In 2003, when I was just 11, Lisa Belkin wrote a story called “The Opt-Out Revolution” for the New York Times magazine. Like most children (I imagine), I never read it. But last month and almost a decade later, Belkin’s portrait of high-ed, high-career women doing the unthinkable — shirking the fast-track of career advancement for a life in the domestic realm — has met its book-end of sorts: Judith Warner’s story for the magazine, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.”
Together Belkin and Warner’s articles stand in my mind as testaments to the two commanding — and opposing — narratives afforded to the modern American woman. On the one hand, there is a Sheryl Sandberg-esque call to “lean in” to the workforce: to be leaders, to run our share of the world, and to finish, in her words, a “stalled revolution.” On the opposite end is “surrendering to motherhood,” a vision of spiritual fulfillment that blooms in the rejection of this “revolution,” and finds its footing in marriage, the home, in childcare, and in nurturing.
Stuck between leaning in or opting out, women are asked to place themselves within those predestined narratives repeatedly by our family and our friends, our employers and our colleagues, and now by an ever-growing slew of pseudo-anthropological articles in our media. We have been presented the parameters of our lives and are asked to negotiate within them: Are we mothers or are we workplace pioneers?
Nevermind that on a most basic financial level, for many women the balance between motherhood and employment is not an either/or question. Nevermind that the complexity of a woman’s life — her identity and her choices — cannot be reduced to a two-word catchphrase. Never mind that for half of any population, there will never be a simple, single “right” answer. Still the dichotomy emerges, again and again.
This narrative compulsion over women frightens me. There has never been a question that when I leave the marbled halls of academia next year, it will be with a bachelor’s degree, not a marriage. Or that later, when I join the ranks of the work force, I will do so not with reluctance but with the same energy as my brother before me, and my father before him.
Nor has there ever been a question that, unlike my grandmothers and their grandmothers, when I get married it will be to the person of my choosing, at the time of my choosing; or that when I have a family it will be on my own terms.
But now, at the very moment our options and opportunities have swelled, the freedom to dream up our own choices is at stake. The twin discourses of leaning in and opting out come mostly from successful, middle-age women — the Belkins and Warners and Sandbergs and Krasnows of the world — but the effects will largely be millennial. It will be us, scoping out our lives and ourselves post-college, who will feel the most pressure to pick a path, to define ourselves via these borrowed terms.
We may have a choice now, but a forced choice doesn’t feel like choice at all. What if we want both? What if we want neither? What if we want something outside this binary completely?
Career women, so the narrative goes, will always have a lingering sense of guilt — for working late, for missing PTA meetings, for leaving their children in the hands of a day care. On the flip side, stay-at-home moms come up lacking, feeling a sense of dissatisfaction and low self-worth. We can lean in or opt out but each option, we're told, will leave us empty.
Maybe our generation needs to "tune out." Instead of answering such a simplistic question, maybe we should ask how and why it was posed in the first place. Why must we choose? And why are these the things we must choose between? What exactly do we want? Because it is then, and only then, that we can truly make a choice.