When Option Out Is Not An Option
Remember Lisa Belkin? Writer of “The Opt-Out Revolution,” which the New York Times Magazine published in October 2003? The article went viral before going viral was a thing. Belkin examined why so many women armed with Ivy League degrees were “opting out” of the workplace. “Why don’t women run the world?” “Maybe,” she explores, “It’s because they don’t want to.”
I won’t rehash the flood of commentary the article generated but will leave it to your fertile imaginations (if you missed it, Google it). Thirteen years later, women continue to “opt out” of law and other competitive careers in concerning numbers. We take on less demanding assignments, to better cater to our babies. I did it–I knew I could not breastfeed, try cases, and care for a two-year-old and an infant. For me, the calculus changed when the babies turned one and three, and breastfeeding fell out of the equation.
I sat down recently with Mahira, a new mother who recently “opted out” of her job with a progressive non-profit following a year of trying to make it all work. I wanted to know the extent to which her opting out was an affirmative choice, or whether circumstances drove her to it.
Mahira’s husband enjoyed some flexibility after the arrival of their child. He took two months of paternity leave, and initially he returned to work part-time, to ease Mahira’s transition back to work. The firestorm hit when they each received significant promotions - in the same week! Their day care situation was not working well; the baby slept poorly. In addition to work and the baby, Mahira comes from a close-knit family and helps to care for a disabled relative. Her husband’s promotion meant constant travel, so Mahira was flying solo during the workweek. Mahira’s non-profit was incredibly flexible, allowing her to experiment with part-time and work-from-home days.
But in the end, Mahira came to a conclusion: “My sanity is not for sale.” She’s been home for a couple of months now, and she remains active with two non-profits on a volunteer basis. For Mahira, the financial dependence on her husband’s income has been one of the hardest parts of “opting out.” This is the first time in her adult life that she not earned income. Quitting her job has made Mahira’s life saner, and she feels tremendous peace with her decision.
Belkin’s subjects decided that their own work lives were too demanding to be sustained along with any kind of a family life. Mahira’s decision mirrors theirs. When her husband’s job became all-consuming, it was Mahira who bowed out of the workforce. To be fair, finances played into her decision–her husband out-earned her. But here’s the thing: My son’s school is filled with kids whose mothers also opted out, probably the result of hundreds of individual decisions. It is not the individual decision of any particular woman that is of concern, but the pattern.
We women fill the lecture halls of elite colleges and law schools. Yet, when life as a dual-career family becomes unsustainable, it’s rarely husbands who step away from their earned income. And, when gender appears to be the common denomination among those opting out, is leaving the workforce really an individual choice, or is it more appropriate to deem it a sociological phenomenon? And, how does this model, (where the female takes on the lion’s share of responsibility for home and family), teach our children where women and where mothers, belong?
 In 2012, the ABA released statistics bearing this out. Although women held 45% of associate positions, only 20% of partners and 15% of equity partners are women.
 Mahira is not her real name.
This blog post was authored by Rebecca Zipp. Rebecca Zipp currently has a sink full of dirty dishes.