Pamela Stone, author of "Opting Out?" The Q

Rare is the mother who thinks she has achieved the perfect balance of work, family and life. But there is no corresponding shortage of writers telling mothers how they should manage their lives. From Linda Hirshman warning women that changing a diaper turns them into “untouchables” to Caitlin Flanagan proclaiming something is “lost” when a mom leaves the house to collect a paycheck, everyone, it seems, has an opinion. Everyone, that is, but Pamela Stone. 

A sociology professor at Hunter College in New York, Stone began to note the number of professional women in her own well-heeled suburb leaving the paid workforce in favor of full-time motherhood. She decided to do something perfectly rational but revolutionary in these flame-throwing times: she contacted several dozen upper-middle-class so-called opt-outers across the country, and listened to their stories without passing judgment on their lives.

The results are in Stone’s recently published book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. She found a world where inflexible workplaces, second shifts on the home front and societal expectations combined to create a Gordian knot for many modern women. They realized something – or, rather, someone – was going to have to give.

Babble spoke with Stone in New York, where she discussed what’s wrong with the phrase “opt-out,” generational differences amongst women who take their leave of the work world, and the importance of paid work to women. – Helaine Olen

Do you think “opting out” is a good term?

It’s a very bad term. “Opting out” makes the decision seem kind of light. It has the real potential to do harm by reinforcing the idea that women aren’t interested in work, that careers are disposable and ephemeral. It also lets employers off the hook. I use the term “silent strike.”

I think what the women I interviewed were saying is that there’s a better way to work, that they need more flexible options. They don’t want a life that is all work and no family. Yet they want to work in the future, they don’t want to burn bridges with their coworkers and their employers. So it’s a silent strike, because they do tend to leave and tend to leave fairly quietly, and once they’re out it’s tough to hear from them.

Why did you decide to concentrate solely on upper-middle-class, professional women?

First, these are the women who are supposed to be working the most. The very fact that you get a professional degree, that you put yourself into the competitive environment of trying to go to an Ivy League or highly selective school, all of this is taken as prima facie demonstration of work commitment.

Then there is another part. Despite the fact that we know that professional jobs had been ramping up in their time demands, by other measures they are actually more family friendly. There are people who are fired if they miss a day of work to take their kid to a doctor’s appointment. That doesn’t tend to happen to professionals, they’re not as vulnerable. So the question becomes, if they can’t make it work, who can?

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