Don’t quit a 500k job because you’re fighting about the laundry — and other lessons from the opt-out generation

6873738692_59bd4af880_z-1Ten years ago, New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin wrote about a fascinating discovery: many women in her circle (she graduated from Princeton in 1982) weren’t masters of the corporate universe in the way they had assumed they would be back in the early 80s. Many were home with their kids full or part time, and by most accounts were happy with their choices. Maybe women weren’t getting to the top, Belkin speculated, because they chose not to. They had opted out.

The article caused quite a stir, and was part of a larger series of influential writings from that era hinting that women needed to choose between careers and families. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book on Creating a Life had come out the year before, pointing out that only about half of corporate women earning over $100k/year had kids by age 40. There was plenty of criticism. Belkin was writing about a rather elite group of women, but that’s who reads the New York Times, and their choices are worth discussing, because their choices affect other women too. The husbands of women who opt-out must (for the most part) stay in the workforce, and if they come to see the traditional family model as the norm, they may expect it from people who work for them too.

Anyway, the phrase “opt out” stuck (if I remember correctly, Belkin said in a talk I attended that this will be the headline on her obituary). It’s been 10 years since that piece appeared. Last week, the New York Times ran a piece from Judith Warner following up on what happened to the opt-out generation. The headline? The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.

The broader story, though, is a bit more complex than a headline can capture. Many of the women Belkin interviewed did intend to work later in life, so now that their kids are 10 years older, getting back in is part of the plan. Getting back in is more complicated for some than others. A few of the opt-out women were smart about volunteering in ways that preserved their career capital, and had kept up connections, and so could land jobs after years out with no resumes or anything. Some hadn’t done that and had a harder time.

But to me, the most striking story was Warner’s lead one. Sheilah O’Donnel, 44, had been a top sales person for Oracle. At her peak, she was earning $500k a year. Then she and her husband (also at Oracle) started a family. She cut down to 3 days per week. Warner writes:

“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. ‘All this would be easier if you didn’t work,’  O’Donnel recalled her husband saying. ‘I was so stressed,’ she told me. ‘I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ We’d made plenty of money. We’d saved plenty of money.’ She quit her job, trading in a life of business meetings, client dinners and commissions for homework help, a ‘dream house’ renovation and a third pregnancy. ‘I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage,’ she said.”

It didn’t work. They got divorced. Now she’s back at work, earning less than before, but happy to be employed. Writes Warner:

“After one emotional session with a friend, her 12-year-old daughter asked what all the fuss was about. O’Donnel told her: ‘This is the perfect reason why you need to work. You don’t have to make a million dollars. You don’t have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to at least earn enough so you can support yourself.’ “

Real life is messy, and there was obviously a lot more going on in O’Donnel’s life than just the question of whether a mother should work if she doesn’t “have” to. Clearly, there were big problems with her marriage. Sacrificing her career wasn’t going to help it, but it did hurt her earning power considerably.

I’m not sure what lesson there is to be taken from that. But I do know that if two high earning people didn’t want to have “ugly fights” about the laundry and who would step in when the nanny was sick, it is entirely possible to minimize such things. Many of the stresses of  being in a two-income household can be mitigated in cases where both partners are earning as much as O’Donnel and her husband did — because I’m guessing that if she was the party to opt-out, he had to be earning around $500k, too.

So let’s put it this way: You don’t have to quit a $500k/year job because you’re fighting about the laundry. You really don’t need to fight about the laundry if your household income is in the 7 figures. It costs a lot less than a divorce to make sure you never have to fold another shirt in your life.

You could, for instance, hire a housekeeper to come three times a week for four hours at a time. Paying $20/hour for 12 hours is $240/week. Add in payroll taxes and the cost to use a payroll company — which you are probably using if you’re paying your full-time nanny legally — and you’re still under $300/week. That’s $15,000 a year — a rather small chunk of their combined household income — and neither would ever need to wipe down a kitchen counter again.

As for childcare snafus, it’s quite possible to build up a roster of back-up sitters. Back when my oldest kid was in daycare, I tried to have 3 at any given time I could call. Many families also rely on extended family or neighbors in such situations. My mother-in-law will be helping us out when my husband and I both have some international work travel coming up and our nanny is on vacation. None of this is a walk in the park, of course. It requires some initial investment of time, or building up relationship capital with people who might cover for you (or producing cute grandchildren, as the case may be). Nonetheless, it’s what you do if you want to preserve both of your abilities to make a living while reducing these sorts of frictions.

But O’Donnel and her husband were operating in a world where it’s still seen as strange and threatening for a mother to be earning lots of money. In this narrative, in which “working” is the out-of-place variable, when things get complicated, that’s seen as the variable that needs to be changed. We saw this in the story of the lawyer who quit from several months ago. But there are other ways to tell this story. And given that O’Donnel’s husband is quoted in Warner’s article as complaining about her working part-time for the non-profit Girls on the Run, saying such work meant “she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage,” there are clearly a lot of other things going on here beyond the laundry and childcare issues.

What did you think of Warner’s article? Or are you tired of this discussion?

Photo courtesy flickr user seanmfreese

28 thoughts on “Don’t quit a 500k job because you’re fighting about the laundry — and other lessons from the opt-out generation

  1. I read the article and wasn’t sure what to take away exactly. I quit working as a preschool when my daughters were born and it was an easy decision for me, I made nothing and knew I wanted to be home with them. When I go back to work it’ll be as a preschool teacher and hopefully also as a writer. I feel I’ll be a better teacher now than I was before I had kids 🙂 But only time will tell. It was a good article to read, definitely gives people something to think about. I agree with you on there must of been other things in the marriage other than the laundry issue…

    1. @Dani – yes, there was a lot more going on. Life does not always lend itself well to lessons, but that’s the problem of big feature pieces: you try to draw lessons from people’s lives. I just always worry when certain things are taken as givens in pieces like this — that two-income couples will have bitter fights about housework. I’m pretty sure that Sheryl Sandberg and her husband don’t have fights about this sort of thing, because I doubt either of them do any housework. On a more accessible level, I hear from readers all the time who have pretty even splits of childcare duties and the housework they do. Ugly fights are more likely to come from the deeper issue of one party not respecting the other’s choices.

  2. Divorce is statistically uncommon in this group of folks you speak of and the NY Times is speaking of in part b/c it is expensive. There is a lot in there but not sure how helpful or accurate the statistics are.

    1. @Cara – It’s hard to draw lessons from people’s lives because lives are complicated. I don’t think you can draw a pat lesson of “don’t opt out” or “do opt out” or anything else from this piece. I’m focusing on the one thing you can say, which is that there are ways to use money to lessen tensions if you both do want to continue in your career. This couple had other issues.

  3. Fifteen years ago I left a very lucrative, but extremely stressful sales job to stay home with my two children. At the time I was a committed SAHM. Since I wasn’t generating income, I felt I had to do all the things relating to the house and kids. My husband and I fell into very gender specific roles. I now work a part-time office job for very low pay and continue doing all things for house and kids. I don’t regret the time I had with my children, but I wish I had been more strategic in planning to re-enter the work force. Due to the recession, our income is inconsistent and using housekeepers and babysitters are out of the question. I am a type A person that now has a type A exhaustion level!! My advice to young mothers (I am in my late 40s), keep some kind of a job! This will, at the very least, allow you to pay for a cleaning service, babysitters, etc. and allow you to step into a much better paying job later on.

    1. @Marg – thanks for your comment. That was the gist of many of the women’s comments in this article. They were glad for the time with their kids, and certainly didn’t want to continue in their old jobs, but they could see the upside of being more strategic with their time and commitments during those years at home. It’s good to be working in any capacity, though — part-time low-paying jobs can lead to better jobs over time….

    2. While it is great advice and I totally agree, finding “some kind” of job is actually pretty difficult if you’re not willing to work full time.

      Part-time jobs require child care, and in many areas, part-time child care is either really hard to find or not much cheaper than full time.

      In our metro area, most professional nannies do not want part-time hours (unless they can split their time between two families) and the majority of day cares do not offer part time schedules. The few that do charge so much that it is hard to find work at less than 25-30 hours a week to cover it.

      Personally I am not planning to become unpaid labor at my daughter’s schools as I see so many SAHMs doing in my area. I realize that in some places that can be a stepping stone to getting back to work, but I don’t think my social circles are quite that lofty/well-connected. If I were sending her to a $15K/year school, maybe 😉

      I’m also not ready (yet) to compromise much on salary. I could have taken a part-time job at HALF what I think I’m worth (and that’s a conservative estimate), but I didn’t think that was *such* a big change from the 30ish hour/week job I quit to make it worthwhile. But of course everyone has to weigh that decision individually.

      The one thing I am doing is keeping up my continuing ed hours and maintaining my certifications.

      1. @ARC – I keep thinking you’ll start a ghost scrapbooking business. Scrapping for people who want scrapbooks, but can’t make them themselves 🙂

        But yeah, day care tends not to be cost effective for part-time. We looked into it just to give my 2nd kid some socialization and the cost for 1 day a week was half the cost for a whole week.

        1. I’m thinking about that scrapbook idea and trying to figure out how to make it worth my time and whether someone would actually pay for it. That would be pretty cool, but I don’t know if it’s too personal a job to outsource well…

  4. I haven’t read the article yet, so I don’t really feel qualified to comment on it. I will say that in my interactions with women trying to get back into the workforce after a break to care for kids (or elderly parents- I know women who have taken time out or at least downshifted for that, too) I have seen a definitely correlation between having been strategic, as you call it, while out and ease of getting back in. It is never easy, really, I don’t think, but it is easier if you do things to stay connected with your business network and up to date while you’re out. I wonder if sometimes women do the equivalent of the gamer’s “rage quit” and leave so frustrated with how the game is rigged against them that they don’t think about the fact that they’re probably going to want to play it again later. But I don’t know. I haven’t really read up on this. I’ve just interacted with the women I’ve hired back in, and with various women I’ve met through networking groups who want to get back in.
    I haven’t read the article because I am getting a bit tired of the focus on the upper rungs of society in this discussion. It is not that I don’t think the stories of these women are important, but that I think the fact that we don’t tell the stories of women lower down the economic scale skews how people think about the issues and makes it easier for people to convince themselves that the entire issue is down to women making the “wrong” choices and not that we need to fix some structural problems in our system. And, of course, we never tell the men’s stories and talk about the choices they have to make. Everyone is making choices, and men who choose to focus strongly on work and leave the kids and home to their partner are missing out on something, too.

    1. I’ve been wondering if maybe we do tell those stories (about everyone else), but they don’t generate as much publicity. I can vaguely remember the stories of poor single mothers from time to time. I’m not sure that we tell stories about the true middle class. How much are we complicit in the focus on the rich and famous?

    2. @Cloud – I like the image of the “rage quit.” It’s rarely a good idea to leave anything in a way that burns your bridges. Life is long. Our needs change.

      Yes, being able to make a choice between a high-paying, high-status job, and spending your days with your kids while someone else supports all of you financially in a reasonable level — that is, indeed, a high-class problem. But as another commenter said, the women in these stories are the ones who would be in a position to change things more systematically. If they’re not there, they can’t do that.

      1. It is not so much that they burn their bridges as that they don’t save their game before quitting… to push the analogy too far. I have come across women who were so angry with the way the game seems rigged against us that they refused to do things like go to a conference now and then or take one 6 week night class per year to keep up their certifications. Things like that. That is an extreme, but I’ve heard some women whose kids are older and they are now trying to network their way back in say things like “I didn’t want to read papers/go to networking events/go to conferences/whatever because that would have defeated the purpose of quitting my job!” Some have even been angry at those of us in the workforce for not doing more to make it easier for them to return. And I am sympathetic but at the same time… it is asking A LOT of the business world to help you back in when you have not only done nothing to hold open the door, you’ve actively pushed it closed. I am sympathetic because I agree that the game is rigged. I agree that sometimes people have to make suboptimal choices because the choice they really want to make is not available to them. But no one is going to magically make it fair, so you have to try to do what you can. I will go out of my way to try to help people back in after a break, but you have to give me something to point to when I am making the case to the rest of the hiring committee!
        I don’t really mind the articles about the $500k/year crowd, but I would like to see some more exploration of the middle and some more reference to the research, as @Nicoleandmaggie say. I also think we should be careful about expecting that if we get some women in power they’ll be able to change the structural problems. I think we’ll be disappointed with the outcome if that is our strategy. For one thing, women who have fought their way up in the face of those problems may not see them in the same way as those of us who haven’t managed to overcome the problems see them. But even if they see the problems, they might not be best placed to institute the structural changes. Unless we get to a critical mass of women in power, the ones who make it to the top will always have to perform a delicate balancing act to avoid a backlash that will topple them down out of power. Instead of counting on women in power to fix the structural issues, I want us to hold ALL of our leaders accountable for fixing the inequalities. The men have the majority of the power. I want us to start insisting they use some of that power to start rewriting the rules of the game, instead of waiting for enough women to manage to cobble together the power to do it. That may be the most frustrating thing about all of these “work/life balance of the elite” articles- they let the men off the hook.

        1. @Cloud – the first paragraph: yes, this is a minefield. Because people make different decisions — based on whatever their situation is — it’s quite possible that the people you’re working with have made different decisions. So it’s also important not to present your decision as the only right one. I’m reminded of a manager being incredibly miffed by a team member’s request for an extended maternity leave, because it was couched as “I can’t imagine a mother spending less than 6 months home with her newborn” — when of course the manager had done precisely that.

        2. Trickle down doesn’t work for economics. Why should it work for employment?
          Again… that’s an empirical question. Also not my area of expertise. But I tend to doubt that what’s the norm at wealthy high tech companies (what the literature calls “good jobs”) filters down to the grunts at Walmart, at least not without government intervention.

  5. To be honest, I’m getting tired of these articles that don’t actually have any data behind them. Yes, interview Fran Blau and Sylvia Ann Hewett, (and Claudia Goldin– her first AEA presidential address was on women in the labor market over time), but ask them for more numbers! It’s not like these statistics are difficult to find.
    Also when we’re talking about large generational changes, look at them from all angles. Is it really true that there was an “opt out” generation of highly educated women? If so, can that just be explained by more and more women becoming highly educated over time (something which is numerically happening)? And what industries are these opt-outs concentrated in?
    This isn’t my area of expertise, but I’m fairly sure that someone could write an Atlantic or NYT Magazine article that had more meat in it than just anecdotes of a few women living in NYC.

  6. I have a lot to say on that article, but yes, I make way way way (way) less than $500K and I would never consider quitting my job because of chores. And quitting your job/having another baby to save a marriage? Really? She thought that would work?
    My mother’s most repeated lesson to us was “you girls need to be able to stand on your own feet” and I internalized and believe that 100%. I would never stop working altogether, the thought of being financially dependent scares me. Though I can imagine scenarios in which I would scale back a little or a lot, strategically keeping my hand in the game so that I could get back in if needed or wanted.

    1. @Ana – I, too, wondered about the strategy of having another baby to save the marriage. Because nothing improves a marriage like a baby that wakes up four times a night…

  7. I am not tired of this conversation, and I think it’s important to talk about this “elite” group because they are the ones who would be in positions of power if they stayed. Those in power affect the lives of those at the lower levels. Without women in powerful positions, we revert back to traditional roles that make it harder to achieve equitable treatment, across all levels of society. So pre-school teachers who opt-out because they can’t afford to pay for their own children’s daycare SHOULD be very concerned about this elite group opting out. And you don’t need a lot of statistics to know that there are few women in positions of power, so this discussion is important.

    I know several writer friends who have been able to be SAHMs and write-for-pay, who have made BIG contributions to women’s wellbeing. Are there other professions that have that kind of impact and that allow someone to be a SAHM? I feel bad that these conversations don’t validate their experience. But for the most part, I agree that women should not become dependent on a spouse’s income – so much could happen (illness, layoffs, divorce, death) that it is too big of a risk for me to consider.

    1. @Lisa K – thanks for your comment. I agree that elite women’s choices affect everyone else — which is one reason for all the ink spilled on this.

      About your comment on writing though — I’ve found it interesting how some people whose work is probably not so different from mine identify more on the SAHM side of the ledger. I work about 40-50 hours a week, so in my mind that’s definitely working, but perhaps working in a home office and having some flexibility makes other people label this differently.

  8. Truth is, I’m sort of weary of this discussion because it focuses so heavily on choice and not structural issues. Even your piece on the lawyer focuses on her choice, without examining whether the structure actual supports your suggestions. (Specifically, big firm lawyers are notoriously slow to embrace truely flexible work conditions, as opposed to stating that they do. Some even frown on telecommuting — it’s something I spent a lot of time looking into, and no it’s not nearly as straightforward as your post suggests.) Same for consultant Jane — the post was about Jane’s choices, rather than the employment systems that allowed her such flexibility.

    Also, the NY Times does not focus on these women because those are the readers. Instead, I suspect the NY Times focuses here because well-off women who complain evoke a very strong reaction in many, and consequently many web hits and much buzz.

  9. I read the article but haven’t had time to delve into the comments.

    One thing I remembered is that the truly Elite 500K group had an easier time opting back in than many others. This is important because many non-Elite women may get the impression that opting back in is an option for them when it’s really hard to get back in the game once the kids are grown.

  10. @Cloud “Rage Quit” should be your next e-book…I will buy it, I promise! (Loved Taming the Work Week.)

    I, too, found the husband’s quotes about how volunteering=putting yourself in front of the family’s needs pretty appalling, and telling about the opt-out mentality.

    1. @Michelle – that was my thought too! Or I need to borrow that title for a post. How to “save” your game before you walk. Reasons why you shouldn’t rage quit. Etc.

      1. You can have it! I can’t imagine writing anything more than a blog post about this, and I sort of already wrote that post awhile back (in an Ask Cloud post:
        @Laura, you should totally take this and run with it if it interests you! I think a research-based look at how you actually get back in after a break would be useful, just based on the number of times I’ve been asked for advice about that.
        @Michelle – thanks! I am so glad you liked the book.

  11. I was at a dinner party where something like this came up between two women age 45-50… friendly b/c their kids are the same age. the one who had opted out was asking the other one who hadn’t opted out — for a job referral at a company where she had just been promoted… and it was a minefield..b /c on the one hand she should help her but on the other hand why should she help her… it was intense to observe I just want to know what to do when at 5:45 p.m. you walk into the upper middle class childcare /school and they give you a hard time.. b/c they want to leave at 5 event hough after care is 3:30 to 6… b/c you have to precommit and schedule and pickup and plan for your work in a way that is quite frankly mind-numbing and energy zapping… this idea that it is so easy and that just have “3 sitters on backup” … honestly that has not been my experience and I have had help. i do feel that my husband coasted through much of the hard parts of child raising .. whereas I really really had to make it work… and juggle every day.. am I proud and happy with my work and motherhood ? yes..but I am exhausted and I do have my wtf 5:50 days especially in august or at these times when there is this sense in upper middle class america that no one is working… I know that isn’t the case but it feels like it when you are working and building something…

    1. @Cara- I wouldn’t say it’s easy. But I would say that if one is looking at keeping a $500k job, a lot of things are worth trying.

      Fascinating on the tension between people who opted out and those who didn’t.

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