It’s back to the future all over again. In the 1980s, the Backlash media stories focused on how 40 year-old working women were more likely to get “killed by a terrorist” than they were to ever get married (a catchy but untrue statistical comparison perpetuated by Newsweek, which the magazine took 20 years to correct). Now the recurring media myth is that “more and more” professional, educated women opt out of the workforce when they become mothers. Lisa Belkin wrote a big piece about this for the Sunday Times Magazine, which she defended in this op-ed three years later.
Lisa Belkin is no slouch, but in the era of “two’s a coincidence, three’s a story”, anecdotal evidence can justify a story that fits the backlash cultural zeitgeist that never seems to go away. But here are the facts as recently reported by sociologist Christine Percheski, who examined trends among college-educated women born between 1906 and 1975: “the number of women with young children who work full-time year-round has increased steadily, growing from a rate of 5.6 percent of women born 1926 to 1935 (referred to as the “Baby Boom Parents” by Percheski), to 38.1 percent of women from Generation X (born 1966 to 1975). More professional Generation X mothers of young children were working full-time year-round than their counterparts in any previous generation.” She also reports in June issue of the American Sociology Review that not only are more professional Xer women working, they’re working longer hours, especially as their children get older.
The disconnect between the larger picture and Belkin’s story (which was titled “The Opt-Out Revolution” — a clear case of a headline writer “simplifying and then overexaggerating,” as the charge against journalism goes) comes down to this: The real problem is the growing divide between the upper upper middle class and the rest of the middle class. Belkin focuses on the most highly paid, ivy-league educated professional women who tend to be married to men with big incomes and come from families of money, and for them opting out is not only possible but still expected to some extent. But for most everyone else, divorce or death of a spouse can still throw regular middle class women into destitution, as Linda Hirshman points out in her controversial book, Get to Work and Get a Life Before It’s Too Late. And there’s also a cultural component, as Hirshman’s title indicates; most middle class professional women I know derive a lot of their identity from what they do for a living. Indeed, Gen X women in particular are expected to maintain some semblance of a life outside of wifely motherhood.
Of course, it’s not easy being a mother and a professional — I’ll soon find this out for myself. Sleep, housework and social activity are often sacrificed. But one noteworthy piece of good news is this: middle class, professional couples in their 30s and 40s are much better about shared parenting than previous generations. Read more about that here