The 'Opt Out' Revolution and Changing Narratives of Motherhood

Prof. Brenda Cossman

From the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Nexus.

'The double shift,' 'the glass ceiling,' 'the mommy track.' Women's efforts to balance work and family have given rise to a host of buzz words over the last two decades. Now, it's the 'opt-out revolution.' First coined by Lisa Belkin in an article in the New York Times Magazine in 2003, the term is being used to describe the decision of upper middle class, often professionally trained women to leave the work force and to stay home to care for their children.1 The phenomenon is one being tracked amongst Ivy League graduates - young women with Princeton, Yale and Harvard M.B.A.'s, J.D.'s and other fancy degrees are trading in their briefcases for diaper bags.

I t is a new twist on the recurrent problem of balancing work and family, with some of the most highly trained women with tremendous marketability and earning potential saying that the double shifts and mommy tracks just aren't worth it. So, with the financial backing of high income husbands, these women are choosing to be full-time moms.

There is a considerable debate emerging, however, about how pervasive the practice has become, and whether it should be described as a phenomenon at all. Lisa Belkin, in her New York Times Magazine article, cited US Census statistics to show an increase in the number of children being cared for by stay-athome mothers. The number of new mothers who return to work fell from 59 to 55 percent in 2000 (U.S. Census). While a decrease of 4% may not seem that significant, it is the first time in decades that the number of working mothers has not increased.

In Canada, there is little hard evidence of an 'opt-out' revolution - with the exception of Alberta. According to Statistics Canada, Alberta is the only province that has seen a steady decline in the number of working mothers in the last decade. In 1995, 7 out of 10 women with children under 6 were working. By 2005, however, that number was 6 out of 10.

Yet, many argue that there is no opt-out phenomenon occurring. Stephanie Coontz, a leading family studies scholar in the U.S., argues that the opt-out revolution is a myth.2 She cites a range of Census data to counter the claim, noting for example that highly educated women with children under 6 are the least likely group to be out of the labour market, and that any decrease in the workforce participation of mothers has been matched by a similar decrease for both childless women and men.

But, it is not clear the opt-out revolution can or should be measured in terms of statistical data. There is something afoot that may take years to register in hard data. In fact, even if the opt-out revolution is simply a powerful myth, as folks like Coontz persuasively argue, it is a myth with a growing resonance.

Just look at the recent federal election and the popularity of Stephen Harper's child care proposal to provide $1200 to all families with children under the age of six. The proposal - now part of the Conservative Government's first budget - is being marketed as promoting 'choice' in child care. Parents should be able to choose how to care for their children, and all of those choices should be supported. Of course, the reality is that the $1200 a year is a subsidy for stay-at-home parents. Sure, everyone is entitled to it - but it is taxed back. For working parents, it is worth a lot less than $1200, depending on their tax bracket. But, for a stay-at-home parent with no income, it is worth the full amount.

It is extremely popular. And its popularity seemed to come as a complete surprise to the Liberals - now the opposition - who spent years trying to get behind a national child care policy. Critics seem to assume that it is a socially conservative child care policy designed to support and promote the traditional family, with a male breadwinner and a female stay-at-home caregiver. While it is true that many socially conservative organizations, such as Focus on the Family and REAL Women do support the child care allowance, they are not alone.

Rather, there is a new movement of sorts that is neither conservative nor liberal in nature. It is the stay-at-home moms, the women of the opt-out revolution, who have chosen to stay home with their children. They are folks like Kate Tennier, founder of Advocates for Child Care Choice, who want their choices respected and supported by government. They may - or may not - be a statistically significant group. They may be out of the labour force for a few years until their children head off to school or a few decades until their children head off to college. But, they are out there, and they want their choices respected.

The 'choice' card is a tough one for feminists and women's rights advocates. After all, isn't that what we have been fighting for all these years? Women should be able to avail themselves of the full gamut of social, economic and legal choices - from abortion to employment. So, if women choose to stay home to care for children, this is a choice that should be respected.

However, that is not the way the debate is playing out. In the U.S. some feminists have actually come out against the idea of choice. Linda Hirschman, in a controversial article in the American Prospect, argues that women's equality requires their full and equal participation in the labour force.3 The article has provoked a broader and at times divisive debate between women about choice in general, and the choice to opt out in particular. But feminists and women's rights advocates should welcome the opportunities that this conversation opens. There are many important, and deeply gendered questions that need to be asked about this choice to opt out.

First, we need to put on the table the fact that it is women who are opting out, not men. Sure, we all know a few dads who have stayed home to care for their children when they are young. But, statistically, this group is virtually insignificant. The opt-out revolution is about women making choices in a world where the labour market is not structured to accommodate family obligations. It is about upper middle class making choices where there is a male breadwinner to support that choice. And it is about women making choices that are not equally open to men. Being a stay-at-home mom is a socially and culturally legitimate role for women in a way that is simply not true for stay-at-home dads.

Secondly, we need to explore some of the costs of opting out. Women who choose to stay home are taking a lot of risks with their financial security. They are assuming that the male breadwinner will continue to be around to support them. And they are assuming that when they decide to opt back in, the labour market will welcome them. These may - or may not - play out. While off-ramps are clearly marked, women who want to opt back in will have to construct their own on-ramps. Women's re-marketability will depend on a range of factors - from the amount of time they spend out of the labour market to labour market cycles.

The cost to individual women is not simply an individualized problem. We need to make sure that social policies recognize these choices and their continuing costs. If women choose to stay home to care for children on the assumption of long term support from their husbands, we need to make sure that family law continues to take the economic consequences of these choices into account if the marriage goes wrong. Property, spousal support and child support laws have evolved over the years to recognize women's unpaid labour in the family. But, some recent developments, particularly in the law of domestic contracts, have put increasing emphasis on private choice as a reason to limit economic support. Taking the opt-out choice seriously means making sure that this recent trend does not reverse the gains otherwise made in family law.

We also need to consider some of the broader cultural implications of the so-called opt-out revolution. To what extent are we witnessing the emergence of a new cultural norm of mothering, against which all mothers will be judged, and will judge themselves? Is the stay-at-home mom the new norm, the new sign of status and success, elusive for most middle class Canadian families which need two incomes just to support a modest middle class standard of living (to say nothing of the working class families, poor families, and single mother families for which such an ideal is utterly impossible). What are the implications of the opt-out revolution not as a demographic reality, but as a normative aspiration?

We also need to think about how the opt-out revolution may be used for rather more regressive political purposes. Consider for example the increasing cultural attack on the legitimacy of daycare and early childhood education. A number of recent studies have garnered considerable media attention for their conclusions that children are harmed by daycare. The C.D. Howe report, for example, found that the increased use of daycare was associated with a decrease in the well-being of children.4 The authors conclude that the use of child care is associated with increased aggression amongst children. And their language is noticeably gendered. For example, they write that their findings are consistent with other studies that have similarly found that the "amount of time through the first 4.5 years of life that a child spends away from his or her mother is a predictor of assertiveness, disobedience and aggression".5 A recent book by Quebec pediatrician Jean-Francois Chicoine similarly argues that children are harmed if they are placed in daycare too young.6 While Dr. Chicoine emphasizes the role of parents, his conclusions are often translated into the role of mothers.7 Social conservatives have quickly jumped on this bandwagon in their effort to discredit daycare in favor of stay-at-home mom care.

Coontz argues that the so-called opt-out revolution is simply a comforting myth, "reliev[ing] social anxieties without solving them, in this case by feeding the illusion that women will resolve our work/family conflicts by reversing the growing commitment to lifelong employment that they exhibited in the 1970s and 1980s."8 She may well be right. But, this does not make it any easier to address. Some women are opting out. Some are not. Some may want to opt out but can't. Some may have opted out and want back in. We don't yet know how this emerging idea and ideal about motherhood may be affecting women's choices and desires. But, we need to pay very close attention. Because, like it or not, it is emerging as a powerful new story about the choices that women are making. We need to pay attention to who is staying home, who isn't, and why. We need to be monitoring the economic consequences of these choices. We need to be exploring the multiple ways in which this ideal of motherhood is being deployed in broader social policy debates, particularly by those with more regressive social agendas.

And we need to do so in a way that does not contribute to the polarized debate and the so-called mommy wars. This polarization only contributes to the lack of dignity already afforded to those who care for children in our society - be they stay-athome moms, nannies or daycare workers. Many of us mothers believe that raising children is the most important work that we will do in our lives. We may all make different choices - but those choices need to be respected, and at the same time, the broader social and cultural significance of those choices must be interrogated. Choice shouldn't be a trump card to end the discussion. It should be the beginning of a sustained engagement with the on-going and deeply gendered challenges of child care.

1 Lisa Belkin, "The Opt Out Revolution" New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003.
2 Stephanie Coontz,"Myth of the Opt Out Mom" The Christian Science Monitor,March 30, 2006.
3 Linda Hirshman, "Homeward Bound" The American Prospect, December 20, 2005.
4 Baker et al, "What we can learn from Quebec's Universal Childcare Program" February 2006, C.D. Howe Institute.
5 Id.
6 Jean Francois Chicoine and Natalie Collard, The Baby and the Bathwater: How Daycare Changes the Lives of Your Children.
7 MP Vellacott stated in the House of Commons, for example, that Chicoine's book supports the proposition that "in normal circumstances what children need in the first few years of their lives is their mother's love and meticulous care".
8 Coontz supra note 2.