Thursday, June 27, 2013

On leaning in or dropping out

Here at Ferule & Fescue, we strive to meet all your college reunion-related needs--or anxieties, irritations, and grievances, as the case may be. A long-time reader, recently back from her husband's college reunion, writes in to express her frustration with what she saw among the women of his class:

Dear Flavia,

I just attended my husband's 25th college reunion at an Ivy League university, and I'm left wondering if his classmates--women and men alike--are aware that there was a feminist movement around the time we were all born. (I did not attend this university--I went to a liberal arts college that was definitely not Ivy League. Few if any of my women classmates have left the paid workforce.) Is it just me, or is the unemployed spouse and large (3-5 children) family back with a vengeance among the economic elite? Out where we live in flyover country, most of the families who look like this are evangelical Christian homeschooler/Quiverfull types.

Maybe this is just the stage I'm at in life, but it seems like elite women who came of age in the 1970s made much more intentional decisions about their lives with respect to feminist values than women like me who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Are these elite families aware of the similarities between them and evangelical families in the way they've chosen to arrange their household economies and to allocate the labor of adults? Is the shared value of patriarchal privilege in fact a feature, not a bug, even among so-called "liberal" families?

The women and men I'm writing about are the same demographic that Sheryl Sandberg addressed in her recent book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. What, I wonder, do these elites tell their daughters about the importance of working hard in school and getting a college education? Don't they ever wonder what kind of example they're setting? Do they care? A woman at the reunion (no job, 3 kids) told me that a friend (no job, 3 kids) called her recently in tears because her daughter said to her, "Mom, if you went to such a great school, why don't you have a job?"

I'm not the type to sympathize with a surly tween, but that's not a bad question. What was the point of that college/M.A./M.S./Ph.D./M.D./J.D. degree if you're not going to use it somehow? I can't believe I've lived long enough to see my age-peers give credence to that age-old antifeminist claim that it's pointless to admit women to college/professional school or to hire them "because they're just going to get pregnant and quit. Why waste it on them, when their spot could go to a man who will use his education/opportunity?"

What's going to happen if (or when!) these women get divorced? Courts rarely if ever grant alimony any more. What's the marriage- or job market value of a middle-aged woman with little or no job experience over the past twenty years? I sure hope they're stocking a massive treasure chest full of jewelry they can cash in if need be, or even better, funneling cash into a retirement fund for themselves. In the Cayman Islands.

Why do straight women still view their work and professional lives as extras, frills, or expendable? I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is an extremely hardworking woman in a very demanding profession. She remarked that "no one likes 'work.' That's why it's called 'work!'" In other words, as Don Draper said to Peggy Olson last season in Mad Men: "That's what the money's for!" Work is not supposed to be fulfilling or fun most of the time. It's supposed to be a means to an end.

This retro-vision marriage and family arrangement looks like an incredibly shitty bargain with patriarchy to me. So what's the answer? Can't the world of work also be a crummy place for women, and more especially for mothers? Absolutely! Believe me, I write as someone who has had her share of craptastic jobs with sexist bosses and coworkers. But, I've managed to work my way into a decent position, and I have hopes that new opportunities might open up for me in the future. Even when I was in a crummy job, the cash (as they say) was good to eat, as are the health benefits, the 401 K, and the Social Security (eventually). Maybe it's my background as a scholarship kid who always assumed she'd work her whole life, but I've never seen the world of work as a faceless enemy.

How can we ever expect or hope that the world of work will work equally for women and men if women persist in dropping out and men persist in supporting them, at least so long as it suits them? Why aren't women who drop out of the paid workforce being treated for depression, or at least urged to get counseling before they go? Just imagine the social and moral panic if a large number of upper middle-class men between the ages of 30 and 55 decided that they didn't want to work. Here's a useful tip: if you have a college education and unemployment seems like a good idea, seek treatment. If you are educated for and capable of a decent job, the disinclination to work should be seen as a symptom of an underlying problem, not a lifestyle "choice."

In my experience, having a two-career family has meant that we have sacrificed some things, but we're more flexible in facing life's headwinds when they blow, as they surely will. We had to move out of state and far away from our families, and my husband's job is far from perfect right now. But these disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages of having two jobs in the family. For example, my husband changed jobs last year, something that was made so much less complicated because we are insured by my employer. When our child was small, we could afford excellent in-home care and also save for hir education. We don't have to debate whether or not we can afford camp, music lessons, or orthodontia. We can!

Finally, we're raising hir consistently with our feminist and egalitarian values: everyone in our home works, and everyone contributes as they can to the household. Everyone helps with shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. No one's time or work is more important than anyone else's. Maybe this is what I find so disappointing: the abandonment of egalitarian as well as feminist ideals. But then, my observations here expose a weakness in Sandberg's focus on elites as the key to feminist change in the workplace. Elites are the last people to lead a revolution, as the world works pretty well for them. Elite women continue to make the shitty bargain with patriarchy for their children's sake--their sons's sake, in any case. I don't see at all how their example benefits their daughters in the long run.

I guess that's as good a bargain as they can strike, once they give up on an independent income.

Parts of my guest writer's account ring true to my experience and parts of it don't: almost none of my classmates have left the workforce entirely, and most are still working full-time. But as I'm almost a decade younger, it may just be that the things she describes haven't yet come to pass among my age peers. Certainly, it seems that if push comes to shove in the marriages of my heterosexual friends, it's pretty much always the woman's job that gets shoved.

(And here's where I should add that, like Sandberg, I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing to stay at home or with downshifting or slow-tracking for a time--but like Sandberg and my guest, I'm troubled when it happens on a larger scale and when we lose crucial voices in public life and the working world as a result.)

I'd love your thoughts, readers, about my guest's observations: is this a widespread phenomenon? And if so, do you share her disappointment. . . or do you have a different interpretation of what's going on here or what kinds of outcomes we might expect (for women, for their kids, or for individual marriages) over the long term?


undine said...

So much to respond to here! In answer to one question: There was a TIME magazine article a few weeks ago about the "no alimony" thing. One of those interviewed said that the chances of a woman in her 50s with no work experience getting a job are slim to none. In this recession economy--and I'm sorry, but unless you're a one percenter, it's still a recession economy--they have no supports left. They live with their children, or with their families, or on disablity (the new safety net), or in cars. It's horrifying. So yes, I don't know why that's not more of a concern to women who don't work outside the home.

On the other hand, I don't think that seeing not working outside the home as pathological (seek help for depression if you don't work, as the writer said) is helpful. Some families choose that, and I believe that feminism is about choices rather than seeing families through the lens of "work or seek counseling." It's not what I would choose, but it may work for some women, as long as they're willing to take the risk that they will likely end up in poverty if the husband decides to take off.

Flavia said...


Agreed--I certainly don't think it's pathological to make the decision to stay at home! But though that's an inflammatory suggestion on the individual level, it's an interesting thought experiment to do as my guest suggests and consider what we'd say if suddenly a large minority of educated men decided they just didn't feel fulfilled by work. I suspect we'd be reading a lot of "think" pieces about the crisis in work culture, or in modern masculinity, or something of that nature.

And it's worth asking why women who intended and expected to have careers choose to leave them. There are women who always wanted to be full-time moms and there are women who are constrained by circumstances (I know women in dual-academic careers who are really angry about leaving the TT, but it's the least-bad option for their household). . . but I admit to finding it troubling how often and how unexamined some gender privileges remain.

(E.g., it's fine by me if one partner wants to quit his or her job and take some time to figure out a new path or pursue a dream or do charity work or whatever. . . but socially, it's only considered normal when women with highly paid spouses do this. We look askance on men who do the same.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

So, so, so much to respond. Expect a far longer response on WWPD, one large enough to explode the internet, but in the mean time:

Emily Matchar's new book, "The New Domesticity," addresses a related question. The point she makes in her conclusion - and I think it's a really important one - is that the women who 'leave' the workforce aren't actually women abandoning hyper-ambitious careers. They're women who are relatively advantaged - they have more education than most - but maybe not a degree in something marketable, so maybe they're not able to find a job. So - and I've been making this point for a while, so I guess Matchar and I have observed the same thing - having this one category, "elite," or "educated," even perhaps "Ivy-educated," doesn't quite capture what's going on. The high-powered-exec-turned-housewife is an interesting anecdote, but the exception, not the rule.

But the point is, not every woman who's "educated" was ever plausibly on a path to anything remotely Sandberg-esque. Not that they couldn't at least have had jobs that weren't careers.

Sapience said...

Well, I do actually know quite a few men who've become house-husbands of a sort to support their wives' careers; my dad was one, though it started off when he was unemployed and my mom was working. It didn't take long for my mom's career to greatly outstrip anything my dad could or would do, so he stayed home with us through most of elementary/middle school, and only went back to work when my sister and I were both in high school.

Now, most of the men I know who do this have some sort of freelance/work from home thing as well: two are writers, one is an IT guy, one is a graphic designer, and there are probably two or three male grad students in my program who are doing most of the childcare as they are working on their dissertation, while their wives work full-time jobs. Interestingly, about half of the men who are doing this are evangelical Christians (though all of a fairly progressive stripe).

So, I have a slightly different perspective when I see women make this same choice; I know only slightly more women who are doing the stay-at-home thing after getting a college degree (we called that an MRS degree) than men. Ultimately, I agree with undine: feminism should be about women making the choice for themselves (and making that choice with their husbands about what is best for the whole family), and actually having the option to choose whether to work or stay home, and *men* will have that option, too.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

My answer to all of your guest's questions is "F^ck if I know!" But then, I'm more one of those 70s (or maybe early 80s) women who made deliberate choices; and I saw lots of my friends' mothers having to go back to work after disadvantageous divorces, and I vowed never to be in that position, never to be financially dependent on someone else. So in a way I'm actually like my parents' generation, who thought women (let's say house-spouses to be gender-neutral for a new century) should at least have a qualification Just In Case Something Happens. If you in fact have a teaching certification, nursing degree, or something similar "to fall back on"---even if it would take significant re-tooling to get up to speed after time away from work---and you have a supportive, well-paid spouse, then and only then would I be in favor of someone dropping out of the workforce to pursue a dream. I also make exceptions for "cottage businesses," small-scale businesses that can be run from home part-time but ramped-up or used as transitions to "real jobs" if necessary (things like cutting hair or preparing taxes, or maybe running a cleaning service).

And I feel faintly hypocritical saying this, because I have such a "useless" (outside academia) degree, and I really did not think carefully about what I would do if I didn't get an academic job. I suppose dimly in the back of my mind I thought I could, temporarily, work for one of my brothers until I could network my way into something else; having someone in the family with a self-owned business is a not such a bad fallback position, I guess. But also, I was only risking myself---I was not married and did not have children---and I finished grad school at 29, so I would have had time to figure out something else (though it didn't feel like it then).

I don't really have a sense of how widespread this staying-home phenomenon is, because of being a different generation and not having many friends outside academia. But it alarms me if it is widespread, and it really alarms me when women/families make choices about someone staying home based on current income and not long-term opportunities/opportunity costs (nicoleandmaggie have some good posts on that issue).

Sometimes there are other considerations; I have a friend who no longer works after some very serious health problems, and I know a woman whose husband struck it so rich that neither of them need ever work again. Outside of unusual circumstances like that, though, I'm with your guest. I also have a friend who was a house-husband for many years and was thereby shackled to an unhappy marriage; he could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd made more deliberate choices about work and qualifications instead of following what seemed like the line of least resistance when he married a high-earning woman.

Flavia said...


I think that's a hugely important point--that not all elite or highly-educated women are the same. And of course I look forward to your response!


It's certainly possible that things will look different in 10 or 20 years and that patterns are really shifting. I'm heartened by the data showing the increasing number of "house-husbands" or stay at home dads, and I really do think the goal is to make choosing to work OR stay at home a more viable option for both men and women.

That said, there have always been women who worked while their husbands were in school. The question for me is whose career matters more, or who even has a career, once both parties are done with their education. (And even later: I know several dual-academic couples that initially followed the wife's career or that lived apart for a time. . . but as I said: if something has to give, it tends to be the woman's career.)


I think the part of this guest post that really resonates for me is the way that staying at home has, among certain economic elites, become a luxury good: something the husband buys, as it were, for his wife, and that publicly demonstrates his wealth. Veblen wrote about this way back when, and I think we're seeing at again: if a man has a stay at home wife and four kids and they're all in private school, it's a very conspicuous sign of his wealth (and of his traditional masculinity).

THAT's what I find icky: the way patriarchal power and capitalism intersect here. I don't care if women choose to stay home, and surely having educated, intellectually curious SAHMs is infinitely better for children than bored, frustrated, uneducated ones--we're not going back to the days of the Feminine Mystique here. (And most the SAHMs I and my readers know are probably not ladies who lunch, but who live modestly and make sacrifices--including the sacrifice of a second income!--in full partnership with their spouses, based on a joint decision about the good of the household.)

But I do care about the consolidation of patriarchal and economic power.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to see elite friends have babies (I started in my late 20s, so "young" for elites) and some of them are dropping out of the workforce.

I think many of them had SAHM themselves.

I didn't. So I also can't imagine not working.

And the official grumpy rumblings position is that we are pro-choice feminism. But we do hope that folks who are making that choice are making it with full information, because divorce and widowhood are non-zero probability events, and the hit to long-term earnings is real.

Though among elites, presumably they have extended family who could take care of them if the going truly got tough, not to mention other connections.

Anonymous said...

"if suddenly a large minority of educated men decided they just didn't feel fulfilled by work"

There is a growing movement. They call themselves "Financially independent" and "Retired"... even if they rely on their wives' salaries and benefits. They also blog a lot and live in temperate climates.

Withywindle said...

Joni Hersch, "Opting Out among Women with Elite Education":

Whether highly educated women are exiting the labor force to care for their children has generated a great deal of media attention, even though academic studies find little evidence of opting out. This paper shows that female graduates of elite institutions have lower labor market involvement than their counterparts from less selective institutions. Although elite graduates are more likely to earn advanced degrees, marry at later ages, and have higher expected earnings, there is little difference in labor market activity by college selectivity among women without children and women who are not married. But the presence of children is associated with far lower labor market activity among married elite graduates. Most women eventually marry and have children, and the net effect is that labor market activity is on average lower among elite graduates than among those from less selective institutions. The largest gap in labor market activity between graduates of elite institutions and less selective institutions is among MBAs, with married mothers who are graduates of elite institutions 30 percentage points less likely to be employed full-time than graduates of less selective institutions.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I am one of those mothers of whom you speak. I went off and got my PhD in a stem field at an impressive school and then stayed home for 10 years before returning to the workforce. Where, I might add, I had 3 job offers in 3 days in a field related to the one in which I did my degree even after a 10 year absence. Education matters.
Why did I leave the work force instead of my husband? 4 reasons:
1) My older child was not thriving in her daycare/school setting. She was often ill, and often upset. Both my husband and I had been put on warnings becasue of missed days due to being called home for ill child. I knew we were in trouble when we sent child to daycare on Tylenol becasue neither of us could miss another day and the child was admitted to the hospital that afternoon with pneumonia.
2) My 2nd child was stillborn. Suddenly my job was much less important or interesting.
3) My 3rd child was born early and had lung development problems; therefore she was not allowed around others for at least one year. Now my job was very uninteresting and unimportant.
One of us needed to stay home - I had missed lots of work already - see 1-3.
4) Husband had immediate better money earning potential than I did. I had lost interest in job see 1-3. I stayed home.

Did it pay off? In 3 months husband was making more than both of us put together had been making. In 6 months he was promoted again and was making double what we had been making. In 2 years 4x what we had been making. The fact that he could stay an extra hour or go in early instead of doing the day care dance made all of the difference. It is very difficult to have 3 high powered careers with small children in the house.

I took care of the house and the kids (2 girls) - and many of their friends -because, you see, their friends with 2 working parents feel pretty neglected. In fact, many of my older daughter's college friends have no intention of working when they have children. They feel as if they were abandended by their parents and were forced to raise themselves. They do not want to do this to their children. Interestingly, my mother worked and both my sister and I ended up staying home, not initially but by age 4 of our older child, - and we feel exactly the same way. We were forced to raise ourselves and we missed a lot. I thought I could do better than my mother while working - turns out I was wrong. My mother is suitably horrified - she beleived that she was being a good example and we have "sold out".

We are finanically very comfortable. I now have a career I love ( though I still have no prospects of making as much money as my husband as I hate IT!). My children are happy and well adjusted. Turns out I can have it all - just not all at once.

Flavia said...

Dame Eleanor and nicoleandmaggie:

With you 100% on making informed and intentional choices. And on having a backup plan.


Thank you! That's a staggering figure for MBAs, and curious in some ways (since I think anyone who gets an MBA is relatively privileged--able to take the time, spend the money, moving into management if not there already...). It's nice to have actual data.


I don't believe anyone here was criticizing your choices. It would have been nice had you managed to avoid doing that with others.

Anonymous said...

Ah, and the digs at people with two working parents start.

As a contrast, I come from a LONG line of dual-earner (or single widow-earner) households and we all were very happy with our upbringings, which, of course, we always thought superior to other upbringings, although as adults we can admit that there are many ways to raise kids that are all perfectly just fine. Eventually everybody turns out ok in the end, even if it takes college and moving out to beat out whatever disadvantages they had or think they had.

So, with my N=1 and my mother's and aunts and uncles' N=7, and grandma and great aunts' N=3, and great-great- aunts' N=13, and so on, children with dual working parents do not need to feel "forced to raise themselves" or "abandended" (sic). That's just bullshit. You don't need to say other parents are doing it wrong and destroying their children to justify your choices.

And at some point as an adult people have to stop blaming their parents anyway. Having dual-working parents is nothing like true neglect or abuse, and has many benefits.

Add to that time use-study evidence (Laura Vanderkam talks about this a lot, and there's a big literature using the ATUS), and you'll see that SAHM don't actually spend any more time interacting with their kids than WOHM. I'm sure you interact more with your kids and all those poor (in your mind) neglected neighborhood kids, but that is by no means the norm. Nor is constant parental interaction necessarily what everyone is aiming for, see: free-range children movement.

Anyhow I could make an argument about how having two working parents, both of whom interact with the kids is superior to having one parent all the time, but I know that's also bullshit.

Also I'm not going to pass judgment on how I think my kids' friends are parenting unless I suspect actual abuse, which I do not.

Update to add: I see Flavia has responded... Her response is much better. :) And less likely to further one of those pointless "mommy wars" that irritate the crud out of me. My choices are not judging yours.

Comradde Physioprof said...

I say drop in and lean the fucke out!

Andrew Stevens said...

I think the part of this guest post that really resonates for me is the way that staying at home has, among certain economic elites, become a luxury good: something the husband buys, as it were, for his wife, and that publicly demonstrates his wealth. Veblen wrote about this way back when, and I think we're seeing at again: if a man has a stay at home wife and four kids and they're all in private school, it's a very conspicuous sign of his wealth (and of his traditional masculinity).

THAT's what I find icky: the way patriarchal power and capitalism intersect here. I don't care if women choose to stay home, and surely having educated, intellectually curious SAHMs is infinitely better for children than bored, frustrated, uneducated ones--we're not going back to the days of the Feminine Mystique here. (And most the SAHMs I and my readers know are probably not ladies who lunch, but who live modestly and make sacrifices--including the sacrifice of a second income!--in full partnership with their spouses, based on a joint decision about the good of the household.)

But I do care about the consolidation of patriarchal and economic power.

Until you explain how a woman can stay home with their kids (assuming she has a high-earning husband) without it seeming "icky" to you, then this looks like an attack to me. How high is the husband's income allowed to be before it's "icky" exactly?

Anonymous said...

p.s. Anon, our condolences on your loss.

Bardiac said...

Flavia, I think your analysis about how the practice among elites allows the men to express their traditional masculinity is right on the mark.

I think it was anon above who talked about leaving paid work in part because her husband had a much higher earning potential, and I think that's also vitally important. Men and women don't have the same earning potential, and that's a huge problem, and probably contributes to the way the elite masculine status issue is working.

I tend to think that most marriage is pretty much patriarchal twaddle (though I recognize that some are really great and wonderfully equitable relationships), so I guess this is just more of the patriarchy at work. I'm guessing our structural supports for married folks enable this: the way benefits are typically done mean that married folks who are getting health insurance (etc) get a lot of untaxed benefits at the expense of those who aren't getting those benefits. At my work, the analysis the big shots had done showed that someone who claimed a family member got an extra $9K in untaxed benefits.

And that irritates me, because we're paid like crap, and those of us who don't have access to that extra money are subsidizing those who do.

Anyway, what a really fine conversation here. Thanks for starting it.

Flavia said...


And at some point as an adult people have to stop blaming their parents anyway.

Amen to that! Being born in the U.S. to safely middle-class parents who love and support you is all the privilege most of us need (and it's a lot of privilege!) to do fine. Beyond that, it's variable: the way you organize your family and worklife might be perfect for your first child's interests and personality and a worse fit for your second. But assuming the above (love, security) almost all of us grow out of any irritations, dissatisfactions, or disappointments with how we were raised.

And (perhaps unlike my guest) I don't think it really matters for children whether their own mother works outside the home or not, though I do think it's vital that there be a critical mass of working mothers in their community and in their friends' families. I'd like it to be at least 50%, but 30% is perhaps adequate.


I don't know you or anything about you, so I'm pretty sure I wasn't attacking you. In any case, I'm not attacking any individual's choices. It's the larger patterns and their implications that concern me.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Let me follow up on Bardiac's comment by saying: let's start talking about the dudes.

I agree that every woman should be allowed to make her own choices without being judged. But it's also important to think about why wider patterns emerge. And when a bunch of women tend to do things that aren't necessarily or obviously in their interest, it's worth paying attention to what the other 49.7% of the world is doing.

If (as the guest poster and Withywindle's helpful study suggest), there's an emerging pattern of highly-and prestigiously-educated women dropping out of the workplace to raise children, it's worth asking what their spouses' interests are.

I'd go further than Flavia. I wouldn't say that a rich man can afford to buy his wife a SAHM lifestyle. I think a rich man (discreetly and indirectly) buys himself a SAHM wife as a status symbol. Hence, the ickiness.

The problem we may need to get at here is men using their spouses as status symbols, most of all when the things that increase a woman's value as a spousal status-symbol are at odds with her own economic interests (such as long-term earning potential).

Andrew Stevens said...

I didn't say you were attacking me. Even if you were, I wouldn't care; I rarely take anything personally. I was responding to your comment to Anonymous that you weren't criticizing her, but I think there's a clear implicit criticism in the passage I quoted above. You seem to be supportive of women who stay home with children unless their husbands make a lot of money. Then they're propping up the "intersection of capitalism and patriarchal power" and are icky.

Anonymous didn't criticize anyone's choices either. She related how she and some of her daughter's college friends felt about having both parents working. (She even said that she thought she could do better than her own parents, but turned out to be wrong. Implicitly it seems she might at least think it possible that somebody else could do it, even if she couldn't.)

Anonymous said...


Anon didn't criticize anyone's choices?

Ok, then this isn't criticizing anyone's choices either:

Children and teens I knew with working parents always felt so lucky to have working parents. They were really sorry for the spoiled brats with SAHM and so glad to have working parents. The kids with SAHM were so helpless and self-centered, couldn't take care of themselves, especially the boys, and expected women to wait on them hand and foot. Couldn't help but think how much better off they'd have been if their moms had something else to do with their time. My partner is so glad that his mom worked growing up because it means he knows how to do things around the house and can have a more egalitarian marriage.

Do you see the parallel there? Or do you accept the above as not criticizing anybody's choices?

Not saying I believe any of the above, but it's a common counter-argument in the stupid stupid mommy wars. Sure, anon didn't use the term "baby farm" (which is common along with the abandonment, neglect, etc.), but she came close. And she didn't have to. Explaining her situation would have been fine. Explaining how all those other mothers are making their poor little precious teens feel abandoned because they're not the center of mommy's attention all the time... not so much.

Interesting to note: My DH had a working mother (she was the breadwinner when he was a baby and his father broke his back and had to retrain from carpentry to accounting--she was also in school while working to get her RN). All three of his parents' kids waited to have children until well after 4-year college (and a MA for his brother and a PhD for DH) and a few years into marriage. His cousins with the SAHM, and now their kids? All pregnant before age 19. No 4 year college degrees. I think my single data point is equally valid to anonymous's (which is to say, not at all, though one might argue that dual incomes helps to smooth out income uncertainty which increases ability to delay gratification, but that might be a stretch).

Historiann said...

"[I]t's also important to think about why wider patterns emerge. And when a bunch of women tend to do things that aren't necessarily or obviously in their interest, it's worth paying attention to what the other 49.7% of the world is doing."

Dr. Cleveland hits it. How "special" it is to see that these women's "choices" are exactly what their grandmothers' "choices" were! This is not a coincidence, people. It's a "shitty bargain," as the guest writer said.

Why hasn't anyone engaged the point about the example set for the daughters? Why hasn't anyone engaged the point about a truly egalitarian household? Doesn't that matter, or do we just dig into our personal choices and lob grenades from our bunkers to avoid dealing with those questions?

Andrew Stevens said...

Nicoleandmaggie: I am fine with Flavia's interpreting her own comment as non-critical of any individual's choices because it was based on the "larger patterns and implications." I am also fine with her (or you) interpreting Anonymous's comments as critical of individuals who make different decisions than she did. What I was saying is you can't do both.

Susan said...

My perception (as a childless widow of the 70s generation who has always worked) is that the dropping out often happens (a) after a second or third child is born or (b) when the kids are older. It's actually a lot more complicated for parents when kids are doing lots of afternoon activities than it is when they are toddlers.

That said, I think one of the things that is going on has to do with expectations about work. I've been lucky to primarily work in jobs I've liked, and which I found fulfilling (at least since I left grad school). I'd say we were sold the idea that work was fulfilling and satisfying. The reality is that a lot of people who have jobs that are just that, jobs. They have interesting parts, but most of it is routine. And I think one of the differences between women and men is that women have less tolerance for this, while most men have always expected it. This is true even for those who have gone to law or business school: lots of law is pretty routine; and if you're a cog in a large corporation, it may not be the most creative job on earth. (Which is not to say those can't be satisfying and exciting jobs, it's just that they are not necessarily so.) So when the pressures of child-care or elder care come along women are more likely -- if they can -- to stop working.

And while this may be more common among wealthy elites, I've seen families decide that the cost of child-care exceeded (or almost exceeded) the second income, so to have one not work was useful. And some (like Anon. 6:28) who pick up easily when they return to the work world, but many more go in very new directions.

It is also useful to note that divorce rates among the elites are actually much lower than among the rest of hte population.

My mother worked all my life (she worked till she was almost 80), and I always assumed that I would too: my father's child support was erratic at best, and the lesson I learned was not to count on anyone other than myself. But not everyone thinks that way.

Sorry for being so long-winded, but gendered expectations about work are also part of this story.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Why hasn't anyone engaged the point about the example set for the daughters?"

One reason I can think of is because once we go down that road, we really do open the conversation up to arguments like that of Anon in this thread - namely, that boys and girls alike are short-changed if both parents work. (Not something I happen to think, but I don't think it was necessarily inappropriate, given the context, for someone who does think this to say so.) Once there's been an accusation of bad parenting in one direction, this does kind of invite the same from the other.

Flavia said...


I think there are two different points in your comment, which I'd like to separate out. I agree with the first--that women should think about whether their choices are not as free as they seem, but are actually influenced by social or gender norms that are at bottom unpleasant, retrograde, or even damaging. (Which isn't the same thing as saying that a woman can't ever make a choice that aligns with patriarchy, because, hey: we've all got to live in the world as it is, and the world as it is includes men tending to have higher salaries.)

But I respectfully disagree with at least part of the second. Don't we (liberals, feminists, etc.) believe that a homosexual couple can raise straight children? Or that a single mother can raise a son? Our models for adult behavior and adult roles--including gender roles--begin in the nuclear family, but they don't end there. Kids have aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and teachers and coaches and friends' parents. And thank goodness!

Flavia said...


I agree that there can be an upside to women taking time off, which is the ability to change careers, find a new path (often of necessity, once the old path is closed or the old credentials no longer hold value). This is a happy thing for many women and surely a useful lesson for their children: that there are lots of paths and lots of second chances. I just wish it weren't so heavily gendered--surely there are many men who would like to do the same thing!--or that it didn't so often come with so high a cost: some doors that are irrevocably shut, a serious hit to lifetime wages, etc.

Historiann said...

I take your point, Flavia, about people being able to raise children who turn out different from themselves. (Clearly, Anonymous's mother's example left a bad taste in her mouth, and she's constructed her life quite differently as a result.)

My point in my comment wasn't so much about individual examples for specific daughters so much as about the larger example dropouts set for all girls. Boys clearly understand that for the most part, they'll be working all their lives in large part because the men in their lives work, and I think the examples of grown women are important not just for their own daughters but for all of the girls in their communities.

Just as others have suggested that this post is about the problem as a whole--the likelihood of women (and not men) to drop out of the paid workforce--and not a critique of one person's life choices, so I'd like to suggest that women in decision-making positions are important not just in their own families, but to their communities as a whole.

That may or may not be meaningful to individuals as they reflect on their opportunities, but as a social and cultural historian, I believe that the choices of individuals--however uncoerced or honestly embraced they felt at the time--can tell us a lot about how power works in a given society.

Susan said...

Flavia, I totally agree with you -- but what I wanted to suggest is that what is gendered *first* is how women and men think about work/ being part of the labor market. That allows the process you're talking about.

My capcha is "expectation Nascor", which if only it had been Nascar, it would have been *very* appropriate!

Anonymous said...

Here is what it comes down to for me. I have two beautiful daughters, both now under 5, whom I love more than life. When I look at them and imagine their futures, do I want them to be Supreme Court justices, Nobel laureates, symphony conductors, etc, or do I want them to put their careers on hold to raise children? For me, the answer is definitely that I want them to lean in. I think they should, in about 30 years, leave my grandchildren in daycare while they lean into their careers. To be totally honest about it, I do not think that being a SAHM is good enough--challenging enough, respect-garnering enough, important enough--for my daughters. Since I feel this way, it seems to me that the best thing I can do for them is to live the example I want them to follow, to set the standard. I stress that these are just my own feelings, just my own personal values, and hence my own choice.

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm glad you posted this, and I've been reading the comment thread with interest. Here is the thing: is feminism just about "choices" for *women*, or is it about "choices" for human beings, choices that, in an ideal world, aren't constrained by gender? If the latter, than "choice" feminism seems like a positive thing to me. But if the former, and so many conversations about "choice" and feminism are only about the "choices" women "get" to make, then "choice" feminism is just a way for radical individualism to erode the *collective activism* of the feminist movement.

At the end of the day, I think I'm ok with saying that "choice" isn't really the point of feminism, and it shouldn't be. The point of feminism is and should be equality, about the end of inequality on the basis of gender. And, frankly, *economic equality* is really important to one's autonomy in a capitalist society. The bottom line is that by making the choice to drop out, one places a hard limit on a slew of other choices that are potentially really important. Is the "right" to make that one choice worth all of the other choices one no longer has? Maybe, personally, for some women. But, at least from my perspective, there is a bigger picture than just what works for some women, some families, personally. Caveat: my ideas about this are surely informed by the fact that I grew up with a working mom and two working grandmothers (one who had to enter the workforce because her husband left her with seven children - one of whom was an infant - so it's not like working was a "choice" so much for her as an imperative, and it was a factory job, so let's not romanticize what that was like). Perhaps making the choice to drop out is a luxury - particularly in an economy where most households rely on two incomes just to get by. But, you know, plastic surgery is a luxury, too, or a boat, or sending one's kids to private school rather than public, or whatever. What's funny though is that none of those luxury items *by their very definition* turn women into dependents.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Crazy's point brings up a thought-- we should write a post on how to protect yourself economically if you're a SAHP. Obviously life insurance is very important, as is having your own credit line and knowing the community property laws in your state of residence. For the elites, there's more they can do in terms of contracts. Although marriage settlements and so on sound so much like they're out of a Georgette Heyer novel, perhaps there's something to them today, only at the point of pregnancy.

Historiann said...

"[P]lastic surgery is a luxury, too, or a boat, or sending one's kids to private school rather than public, or whatever. What's funny though is that none of those luxury items *by their very definition* turn women into dependents.

This. Exactly. (Although plastic surgery may be a symptom of *being* dependent on that shitty deal with patriarchy, it's as Dr. Crazy says, not inherent.)

I assume that Anonymous 10:21 p.m. is a different commenter than the Anonymous who wrote in earlier in this thread.

undine said...

What a great discussion! Yes to Dr. Crazy's point: feminism ought to be about raising the possibilities *for everyone,* not just "giving choices" to women, and it ought to be fighting for economic equality and social justice. It ought to encourage and empower and show by example. And feminists ought to educate people, including sons and daughters, about those values and how working outside the home and making women's voices heard can make those goals come true. There should especially be education, as nicoleandmaggie suggest, about the economic consequences of not working or "dropping out."

I do these things, and I think they are important individually and collectively. But I am not sure that there is a one best way to achieve the ends that we're seeking.

Flavia said...

Thanks for keeping the conversation going, all! We've been moving households yesterday & today so I appreciate everyone who's commented in my absence. More thoughts if I get a moment tomorrow~~

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I did not mean to be critical of anyone's choice in any way! Mommy wars are counter productive and do not contribute to meaningful discussion. I should have finished my thought more carefully and I apologize. I worked both while my oldest was small (until age 4)and once the youngest was middle school aged and had overcome the health problems which were a result of prematurity. I, personally, (as well as my husband who is in IT) had a very inflexible science career. Things had to be done "right now" and a sick kid was a serious detriment the work of the lab. There are many other careers out there which allow a much better work life balance. I was miserable, my husband was miserable. We as a family were unable to make our family work effectively. Those families who do it "all" successfully and happily, [and I know dads who free lance or work from home or are home and hold things down on the home front while mom holds the inflexible/ travel/ executive job] have my undying admiration. Are all families thriving in a 2 parent working out of the home situation happy and thriving? If not, shouldn't we support the choice of those families to do what works best for them? Options. What people need are options. Isn't that what women have worked for?

As far as my own girls: they both plan on working!! I call it the "whatever your parents did is wrong" syndrome. Frankly I have been rather bemused by the number of college girls who "important, fancy" colleges are mostly not dating because they are so focused on getting their careers started or getting into graduate school. I collect data for a living and have heard enough girls say it to have taken note. We as a society need to recognize (instead of criticizing) that demographic and decide how best to support all parents so that they feel that they can successfully stay in the workforce, or support their reentry if they do choose to stay home for a few years. Other countries can do it. So can we.
However, those who wring their hands and say that stepping out of the workforce for a few years to do something else which an individual might consider important, will doom that individual, society, future prospects for women, parents, the children (oh those poor spoiled over appreciated helicoptered children) etc. etc. to an unfulfilled, poverty filled, and depression filled life are perhaps being a little overdramatic. Those ivy league moms, might, like me, have no problems stepping right back into the workforce into a career which is better suited to them or even into the same field they had left. I know lots of other women in many different fields who did the same including my personal doctor who worked one day a week for years, nurses, teachers, computer people of all stripes, business people, marketing people, etc. Every one of those mothers with whom I was in playgroups have returned to the work force in meaningful careers with little fuss. The world will not end if a parent wants to spend a few years parenting.
It is true that my life time earnings will not be as high as if I had not stayed home. Therefore we invested aggressively. I had hoped to retire at 50, but I will not be able to retire until 58 which will minimize the damage. My husband will retire before me. He has plans for a second career where earnings are likely to be very low but flexibility and happiness high. That is a down side to leaving the workforce that must be considered, but careful planning can mitigate it.

Canuck Down South said...

I'm coming late to this fascinating discussion, but I just wanted to add one (admittedly anecdotal) point: when I look over the choices of the parents of the dozen or so children I know who were born in the past 18 months, one disturbingly gendered trend emerges: among academic/non-academic couples, when the woman is the grad student, she invariably becomes the primary caregiver--arranging limited daycare for the few days a week she has to be on campus/teaching, and otherwise staying at home with her child. When the man is the grad student, his hours on campus don't change--instead, he has a wife who stays a home/works part-time. I know only one exception to this, one grad-student father who has used his flexible hours to make it so his wife could go back to work, even though a non-academic spouse typically makes more money than a grad student. Even among my small circle of grad-student parent acquaintances, it doesn't seem to matter, most of the time, who makes the most money--the woman's career is still, most often, the one taking the hit.

On the other hand, the young non-academic parents I know have come up with much more creative solutions, such as both parents working 3/4 time, or, in a particularly old-school solution, having the entire family do the equivalent of living above the shop (I'm pretty sure that in this last case, if the kid in question gets asked, in a few years, whether one of her parents stays home to look after her, she won't understand the question--both parents are always in the building and looking after her!). Perhaps part of the problem is the rigidity forced on family structures by professional, upper-middle class careers like academia, medicine, or law?