Notes from the Opt-Out Universe

Driving to Work

In record numbers, we are getting off the career freeway that was paved by our feminist foremothers, and taking exits that lead us back to marriage and motherhood, financial dependence, cookies and gardening.

By: Wendy Walker, author of Four Wives

As a twelve-year veteran of the suburban “opt-out” culture, I am intrigued by the renewed and misguided discourse on the social dynamics of the insular universe I inhabit. I see the points that are being made. In record numbers, we are getting off the career freeway that was paved by our feminist foremothers, and taking exits that lead us back to marriage and motherhood, financial dependence, cookies and gardening. It does seem strange when viewed from the outside.

On the other hand, having made this choice myself over a decade ago, I am perplexed by the incomprehension that the discourse now reflects.

What Betty Friedan did so brilliantly over forty years ago in her groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique, was to describe the cultural coercion that led women to believe they were destined to be housewives. It is precisely because of her work that I have never felt the weight of such antiquated expectations. What did, in fact, drive me to abandon my career as a lawyer were societal forces that have been given surprisingly little attention in the recent “opt-out” conversation. The reason for this may very well be that what underlies these forces is as sexy as tree bark. Economics.

Suburban Connecticut is outrageously wealthy. The average price of a home in Greenwich is over $2.6 million. Enough said. The jobs that create this wealth simply do not support the two-job models that have been posited as a solution to the “opt-out” crisis. To the contrary, obtaining this echelon of wealth requires a level of commitment that stretches people to their human limits, and necessitates the complete abdication of family responsibilities to others.

It is not surprising that no matter where they begin, the families that are shaped around these jobs gravitate towards a complete division of labor – the moneymaker and the caretaker – and become part of a highly specialized economy that makes the two-job model not only impractical, but verging on aberrant. Husbands are unavailable. Houses are enormous. And schools are constructed around the presumption that a parent will be available at all times. Add to this the exorbitant income of the primary moneymaker that makes a second income inconsequential, and the scale is tipped right off its hinges in favor of the one-job family.

There are two truths at work here. First, is the fact that these jobs will never change. Driven by the heart and soul of capitalism, they are the jobs of the wolves. And while token efforts are made to accommodate families, there will always be someone willing to make more sacrifices.

The second truth is that we are nowhere near the kind of social upheaval necessary for men and women to swap their roles within these families. This is what remains of the traditionalist gender expectations Friedan wrote about, and indeed not even the most stringent back-to-work advocates suggests this as a viable solution. After three years working as a wolf myself, first as a banker and then as a lawyer, I saw first hand that for a woman to pursue these jobs and have a family, she would have to find not only a husband, but a wife as well.

As I read the back-to-work literature now, it seems my life is a case study in the pitfalls of “opting-out.” Leslie Bennetts in The Feminine Mistake, sets them out quite hardily. I lost my financial independence, watched my self-esteem deteriorate. And I fell readily into the trap of being the perfect mommy – making organic baby food and obsessively organizing my kitchen drawers. But the time I spent with my children was profoundly important to me. Given our family structure and the world we lived in, the choice was the right one. For all the things I gave up, I would not rewrite my own history. There are no easy answers here.

Still, I am grateful to be leaving the “opt-out” universe for a career as a writer that is both family friendly and hugely rewarding. It is ironic that the years I spent in that universe led me to become a writer, and gave me something important to write about. I have great empathy for my peers who struggle with the consequences of an impossible decision. And I consider myself lucky that I have found a way around them. The cages that hold us may be gilded, but they are still cages. And the forces we are up against are nothing less than those at the very core of our culture.

 

 

About the Author:

Wendy Walker is a former commercial litigator and investment banker who now works at home writing and raising her children. She lives in Connecticut and is currently working on her second novel.

For more information, please visit http://www.wendywalkerbooks.com/.

Photo: mark.woodbury