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Let Us Opt-Outs Lean Back In

For those women who once stayed at home with their small children, and now would like back in the work force, the New York Times Magazine has a warning for you: It’s harder—much harder—than it looks.

I’m talking about an article in last Sunday’s magazine, titled, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In." If you weren’t a member of the mommy brigade back in 2003, the title may not ring a bell, so let me refresh your memory. Ten years ago, said magazine ran a story about mothers of young children who “opted out” of high-powered careers and six-figure salaries to stay home with their little kids. At the time, I was the (pregnant, again) mother of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, newly stepped off the journalism career ladder I’d been avidly climbing for the last 14 years. I no longer knew who I was or how to introduce myself, but most of the time I was just too busy to worry about such details. I was merely after sanity.

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Today, I’m the seasoned mom of a 14-, 12- and 9-year-old, trying to climb back on that ladder at any rung someone will open up for me. And once again, the Times is back with another treatise on how women like me (affluent, college-educated, married moms) could/should/would live our lives.

Judith Warner, a contributing writer for the magazine, tracked down women who stepped off the career track 10 to 15 years ago and asked them how it was going now. One woman left her job to appease a controlling husband, only to find herself divorced anyway over the same issue. She recently told her daughter, “You need to work. You don’t have to make a million dollars. You don’t have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to earn at least enough so you can support yourself.”

These are sentiments grounded in hard reality, and they are repeated, in one form or another, throughout the piece. Husbands leave. They lose jobs. They lose respect for wives who hew too single-mindedly to hearth and home. Yes, yes, I get it.

Years at home with children are not yawning pits of nothingness.

But it’s a trick question, isn’t it? The one about whether these women—any of us, including me—made a mistake by staying at home with children? My life today is manageable. I have time for work. All I ask is that work make time for me. But it wasn’t always so. Ten years ago, pregnant with our third child, I could barely get dressed some mornings, much less haul my tired derriere into an office. Perhaps if I’d been a more organized person, a more compartmentalized person, I could have juggled it all. But I’m not. My creativity flourishes in the cracks and crevices of a life managed at the teetering edge of chaos. Then I went and had three children in five years. That’s more chaos than management, right there.

This, then, is the reality: some very qualified women leave the working world when they have kids. For a time at least, and then, when those kids grow older these women would like to have careers again. But out in the world of paychecks and 401k's, this is often greeted with barely concealed derision and skepticism. We are a culture that calls ourselves enlightened, yet we ghettoize mothers, believing somehow that brains and capability cannot coexist with carpools and frying pans.

A woman who stays at home with her children should not have to make excuses when she’s ready to get a job again. She should not have to “hide the hole” in her résumé. Years at home with children are not yawning pits of nothingness. We learn things: how to coordinate multiple, contradictory schedules; how to express our displeasure without yelling or sulking; how to meet our obligations despite crushing obstacles (dinner on the table every night for 14 years). And that’s not even getting into the volunteer work.

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We all take different paths. Rather than feel guilty or angry that we don’t all take the one of work, maybe women should start demanding that workplaces open their doors to many kinds of workers, even those who come from the unusual direction of home.

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