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Telling it like it is

Rewriting the "opting out" narrative

By Heather Hewett

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When Lisa Belkin's controversial article, "The Opt-Out Revolution," appeared in October 2003, a maelstrom ensued. I was a brand-new mother of a six-week-old baby, and I remember peering through the haze of sleep deprivation to read the pages of The New York Times Magazine, feeling my general state of confusion only exacerbated by Belkin's piece. Two years later, as I think back on that moment -- before I knew how many letters would be written in response to her article, how many tempers would flare and positions taken, how many additional articles and books I myself would read on the subject of motherhood -- I realize that Belkin's article, for better or worse, marked my own entry into the mainstream public discussion about parenthood, work, and family.

This conversation, of course, had been going on long before "The Opt Out Revolution" hit the newsstands, and it continues today. But it was Belkin's piece, a feature that profiled the career-to-stay-at-home trajectories of several mothers who had graduated from Princeton, that seemed to catch everyone's attention. Most readers no doubt remember the scathing critiques and serious objections levied by fellow journalists (including Salon's Joan Walsh and The Nation's Katha Pollitt), not to mention the numerous Times readers who penned letters to the editor. Many objected to Belkin's focus on affluent, professional women who have the option of staying at home instead of addressing the financial and childcare issues faced by most mothers in the U.S. Others were outraged at the author's (mis)interpretation of statistics, over-reliance on anecdote, and highly questionable conclusion that these women represented a trend, and still others protested the author's portrayal of her subjects' lives in terms of the personal dilemmas of individual choice instead of the systemic issues restricting the kinds of choices women have (for example, might it be more accurate to say that instead of "opting out," the women in her article had been "pushed out"?). At the same time, the article resonated with many women who felt that the hurdles facing mothers in the workplace had not received adequate attention on a national level. (Robert Drago, Professor of Labor Studies and Women's Studies at Penn State University, explains that "Belkin struck a chord because of the stark choices professional women face: be an absentee parent or do not parent, or quit your job.") Finally, as writer and scholar Miriam Peskowitz astutely points out in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, many readers simply seemed angry that they didn't have all the choices they needed, and angry that someone else might have more.

Much has happened since this furor erupted. When I first began to reflect on where we are, two years after the publication of "The Opt-Out Revolution," I thought I would write about how much the conversation has changed -- how we'd moved onto more complex framings of the issues, based in large part on the work of social scientists, economists, policy analysts, journalists, and activists. Ongoing work/life research directs us to think beyond the mothers in Belkin's piece to consider the wide range of individuals who parent -- individuals with a diverse range of socioeconomic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds -- and furthermore suggests multiple alternative frameworks for understanding what's going on. Much, if not most, of this research points toward an examination of the workplace and its policies, not the choices of individual women. In all fairness, I've even heard Belkin herself call for a reframing of the debate. As the Times' work/life columnist, she has continued to participate in the public discussion about these issues. When asked at a September 2005 panel at Barnard College where she thought the dialogue should go, Belkin had a ready response: "We need to make this conversation about parenting, not just about women's issues."

But only six days after I heard Belkin speak, The New York Times ran Louise Story's front-page article, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." As MMO's own Judith Stadtman Tucker observed, it was "The Opt-Out Revolution" redux, only this time, the college students interviewed in the article weren't even planning to opt in. Once again, letter writers and journalists, including Slate's Jack Shafer and The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta, tore the reporting apart. Belkin's piece hovered in the background of this "revived debate" (as the headline for the Times Letters section put it), and a collective frustration permeated many of the responses to the article. In the face of so much research suggesting other kinds of stories that could have appeared on the front page of The New York Times, why did another opt-out article appear -- not to mention one about the ivy-clad set? (Full disclosure here: I'm a Yale graduate, and a college professor to boot, though the state university where I teach is not quite so ivy clad.) To quote my favorite letter in response to Story's article, "I'm glad that the things I declared when I was 19 about what I was going to do with my life didn't make front-page news." Exactly. Why, then, is the media so eager to label this as news?

here we go, again

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