3 Reasons “Mothers Opting Out of Work” is a Myth
Mothers have been called full-time, uncompensated “employees.” Sure, they — or rather “we” as I’m a mother — have our own holiday in May in the U.S. While Labor Day is a public event, celebrated with parades to honor workers’ rights, Mother’s Day is a mostly private affair of brunch and bouquets.
The Myth of Women “Opting Out”
While Sheryl Sandberg and other “corporate feminists” argue that women’s success in their careers and personal life is a “matter of attitude,” it’s a myth to say that women are “opting out” of work. The majority of women do not have “options” or “choices” about “balancing” work and family. They just do it because they have a family and they have to work.
Kendzior cites an August 7 New York Times article, “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In.” The article was a follow-up to a 2003 piece about highly-educated and accomplished American women who had “opted out” of their careers to raise their children. Ten years later, on seeking reentry into the workforce, they have been unable to find work and questioned their decision to leave their jobs.
The New York Times article “frames the mothers’ misgivings as a result of questionable planning and poor marriage partners,” if the choice to work or not to work is one entirely based on personal fulfillment and childrearing preferences. As Kendzior argues, the article overlooks the real reason that women stop working:
… for nearly all women, from upper middle-class to poor, the “choice” of whether to work is not a choice, but an economic bargain struck out of fear and necessity. Since 2008, the costs of childbirth, childcare, health care, and education have soared, while wages have stagnated and full-time jobs have been supplanted by part-time, benefit-free contingency labour.
Mothers aren’t ruing their lost career prospects because of some existential fear of “losing themselves.” They’re simply terrified that they won’t be able to provide for their children and families.
3 Reasons That Mothers Have Few, If Any, Options
Women leave their jobs to care for children because of three big changes that have occurred in child-rearing in the United States in the past decades, says Kendzior:
1. The cost of delivering a baby in the United States increased fourfold between 2004 and 2010. With insurance, out-of-pocket costs for having a child are $3,400; for uninsured women, they’re in the tens of thousands of dollars.
2. Workplace policies in most American companies remain unfriendly to mothers. Not only does the United States have the shortest parental leave of any developed country. 40 percent of companies offer “none at all.”
In view of the decline in median household income by 7.3 percent and, as Kendzior points out, the fact that many twenty-something Americans are graduating with significant debt from college loans, young parents with young children are hardly in a position to take on the high cost of childcare.
Even for parents who do not have college debts to pay off, childcare remains a huge challenge. A family in our neighborhood recently had their second child. Both parents are in their 30s and had waited until both were well-established in their careers to start a family. The mother is hoping to take an extended maternity leave from her job as a teacher. If she gets it, she will not be paid (“I’ll be working some overtime,” the father recently said to me); if she has to return to work, they’ll be juggling childcare for two children under three.
U.S. Workplace Policies Fail to Help Families and Mothers
Our neighbors do have a number of family members who frequently help out. While my own family lives 3,000 miles away from us here in New Jersey, we still rely heavily on them to care for our severely autistic teenage son, Charlie, when he is not in school or at camp for kids with disabilities. We’re very lucky to have such support because Charlie’s needs mean that he requires a high level of specialized care, far, far more than most children of the same age.
I’ve worked full-time as a teacher and writer for most of Charlie’s life. While I certainly enjoy what I do, I work because I have to. Charlie has a number of medical complications; we have health insurance but most of the specialists he sees are out-of-network. He has panic attacks fueled by crippling anxiety; our house is in need of some repairs. When Charlie finishes school in a few years, he will hopefully have some sort of job but it will very likely be part-time and the pay will be minimal. We have long been preparing (financially and otherwise) for Charlie’s future.
“There are no ‘mommy wars,’ only money wars – and almost everyone is losing,” Kendzior writes. We need to keep advocating for family-friendly workplace policies that put mothers’ and women’s concerns first and foremost so that we can have real choices.
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