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University Of California Press
TODAY
updated 2/20/2008 6:30:43 PM ET 2008-02-20T23:30:43

A growing number of high level professional women are choosing to leave their jobs to pursue a home life. Why would highly educated, successful women give up promising careers? In her new book,"Opting Out," sociology Professor Pam Stone examines American moms struggling to balance both work and family, noticing that women often aren't opting out — instead they're being shut out. Even the brightest women have fewer options around balancing work and family than society assumes. Here's an excerpt:

Introduction

Participant Observation
It was a glorious fall day on the jewel-green playing fields of my suburban hometown and a fellow soccer mom had just given an especially touching and poised tribute to our sons’ coach — the familiar end-of-season ritual accompanied by gift.

Upon being complimented for her sure delivery, Ann turned to thank us, adding self-effacingly, “I guess a law degree from Yale is good for something.” Until that moment, I knew Ann as the quintessential stay-at-home mom:  Kids, dog, husband with high-powered career, active in the community. I had no idea, despite our many chats on the sidelines, before PTA meetings, around coordinating carpools, that Ann was (or ever had been) a lawyer, much less one with a degree from one of the top law schools in the country. Now that I knew, I was — and yet wasn’t — surprised. Surprised because she had never mentioned it or her subsequent legal career; not surprised because she was, in hindsight, so obviously an Ivy League-trained lawyer. Suddenly, it all made sense to me, but the slight trace of regret with which Ann made her remark (and the wistful sense of loss it conveyed) suggested that it might not make sense to her, that she was still trying to puzzle out the incongruity of her identity as Yale Law grad and at-home soccer mom. 

Women like Ann, the choices they make and how they understand them, the lives they create, and the implications of their choices for themselves and those around them are the subject of this book. 

Gone Missing
I’ve had other friends like Ann who left their careers and became full-time moms. Frankly, I’d always wondered about how they’d come to this decision, but didn’t have the courage to probe, cautious about the sensitive nature of the subject (or any subject in which women’s “choices” are involved), aware that I had pursued a different path by working while raising kids and that my questioning might be perceived as judgmental.  But the incident with Ann piqued more than my personal curiosity. As a sociologist (as well as a soccer mom) whose research has dealt extensively with a variety of issues related to women’s labor force participation and careers, I am well-versed in the truly overwhelming body of research on working women, changing gender roles, the challenges of combining work and family, and various forms of workplace discrimination, but I wasn’t familiar with anything specifically about women like Ann, stay-at-home mothers who have left professional careers. 

Following up to find out what research had been done on women leaving careers, I was surprised to discover that there was virtually none. This particular group of women, having exited the labor force, appeared to have “gone missing.” In fact, and this is true of my own past research, most of what we know about women, work, and family is based on the experiences of women who are working (and from the outset, let me make clear that I appreciate that a great deal of unpaid work is performed in the home, but for simplicity’s sake, when I refer to work I use the term as shorthand for paid employment, typically performed outside the home).

Little research has actually explored the lives of women like Ann who leave the workforce. This research vacuum leaves many unanswered questions: Who are they?  Why do they walk away from years of training and accomplishment to take on full-time motherhood — the job that is simultaneously revered and reviled, vaunted and devalued, but never paid and with no prospect of promotion? What happens after they do? What are the implications of their leaving for the workplaces they leave behind, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently?  What, if any, impact do their decisions have on other women, those who carry on with careers as well as younger women who are just embarking on theirs? Why are they really leaving and what are the larger lessons we can learn from them and their experiences?

Media Moments
Until I carried out the study that I report in this book, there had been no systematic, in-depth, research-based answers to these questions. Instead, our perceptions about this group of women have been shaped almost entirely by the popular media, which has been trumpeting a so-called trend of high-achieving women “returning home” since the 1980s, a trend depicted primarily as a function of women’s changing preferences and choices.  When a highly successful woman walks away from her career, a predictable flurry of articles appears.  This was the case, for example, in 1998 when Brenda Barnes, then CEO of PepsiCo-North America, left to spend more time with her family, and in 2002 when Karen Hughes, one of President Bush’s White House advisors, did likewise.  These stories are remarkably similar:  The women love their jobs, they have great employers who accommodate their family responsibilities, but motherhood is the most rewarding job in the world, children the greatest love affair of their lives, there is no such thing as quality time, and they need to “be there” for them.  

As a mother myself, I didn’t doubt the bit about motherhood and children (at least not on my good days); but as a scholar of women’s careers, I did have some questions about what the women in these articles were saying about their jobs.  Research shows that women—even successful women—encounter obstacles of all sorts, that the workplace can be hostile and chilly, especially to mothers, despite family-friendly rhetoric to the contrary.  The skeptical sociologist in me had to ask, based on what I knew of the literature:  If work had been so great, their employers so accommodating of their families, why were they leaving?  The reasons they gave all revolved around family, and I wondered why they had nothing—other than laudatory comments—to say about their jobs?

These articles typically framed women’s decisions as all about family, but invoked more than its immediate pulls.  Instead, decisions were often represented as symptomatic of a kind of sea-change among the daughters of the feminist revolution, a return to traditionalism and the resurgence of a new feminine mystique.  Stay-at-home moms were suddenly fashionable, the “latest status symbol” according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.  Working mothers, on the other hand, were pronounced “passé” by a more widely-acknowledged arbiter of hip-ness, New York Magazine.  The prevailing story line reached an apotheosis in an article written by the work-life columnist of The New York Times, Lisa Belkin.  Prominently featured on the cover of The Times’s Sunday magazine, it distilled recurring themes in the media depiction:  Women, especially high-achieving, college-educated women, are choosing motherhood over careers, “rejecting the workplace” and the feminist vision of having it all, trading aspirations to professional success for the values and comforts of home and family, their actions representing not a passive acquiescence to traditional gender expectations but rather a proactive “opt-out revolution.”  “Why don’t more women get to the top?” the teaser for The Times Magazine article provocatively asked.  Its answer:  “They choose not to.” ...

A Preview of What I Found
I discovered women who were reflective and articulate.  Neither whiners, wimps, nor victims – and decidedly not desperate housewives – these women were tough-minded and framed the accounts of their lives and their decisions in the language of trade-off, accommodation, and competing priorities. ...I discovered that most women, in fact, quit only as a last resort and that for most, work, not family considerations were paramount and deciding factors. 

These women’s stories are multi-layered and complex and counter the common understanding that their decisions can be reduced to babies and family alone. While they couch them in the language of choice and privilege, the stories they tell reveal not the expression of choice, but rather the existence of a choice gap, a gap that is a function of a double bind created primarily by the conditions of work in the gilded cages of elite professions.  Married to fellow professionals, who face the same pressures at work that they do, women are home alone and go home because they have been unsuccessful in their efforts to obtain flexibility or, for those who were able to, because they found themselves marginalized and stigmatized, negatively reinforced for trying to hold on their careers after becoming mothers.  These women had alternative visions of how to work and be a mother, yet their attempts to maintain their careers on terms other than full-time plus were penalized, not applauded; it was quitting that earned them kudos.  Once home, women create rewarding lives, but struggle to reconcile their current and former identities.  Home was a crucible of change. 

Copyright © 2007 by Pamela Stone.  Excerpted from “Opting Out?  Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home” by Pamela Stone.  All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the University of California Press. 

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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