The Case for Women Who "Opt Out" of Careers for Families

Why should we all be concerned about women who leave jobs behind to raise their children?

This weekend, I returned to my alma mater — Dartmouth College in beautiful Hanover, NH — for my college reunion. Seeing my old friends was really nice, particularly because they immediately felt like family all over again — the same way they had after four years of living in such close proximity. The ladies all looked quite fabulous (even if we all have a few extra wrinkles) and as exceptionally physically fit as always, while the men weren't holding up quite so well as a group. (Sorry, dudes — but I was checking you out during our dip in the river! The inner tubes people used to float in weren't the only spare tires!)

The trip was marred, just a tiny bit, by the solo hike I took on Saturday morning — which required a rescue by the local fire department. (I know, I know: I'll do anything for an opportunity to flirt with a firefighter, won't I?) I'm fine — the main thing hurt is my pride — and maybe I'll tell you the full story some other time, once the inflammation in my very red cheeks dies down. Meantime, thank you once again, Lebanon Fire Department — and Matt Fulton in particular!

But the thing that seems most worth discussing today is how many of the women I ran into this weekend had "opted out" — leaving behind their careers to raise families, even some who have graduate degrees from places like Harvard Business School and Columbia Law School.

What's it to me if women "opt out"? On an individual basis, I'm cool with any woman taking advantage of the option of not working in order to devote herself to child-rearing. I imagine it's good for her happiness, and good for the kids, too.

And as of very recently, I've started to better understand the "opt out" instinct. A few months ago, I was shocked to find myself suddenly fantasizing about the idea of leaving writing aside, at least temporarily, in order to devote myself to loving children (and a good man). Shocking! Before that, I'd always been fairly certain I didn't want to have offspring. The whole thing, though, was indubitably inspired by a brief love affair I had with someone I felt peculiarly enchanted by.

After my experience, I understand that part of the "opt out" appeal is this: You have a pretty good sense of what you're getting into, and how it will all work out. While being a mother is very hard work, it doesn't require any special training or any special talents. Having certain skills or special intelligence or specialized knowledge (of something like child psychology or environmental health) can help you do a better job, but they aren't necessary. Achieving big-time professional success, particularly in professions that are creative or involve technical training, seems to involve a lot more uncertainty and to require unusual competence.

So, I get it. And yet ... when women leave the work force (or shift to part-time work) mid-career in large numbers, it subtly (or not so subtly) informs how all females are perceived by the big guns and how chicks get treated when it comes to getting promotions, raises, and so on.

Another funny thing: Multiple women at this reunion told me that they had female friends who felt so ashamed (!) about not being married yet that they opted out of the reunion. This included one quite attractive lady who is a hotshot cardiologist at a top hospital. I can't imagine a single man with that kind of professional standing would ever feel so embarrassed about his relationship status that he wouldn't attend. (In fact, I ran into one single man who is a big-time neurosurgeon — as well as an enormous sweetheart. He didn't seem at all uncomfortable, being there.)

Single women opting out of the reunion seems related to the larger "opting out" trend: Despite all the professional progress women have made in the last fifty years or so, we still have a long way to go if ladies who have achieved so much still feel inadequate simply because they don't have rings on their fingers.

All right. Not much space left today, but I will say the thing that delighted me most this weekend was hearing how many of my fellow alums read this blog! What made me second-most happy were the conversations I had with a certain someone ... After I told him (in a typical moment of self-doubt and TMI) that I'm no longer certain I'll ever find love, he flattered me deliciously. I have no idea what prompted such undeserved flattery, but I was really touched by it.