09.19.09

The Downside of Opting Out

Six years ago, The New York Times gushed about well-off women who quit work to stay home—without examining the economic risks. Only now is the paper setting the record straight.

Guess what The New York Times has just discovered? Women who quit their careers to stay home can face financial challenges if a recession hits and their husbands lose their jobs! And—gasp!—when these women try to re-enter the labor force after a timeout, it’s hard for them to find work, and they earn far less than they did when they left!

The front page of Saturday's business section, which featured this startling news in a lengthy story under the headline “Back to the Grind: Recession Drives Some Women to Return to Work,” brought to mind the newsroom joke that circulated during the 1970s and ‘80s, when I was a New York Times reporter myself. Back then, long before the Internet revved up the pace of the news business to a 24/7 merry-go-round, staffers made fun of the Times’ glacial pace and snickered that its motto was “The last with the most!”—a wry acknowledgment of the paper’s tendency to arrive ludicrously late to any story but overcompensate with acres of ponderous copy.

For the major media that romanticized opting out as the soothing solution to the stress of juggling work and family, the devastation that choice has left in its wake represents merely another story. But for the women who got sold a bill of goods and gambled their futures without understanding the risks they were taking, losing that bet turned out to be the biggest mistake of their lives.

In this case, however, the paper of record bears an unusual responsibility for setting the record straight—something it has taken an extraordinarily long time to do. Six years ago the Times published a Sunday magazine cover story that discovered what it deemed a happy new trend among affluent women and coined a catchy phrase—the Opt-Out Revolution—to describe the cushy lives of women who quit their careers to become full-time mothers. In what seemed an astonishing oversight, nowhere in that 2003 cover story did the Times investigate the economic challenges that the privileged Princeton graduates it portrayed might face should they ever lose their husbands—or their husbands lose their incomes.

Since then, of course, boom has turned to bust and a global financial cataclysm has claimed the jobs of millions of men. When the economic crash hit a year ago, I called the author of that infamous magazine story to suggest that the Times take another look at what hard times and rising unemployment might mean for women who had blithely assumed that an obliging husband would always be willing and able to support them.

One could dismiss the ensuing time lag with a resigned “Better late than never,” but even now the Times seems loath to acknowledge the levels of suffering and hardship that prevail throughout the country. Not until two-thirds of the way through Saturday’s story does the reporter quote a lawyer whose 10-month search failed to produce a single job offer. “This has been the most humbling experience,” said the woman, who finally became an unpaid intern at a law firm. Even later in the story, the Times relegates the stunning financial penalties suffered by women who opted out to a parenthetical aside: “(Studies have found that for every two years a woman is out of the labor force, her earnings fall by 10 percent, a penalty that lasts throughout her career.)"

Having spent a significant chunk of my own life interviewing such women, I found the Times’ belated acknowledgment of their problems to be bittersweet. Two years ago, I published The Feminine Mistake, which documented the financial risks of dropping out of the work force and also criticized the mainstream media for neglecting the well-documented but catastrophically under-reported economic aspects of the opting-out trend.

The Times—whose Sunday book review section is notorious for its hostility toward serious books by and about women—assigned its review of The Feminine Mistake not to a recognized expert in any of the fields it dealt with, but rather to a stay-at-home mother who trashed it. Her verdict was not shared by The Washington Post, which featured The Feminine Mistake on the cover of its book review section and named as one of the best books of 2007. But the Times was not content with a critical pan; it also ran a major story a few days after The Feminine Mistake was published, saying that it wouldn’t sell and dismissing the book, rather prematurely, as a flop. The story neglected to mention that The Feminine Mistake, which became a national bestseller, was on The Times’ own extended bestseller list at that very moment; the paper refused to run a subsequent correction.

Since then, women’s economic empowerment has become a hot topic all over the world, and famous women of every description have dedicated themselves to the cause, from Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair to Queen Rania of Jordan and Diane von Furstenberg. Ambassador Swanee Hunt and Helen LaKelly Hunt, daughters of the legendary Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, launched a campaign called Women Moving Millions to raise money for causes benefitting women and girls; despite the recession, Women Moving Millions has exceeded its goal of $150 million and raised nearly $200 million in less than two years. Warren Buffett gave $1 billion to a foundation a run by his daughter-in-law, Jennifer Buffett, who is stepping forward as another major player in the field.

The message that women can and must take financial responsibility for their own lives has an electrifying impact, from tiny African villages where micro-lending programs enable women to build small businesses to major urban centers in developing countries, which increasingly recognize that their economic futures depend on harnessing the power of women. When I was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the Women’s International Summit in Kuala Lumpur, I talked about women’s economic empowerment to a rapt audience of 2,000 women, many of them veil-wearing Muslims. But it wasn’t me who excited them; it was the exhilarating idea of personal freedom, of being able to support yourself and control your own destiny no matter what challenges life throws your way.

But in America, those challenges remain under-covered and often invisible. Since The Feminine Mistake came out, I have followed the lives of many of the women I wrote about, and their stories haunt me. One divorced woman facing the end of her alimony decided to look for work and found a job she loves; through that job she met a new man, fell in love and remarried. “I’m happer than I’ve ever been,” she told me the last time we talked. But the wonderful job that reinvigorated her life doesn’t actually pay a salary; she works on commission, and commissions can be hard to come by during a global recession.

Despite the financial uncertainty, hers turned out to be the happiest outcome. Most of the women who looked for work couldn’t find it, and those who did were shocked at how little they could earn. One high-powered woman had opted out of her career for a short time but started trying to get back in when her husband left her for a younger woman. Despite years of effort, she has never succeeded. She finally found a teaching job that pays one-eighth of what she was earning 20 years ago. Her ex-husband has long failed to pay the child support he owes her, a six-figure sum she is now trying to chase down with expensive legal help. She has a lot of company; nearly 70 percent of child-support cases in this country have arrears owed to the custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly female—one of several reasons why men’s standard of living rises after divorce while that of women and children typically plummets.

Another woman I interviewed had enjoyed her years at home but was thinking about a return to the work force when the recession dimmed her prospects and put her husband’s job in jeopardy. Frightened that his family of five might lose its only income, he has just accepted an unwanted transfer that will uproot the family, forcing them to move to another state. His wife is scared and depressed.

But the case I can’t get out of my mind is a woman I’ve met only once and never interviewed, a neighbor of one of the numerous friends who gave me book parties when The Feminine Mistake was published. Like many stay-at-home mothers who were scared or angered by its premise, this woman—a lawyer who hadn’t practiced in many years—refused to read the book or come to the party that was held a few houses away from her own.

But we have many mutual acquaintances, and they have been horrified by what’s happened to her since then. As her 50th birthday approached, her husband informed her that he had been in love with someone else for many years and was leaving his family to start a new life with her. He then lost his job. He started a new business just as the recession hit; it failed. When his soon-to-be-ex-wife looked for work, her long-ago legal training proved hard to market; she ended up taking a part-time job as a shoe sales clerk in their small suburban town. Financial necessity forced her to sell the family home many months before her youngest child graduated from high school; she rented a temporary place to live in the interim.

Now the last child is gone, and the mother is on her own—no kids to take care of, no husband to pay the bills, no career to support her or give meaning to her life. The last news I heard was that she had moved away from her comfortable suburb to a rural area in another state, where her employment prospects are limited.

Stories like hers are much more common than the Times has ever acknowledged, and its feeble attempt at catch-up is far too little and way too late. “I wish I’d known all this before I ruined my life,” one tearful stay-at-home mother told me after I spoke at a conference on returning to work.

For the major media that romanticized opting out as the soothing solution to the stress of juggling work and family, the devastation that choice has left in its wake represents merely another story. But for the women who got sold a bill of goods and gambled their futures without understanding the risks they were taking, losing that bet turned out to be the biggest mistake of their lives. Those who encouraged them to do so have a lot to answer for.

Leslie Bennetts, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of The Feminine Mistake.