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How Linda Hirshman got me back to work

By Sharol Gauthier

I know what you're thinking. In fact, I can almost hear you groaning. What more can possibly be said about Linda Hirshman? Like many stay-at-home mothers, when I first read Hirshman's article in The American Prospect (hard copy, delivered to my door), I was apoplectic. I had to have written one of the first letters to the Prospect arguing every point. I wrote a longer rebuttal and sent it along with my unpublished letter to MMO. Around the house, in the car, to my husband and friends, I griped and moaned for days about Hirshman's arguments. I watched her on the Colbert Report and the morning talk shows. I read her Washington Post Op-ed piece. I read blogs. I sat in the big box bookstore reading her manifesto because I didn't want to pay money for it. I thought about it, fumed about it, debated it… until a really unexpected thing happened.

I began to think about going back to work.

Okay, it wasn't as if I hadn't already spent excruciating hours pondering my dependent state, worrying about my 8-year hiatus from work. I worried that my daughters would grow up thinking that moms didn't hold "real jobs". I worried about what I wanted to do, what there was to do, what I could do. I worried that I was no longer qualified to "do" anything at all.

But something different was settling in. My mindset was changing. I had a creeping sense that through all the angry and polemical fluff, the stuff designed to spark a furor, I might be agreeing with Hirshman on some deep level. On Colbert, Hirshman was incredibly civil. She had a point…more than one. I found myself agreeing with her (maybe even liking her). She wasn't personally attacking me and my family; she suddenly sounded moderate: "I want them to want what's right," she said. About work and family: "I think they both matter." On raising children: "It should be a shared task."

Yes. I wanted a retirement account again. I wanted benefits and a paycheck. I wanted my own space and life; I had always wanted those things and had usually had them, so this wasn't a new insight. The new insight was about how much I had subordinated that desire. Somewhere out of sight a voice was telling me, listen.

So I am a professional again. It happened pretty damn fast too, if I do say so myself. I worried a lot about getting back into the workforce. That's what everyone wants us to worry about. I'm definitely not the elite executive Hirshman wants me to be and my salary is a shadow of what it would be if I had never left the workforce. Neither am I an ivy-league educated woman, although I do have an ivy-league educated spouse. But my MA worked for me (mea culpa: the humanities). The paycheck is paltry by Hirshman's standards and definitely paltry compared to my husband's. But my health benefits are so much better than his that the kids "came with me," as they say. I've got great life insurance, and dental benefits: we're so used to living on one salary that I can max my retirement.

Maybe it's necessary these days to be highly polemical to affect small changes. The din of the media is so overwhelming and so constant that only another din can cause real change. I don't agree with everything Hirshman said. I'm not convinced that elite women lead the rest of society in quite the way she believes. And I truly believe that opting out might be a reactionary response to some complex social factors.

Certainly young women of my generation remember what it was like to be young and missing their constantly working, stressed out parents. So opting out is likely more of a backlash than a result of sexist brainwashing of women on a large scale. In fact, I disagree with many of Hirshman's arguments. But there it is -- this one, unshakable fact: she changed the way I think about myself and my life.

Maybe I was in a position to be changed. Would I have been open to Hirshman's arguments if I was still nursing a 6 month old? Probably not. And that's where Hirshman and I part ways. I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I opted out for 8 years. I'd do it again. I see all around me successful women who stayed home for 10 years to raise young kids and still went back to work and ended up with highly successful careers.

I'm also glad I'm back. I'm glad Hirshman kicked me in the rear and got me thinking about seriously going back to go back to work. Oh, and by the way… it's hard. It's really, really hard.

mmo : march 2007

Sharol Gauthier received her MA in English from the University of Sussex in England. Prior to “opting out” she worked as a writer for an educational association and an English teacher at an all-girls college prep school. She has happily gone back to work as an academic counselor and instructor for the Opportunity Network at USC Upstate.
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