America's Stay-at-Home Feminists
posted by Amy

When my first baby was born, I did what I've since learned is one of those rites of passage for educated, middle- and upper-middle-class mothers: I went to a mothers' support group. There, with the guidance of a lactation consultant, we discussed the most minute details of our daily lives with babies, with the common goal of trying to find the "right"answers to how to raise these infants we were overwhelmed with love for while fighting to control the panic of being responsible for a human being staying alive. Once our babies started crawling, we split off into smaller playgroups and made way for the new moms of newborns to take our places.

My playgroup consisted of five mother-baby dyads, all first-time mothers. Out of the five women, two of us worked outside the home without interruption, although both of us worked less than before we had children and tried to create work schedules that accommodated family life. The other three, all professionals in their fields, opted to stay at home full-time. Our sons are all six now, and we've all had second babies. The two of us who work for pay continue to do so, while the three who stay home also continue on that path.

So what does that show about feminism and mothering? If three out of five mothers choose not to return to work, does that support the opting-out theory? No—but my friends' choices make me pay attention to those stories. And I do know that if we hadn't needed my salary to survive financially, I would have probably given up working outside the home when my son was born. The intensive, attachment-heavy parenting style I'd decided was the "right" way to parent certainly made combining work and family a challenge.

But I'd also chosen, a few years before my son was born, to continue teaching as adjunct faculty at the university where I still teach specifically because it seemed to me the perfect job for combining work and family. You might say I mommy-tracked myself before becoming a mama. I had ideas about the evils of daycare and the importance of being there, all the time, for my kids, ideas which came from a pretty complex mix of sources—my own family growing up, media scare stories about daycare, the all-or-nothing approach to career I saw modeled around me.

It's those kinds of choices that Linda Hirschman wonders about in America's Stay-at-Home Feminists. Hirschman notes the vehement responses that recent New York Times stories about the opt-out revolution have provoked, adding that, "There's only one problem: There is important truth in the dropout story. Even though it appeared in The New York Times."

Hirschman goes on to write that "while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home." Women who can afford it, she writes, "say they are 'choosing' to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism."

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