3 Reasons “Mothers Opting Out of Work” is a Myth

Who are the unsung workers of the world whose economic contributions went unrecognized this past Labor Day?

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.

Those are all very nice. But the reality for most mothers is that, as Sarah Kendzior recently wrote in Al-Jazeera, “in an economy of high debt and sinking wages, nearly all mothers live on the edge.”

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.”

3. Childcare costs are astronomical. While childcare workers themselves are paid little, the average cost of daycare is $11,666 per year. It can be as high as $19,000 in some states.

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.

Photo from Thinkstock


Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Anastasia Z.
Anastasia Z3 years ago

Will W., do you really believe that real estate prices skyrocketed because household income doubled when women went to offices?
I think life everywhere becomes ever stressful becuase requirements we face in every social role are overstated. An easy thing to say is they should be balanced, but reaching it is a path most parties are unwilling to go.

Shan D.
Shan D3 years ago

FFS, Will W.! Do you keep your wife/girlfriend/sisters barefoot and pregnant, wearing "housewifely" clothes (ie. dresses)?

Part of the reason things worked out decades ago is because there was more emphasis on extended family, not just the nuclear family. I grew up in a 3-generation household - me, my parents, and my grandparents. My parents never had to pay a penny in babysitting fees, because my grandparents were always there.

BTW, my mother was abusive, so when she went back to work, it was a huge relief for me. When my parents divorced and my dad got custody, it was a bigger relief. I don't think I'd like the person I'd have become if my mother had raised me.

Will W.
Will Will3 years ago

The feminists told women in the 1970s that men were having all the fun, and that women should go to work in mass and enjoy all the benefits that men do by working. They took their advice and now look how miserable they all are. The rise of two income households, along with FED and government policies has driven house prices up so much than people feel compelled to work just to pay the mortgage. For many staying at home is not an option. On top of that absent mothers create emotional and psychological problems for kids who are abandoned most of the day, and our diet has progressively deteriorated, because full time working moms don´t have the energy-like stay at home moms do- to cook a healthy meal. This has lead to convenience processed meals and a devastating effect on all of our health.

The left believes that women are not contributing to society, or worthy if they are not in the formal workforce, while ignoring the vital role that stay at home Moms play in taking care of the kids and keeping the home in order. Their absence is creating chaos and unhappiness. It is the left and feminists who have devalued motherhood, and presented power careers as the only self respecting option. No wonder women are miserable.

In the old days the man had to worry about work, and the wife about the home. Stress was lower.

I believe that if a woman really wants a full time job, then she should not have children. We cannot do it all, and when we try we only create frust

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

its cheaper for me to stay home with my sons than pay for childcare, we were paying out of pocket more than I made and that was with me working third and being tired all the time, sicjk a lot ect. The childcare was for while I was actually working, then I watched my son with no sleep until I went in again. Hard on all of us

Angela Ray
Angela Ray3 years ago

More power to all the mothers. God bless us all!!

Arild Warud
Arild W3 years ago


Amanda M.
Amanda M3 years ago

Shan D, way ahead of you-we've been enjoying "treasure hunting" courtesy of Freecycle and yard sales for YEARS! Not only are both great for finding things you need at a much-lower cost than you would get paying retail, but they're also great for offloading things you long longer need that still have plenty of "mileage" left. Freecycle is how we got such luxurious things as new ceiling lights for the garage (the originals were just bare bulbs), and yard sales are how I got the majority of the children's clothing (except for shoes, socks, and undies-those get bought new for sanitary reasons) and quite a few household necessities such as a new lunch cooler for my husband to take his food to work in. And since both our kids are girls, the clothes the older one outgrows get saved for her sister to grow into, which reduces clothing costs further. As I jokingly say every year around birthdays and Yule, "What do you get for the kid who has everything, including her big sister's hand-me-downs?" Don't worry, she gets some newer things of her own too!

In fact, that's one big reason I wasn't online for most of the week through yesterday-getting ready for and working our semi-annual yard sale during the town festival this weekend. Business went well, and we only have two boxes' worth of stuff to take to Goodwill as well as money to help with the future bills. Safety cushions are nice!

Shan D.
Shan D3 years ago

Amanda M., if your kids are old enough to take the bus, they should do so. I survived going to music lessons on the bus.

Do you have Freecycle in your area? If so, make contact and use it. People offer things they don't want, and people who do want them can have them. Completely free, no strings attached, no buying, selling, or trading allowed. You can request things that you need - childrens' clothing always comes up on the 'offered/wanted' lists.

Amanda M.
Amanda M3 years ago

(comment continued)

And it's still NOT easy. My husband just graduated from trade school with his HVAC training completed and his apprentice license in hand, but despite applying for tons of jobs, nobody's hired him yet, partly due to his not having much experience in the field (well how is he supposed to GET experience if nobody will hire him, dammit?!) and we suspect also due to his age (mid-forties). Thanks to the damned loopholes, we can't come right out and accuse companies of doing so. In the meantime, he's back to working as a security guard for an even lousier paycheck than he was making before (he'd gotten a job as a plumber's apprentice, but got laid off in June when the project was completed). We're able to pay the bills, but that's about it. Thanks to my experience yard sale/thrift store shopping and penny pinching, the kids are able to enjoy a few of life's extras, but I can't bring myself to indulge in anything for myself when their NEEDS come before my wants-I don't want to come off as selfish even thought I've been the one making all the sacrifices for their greater good. And since he works evenings and weekends, it's pretty damned lonely sometimes because of not being able to go anywhere due to no time and no money for myself.

Don't worry, I'm not trying to throw a pity party. All I'm asking for from society is recognition of the work we do, and if not respect, simple acknowledgement of our efforts! Unpaid work is still just that-WORK.

Oh yea