Thursday, August 8, 2013

Opting in, opting out

The New York Times Magazine has a story this week entitled, "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In."  It's about the high profile, highly educated women of Generation X who, after working in high powered jobs, made the specific choice to stay home with their children - and are now regretting it.  Or not.  Or something.  I'm not sure what the point of it is other than to express, again, that women aren't happy, even when they have choices or have had full agency to make choices because they can't have it all. 

Well, duh.

Life is hard.  Life isn't fair.  Life doesn't come with a guarantee.  We make choices.  No one ever promised you a rose garden.  Pick your cliché, they're all true.

The first woman they profile, Sheilah O'Donnel got divorced after about a decade at home - in the custom home her husband had built for them.  She decided being a stay-at-home mother was disempowering and disenfranchising and skewed the balance in her marriage and caused all kinds of problems in her relationship with her husband:
At her peak, O’Donnel was earning $500,000 a year. But after her first two children were born, O’Donnel’s travel for work became more difficult. She gave up a quarter of her earnings in exchange for working three days a week, but felt marginalized, her best accounts given to others, meetings often scheduled on her days out of the office. “I felt like a second-class citizen,” she said. Even with the reduced schedule, the stresses of life in a two-career household put an overwhelming strain on her marriage. There were ugly fights with her husband about laundry and over who would step in when the nanny was out sick.
So O'Donnel - a la Mary Chapin Carpenter - got the heck out of Dodge and now has a small apartment and a midlevel sales job.  And no husband.  Whee!

The Times profiles two other women, whose stories I was more sympathetic to because they didn't actually break up their families for seemingly frivolous reasons.  The tone of the article seems to be, "You'd better work, honey, because men are unreliable.  It's just safer to support yourself."  Which harkens back to that 2nd Wave feminist idea that women should - must! - all work outside the home because then we are all equal, equal workers, indistinguishable. 

I'm not saying that women shouldn't work or that girls shouldn't be trained for a vocation or learn valuable skills.  I went back to work last year, and it turned out to be a very good thing because my husband is getting laid off in a few weeks, and we will have at least some income to live on until he finds another job.  And, of course, life does sometimes intervene.  Accidents happen, work peters out,  people die or become incapacitated, spouses sometimes leave.  Skills are good to have. 

My point is, Sheilah's husband wasn't the one who stopped being cooperative, who stopped supporting his family.  But somehow, the Times puts Sheilah in the victim role here.  It also really bothers me that feminists frame the working/staying home dilemma entirely in terms of how it affects women.  What about the children?  Sheilah was home for over a decade; did her children not benefit from the time they spent with their mother?  Did Sheilah not benefit from spending time with her kids?  That, to me, is far more important than what the pillows in her new apartment are like. 

I stayed home with my son because I wanted to be with him.  I wanted to know him.  I wanted to be the one from whom he learned his numbers, his letters, his morals, his values.  Not everyone can or even wants to stay home, but I went through a huge effort to have him in my life, and I wanted to be with him.  Now, it's true, he won't remember those years.  Already he doesn't remember how things were when he was a baby.  But I remember, and it's a blessing to me.  Yeah, I had to sacrifice my career as a librarian, such as it was, and, yeah, I had to become financially dependent on my husband and it did change the dynamic between us somewhat and sometimes I felt, I suppose, lesser, being a non-working person in a society that values everything in monetary terms.  But I had time with my son.  I invested my energy in him.  Will it pay off?  I hope so.  There are no guarantees in life.  He's happy, he's secure.  I gave him that, and I feel proud of it.

When I read stories like Sheilah's, I can't help thinking of my grandmother, a teacher and farmer's wife, who kept on keeping on when her husband was struck by lightning and rendered bedbound for the better part of a year.  She kept making dinner, running the farm, raising her boys.  She went back to work to keep money coming in, and you know who never complained that she wasn't fulfilled?  My grandmother.  She went and read to her mother-in-law who had had a stroke and needed the company.  She taught Sunday School.  She was grateful to have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep and a family who loved her.  Great woman, my grandmother.  God rest you, Amy Coleson Pettigrove.  He cracked the mold the day you were born.

Everything runs right on time, years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines. He thinks he'll keep her
Everything is so benign, safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind. He thinks he'll keep her

For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay
Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage

Today is my 15th anniversary.  I've kept the house clean, made healthy meals, repaired things that broke, shuffled my kid to school and basketball and scouts.  I've taken the dogs to the vet and taught myself to cook and garden and make medicines, prayed for my husband when he was away and traveling unsafe roads, and listened to him when he was tired and discouraged and scared. 

And all I have to show for it is: a clean house, a healthy family, rambunctious dogs, a happy and secure kid, a pretty little garden, shelves full of canned goods and herbs, and a loving and appreciative husband.  Poor me.


  1. Ah, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”.

    I might as well admit up-front that back in my old Blue-pill days, I liked that song.
    But, now I see it for what it is, the celebration of frivorce.

    As I recalled, the lyrics contained nothing of any specific complaint about anything her husband had done, except, perhaps, to naively believe that her lack of complaint meant that she was satisfied with the life/lifestyle she had no doubt chosen for herself (a quick check proves me correct).

    Further, it suggests no effort to seek more appealing (for her) work outside the home after her children would have all been of school age (last one born ~7 years earlier when she was 29). Just her seemingly sudden decision to kick her husband out (without any prior notice . How empowering for her!

    Erroneously, the song also suggests that she’d had no raise in 15 years. This would only be true if her husband had never received a raise in his pay. As a stay-at-home wife/mother her “pay” was her husbands earned income. That’s just how that works.

    The songs makes it out that she was the only one who had to devote her days to working (apparently her husband was being paid to go out and play every day?).

    But, it all works out in the end, when she can kick his dutiful ass out, and finally get a minimum wage job. Even more empowering for her!

    You go grrl! Men suck! Husbands suck! Take half his pay, and go your own way!

    Now, why the Hell did I ever like that piece of misandric BS???

    1. Because it's country with a standard structure, a good harmony, and it's sung by someone who knows what she needs to do with her voice (including staying in tune).

      Thus the message slipped under the radar. By the country music stations. Makes me nostalgic for punk.

  2. These women were either too stupid to hire household help (2/3), or effectively utilize it when they did (1/3). Why on earth was either spouse doing laundry in a household with 1million/year income? (I'm assuming he made at least as much as she did when they both worked).

    This is an American thing, in other countries well-off women aren't so ridiculous and have proper domestic staffing.


  3. Great post, grerp, and happy anniversary! 15 years is an awesome thing, and an achievement in this day and age.

  4. I had that Carpenter album back in the day, but I think I always hated the words to He Thinks He'll Keep Her. They're horrible (the poor husband!) and moronic - who wants to work in the typing pool for minimum wage or thinks the typing pool boss will be easier to please?

    Think of how dated the idea of a typing pool is too. And how is women working in the typing pool less "sexist" than women working at home for their families. The song is catchy, though.

    MJ - I agree. If you've got that much income, it behooves you to delegate.

    Thanks for the best wishes, Andrew and EW!

  5. Grerp: Here, unasked for, is a suggestion for your next piece of advice: beware of 'friends' and relatives that try to keep you from change so they have someone to stagnate and be unhappy with.

    New major that's a lot harder? YOU'LL FAIL New guy who's going to be/already is an accountant or transactional lawyer or whatever? BORING LOSER! Taking up an activity or sport? YOU'LL FAIL/GET HURT Seriously getting into shape/dieting? YOU THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN ME? New job in new city? TOO SCARY! Having kids? (if they don't) YOU'LL BE A SLAVE AND A SELLOUT! Want to stay childfree (if they aren't or want grandkids) I KNOW WHAT'S BETTER FOR YOU. YOU CAN'T KNOW TRUE HAPPINESS WITHOUT KIDS etc.

    It's disguised jealousy.

  6. Ani di Franco -- who is so leftist she freaks the average feminist or Dem -- has written a wise song that is much more onto this. She understands commitment

  7. I'm really happy to see that you are blogging again. I found your site after you had gone silent, but I've enjoyed reading through it. Happy anniversary to you and your husband!

  8. Greetings Grerp. Cheers.

  9. So glad to see you blogging again!

  10. Hey, grerp is back. That means her health situation is not as bad..,

    Good, as I was worried. There are far too few women with the moral clarity that she has... and a severe need for more such women.

    Hmm... Grerp is back, while Hugo Schwyzer is going down in flames.... some cosmic justice for a change.

  11. I am so happy to see your post here for sure I learn more knowledge from here. Thanks!


  12. Yes, my situation is better, TFH - thanks for caring. :) I appreciate it.

    sunshinemary, Peabody, and Alcestis - it's nice to know I was missed. Thanks for saying.

  13. Thrilled you're back! I appreciate this post. I'm not sure when people started deciding there should not be any trade-offs in life.

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  15. It's wonderful to see you posting again. I found your site a couple of months ago, and have been working my way through your archives.

    "(My son is) happy, he's secure. I gave him that, and I feel proud of it."

    You should feel proud. That's a gift to last, a sturdy tool he can pass on to his own family. I know of the opposite; personhood never truly arrives, and one dies a little inside every day.

  16. God rest Amy,

    and God bless Grerp!

    Happy belated anniversary!

  17. I do not believe in the divorce option, but I've always sort of liked this song. I view it as a cautionary tale. The people in our lives need to be appreciated. I need to appreciate my husband, my kids, etc...and I ceratinly apreciate it when they appreciate. me too. Again, not being appreciated is NOT a divorcable offense, but when there are so many small things we can do to make our loved ones feel appreciated, why don't we?

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