

    A lot of my frustration is with trying to make my lived experiences match the data and tensions I see. I know a lot of men (my own husband included) who work really hard to operate within an egalitarian household, but the overall system seems to be working against all of us with that goal.

    How can you make a system reflect the sum of its parts? Or am I just seeing it through rose-colored glasses? Are the parts really not that equal either?

  3. What I think is interesting is that a number of articles on women as breadwinners who have husbands who make less or stay home fall into the same expectations men w/ stay-at-home wives have: the expectation - fairly or unfairly - becomes that the spouse making less and/or nothing should take on more of the household responsibility. That's not a pretty realization since as women, I think we pride ourselves on believing we'd do things differently if we had more power. Is that the influence of patriarchy or an ugly reality? I know that if I stayed home, I would believe it was my responsibility to do housework, cooking, child-related activities. If my husband stayed home, I hate to say it, but I'd expect the same from him.

    I wish instead of opting out or leaning in that the metaphor was more a rocking chair. Sometimes you are leaning in and other times you are opting out but the forward motion continues. I'm frustrated that it is framed as either/or. I work full time and have since my son (now 4) was born. I have been fortunate with childcare and to work for a family-friendly, flexible organization. If I need to leave to attend a daycare party, I can. My job is intellectually satisfying and decently paid. Sounds great, right? Yet, I'm at a point in my child's life in which he has some needs that I wish I could be more present for, and I'm soooo frustrated by the inability to "off-ramp" or downshift for a short time without sacrificing my overall trajectory.

    The conversation and the reality need to change. I like to hope that more women in positions of leadership will help, but my cynicism makes me wonder if it will be more of the same.

  4. What's so irritating is how even today, in 2013, no one is talking about men opting out or leaning in - it's still some kind of exotic exception to the rule for fathers to look after their families in any capacity aside from that of breadwinner. That's what really needs to change.

  5. Actually studies show that couples tend to be more egalitarian if the wife makes more money or works longer hours than her husband but if the husband is the one who makes more money and/or works more hours then he spends significantly less time doing house work and child care

  6. I think the not so friendly family policies and social pressure can make it difficult to operate within an egalitarian household. Without having paid maternal leave and seeing paternal leave as something mythical can make it difficult for couples to operate in egalitarian roles. Also the obvious social pressure that both men and women face. If a woman doesn't opt out to raise her children she may be judged by her family members, friends, coworkers and even random strangers. Having her career may make her feel good about herself but the daily criticism can also take a toll. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Also men who take paternity leave and choose to spend more time helping out with raising their children may feel happy about being more involved in their children's life but they will have to put up with people questioning their masculinity. Men usually do have it easier though because fathers who do even minimal child care usually get praised for it now and don't face the same criticism mothers do.