Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself

Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself

by Amy Richards

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Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards

For contemporary women, motherhood has become as polarizing a proposition as it is a powerful calling. For some women this tension is manifest in a debate over whether or not to have children. For others it concerns whether to stay at home with their children or stay in the workforce. Still others feel abandoned altogether by the supposedly pro-family and pro-mother social justice movement that is feminism and are at a loss when it comes to reconciling their maternal instincts with their political beliefs.

With Opting In, Amy Richards addresses the anxiety over parenting that women face today in a book that mixes memoir, interviews, historical analysis, and feminist insight. In her refreshingly direct and thoughtful approach, Richards covers everything from the truth about our biological clocks and the trends toward extending fertility, to parenting with nature and nurturing in mind, to our relationship with our own mothers, to what feminism's relationship to motherhood is and always has been. Speaking from the vantage point of someone who is both a parent and one of our leading feminist activists, Richards cuts through the cacophony of voices intent on telling women the "appropriate" way to be a mother and reveals instead how to confidently forge your own path while staying true to yourself and your ideals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374226725
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Amy Richards is the co-author of Manifesta (FSG, 2000) and Grassroots (FSG, 2005) and the co-founder of the feminist speaker's bureau, Soapbox.

Read an Excerpt

Opting In

Having a Child Without Losing Yourself

By Amy Richards

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Amy Richards
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-22672-5



If I were the president, then ... schoolteachers would be paid more than movie stars and basketball players.

—MADONNA, as quoted in a 1995 interview in George

In the fall of 2005, The New York Times printed its perennial story on how smart women just want to be at home doing hook rugs with their kids. This time the news was based on a limited study of 138 female undergraduates at Yale. The article tried to determine once and for all what will win out: working or staying home. Not surprisingly, given its front-page placement, the majority (about 60 percent) said they would stay home. Had the findings been more positive about women's integration into the workforce, that revelation would likely have been buried in a short article in the business section. "My mother always told me you can't be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time," Cynthia Liu told the Times, explaining why she planned on being a stay-at-home mom by the time she was thirty. What made these particular findings "shocking" was that they were coming from Yale—the exact place where you should find overachieving women who knew better than to while away their days at Mommy &&&; Me classes. (Ironically, days before this article ran, this same newspaper did a roundup of the Forbes 400 list—129 of whom had never graduated from college. If success is based entirely on notions of who makes the most money, then a rural high school might be a better place to conduct interviews.)

The question in the Times article was clearly a setup, and these young women shouldn't be used as proof of an antifeminist backlash when they were simply sounding back the more socially acceptable response. In addition, these college students were predicting what might happen, not saying what had happened.

Looking at women's work lives across their life spans tells a different story. Few women actually permanently catapult their career ambitions; some have a leisurely approach to their jobs, taking time away when their kids are young, but most stay in the paid workforce for a good percentage of their adult lives. Ninety-three percent of those who leave work to parent intend to return to their careers and the average amount of time that women take away from their careers is 2.2 years. The college students I meet have their lives planned out exactly this way—career in their twenties, babies in their thirties. It's not babies in exchange for a career, but one and then the other. Sandra Day O'Connor took five years away from her prestigious law firm job in order to be home after her second son was born, and then went on to become the first woman Supreme Court justice.

If I had been asked at twenty what I thought my life would be like at thirty, I would have said that I would be a lawyer (I'm not); that I wouldn't be living in New York City (I do); that I would have one child (I have two, but I had them both after thirty); and that I would be married (I'm not). This is what I imagined for my future, but it was also what others expected of me. My more repressed desires—say, being a travel book writer or running a restaurant in some Podunk town—were to me emotionally less possible. Just like the Yale women interviewed, I had conventional ambitions. I felt that I was expected to procreate and produce the next generation of leaders. When you are middle-class, as most college students are, the question is "when" you are going to have kids, not "if." You have to explain yourself only if you choose not to reproduce. To be quoted in a prestigious paper saying that you had every intention of working fulltime, leaving your kids to be cared for by someone else, sounds irresponsible—why have kids if you are going to sign them up for full-time day care two days out of the womb? Saying you can do both career and kids sounds unrealistic.

In "Homeward Bound: The Truth About Elite Women," one of Linda Hirshman's contributions to the topic, she concluded that "feminism has largely failed in its goals." According to her findings, "There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged." Hirshman culled her research from a very limited source, the wedding pages of The New York Times, presuming that women who want such an announcement are the best measure of feminism's success: "Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism's promise for opportunity?" Hirshman's claims were intentionally piercing because she was a self-identified feminist.

Stories of this ilk become "newsworthy" because they're an opportunity to suggest that women are rejecting feminism. A further problem with these articles is that most take it as a premise that the workplace is the sole measure of equality. This is exacerbated informally as well. When people describe how feminism does and should prioritize motherhood, they come back dully to the workplace and its associated issues—flextime, child care, on-site day care, paid leave, and so on. Other parenting issues are overshadowed, including what fathers do or don't do, adoption, fertility, divorce, and health care. To wit: The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want—and What to Do About It bills itself as solving "the problems faced by mothers and families," but four of the six chapters deal exclusively with work.

Focusing on this one issue misleads people about the range of feminism's accomplishments and furthers the mistaken idea that certain choices are more feminist than others. Women who take the less canonically feminist route are left feeling disenfranchised. "Why is it that so many people see this as a lazy job? Is feminism to blame?" Cheryl Smith asked me in a letter about her decision to stay home and raise her kids. Or as another woman said in response to Linda Hirshman's article: "If traditional feminism means that all 'elite' women are required to put their kids in daycare and march off to work, I want no part of it. Count me out. That's not what I signed up for, when I became a feminist."

The opt-outers are accused of casting away independence for convention, of discarding Betty Friedan's revelation that highly educated women were being undervalued, in favor of embracing the domestic goddess and party planner extraordinaire Martha Stewart. Of course, in reality Martha is a full-time working mother, and simultaneously an upscale housewife, which gets to the crux of the problem: we want whatever it is that society values, be it Rosie the Riveter one day or TV's June Cleaver the next, but the vision that is valued is often not real. We fall in step, seek approval, and follow the script du jour—forgetting to trust our own instincts. But trusting our instincts and questioning the "ideal" is what feminism is all about.

It's also true that the facts of our day seem to matter less than what image we want to project. According to a study conducted by The Washington Post, even when women identify themselves as "stay-at-home mothers" they are likely to have worked outside the home in the past year, and those who identify themselves as "working mothers" often work less than full-time. I have witnessed this, too. There are non-working-outside-the-home women with full-time nannies who empathize with other full-time mothers as if they were one of them, yet also trump up something they are mildly working on, did work on, or plan to work on, all in order to blend in with mothers who work outside the home. Nothing could be clearer proof of our need for acceptance.

I think the question "to work or not to work" also takes up a lot of airtime because it masks larger issues individual women have with one another, namely a competitiveness about who is the better mother, and insecurities about how our own lives do or don't match up to those of our peers. The workplace becomes a symbol of the angst, jealousy, and sadness we feel. "The thing I hate is when my non-working friends try to get me to stop working ... [I] feel as though they do it because they want to make themselves feel better," said Elizabeth Mayhew, who was once an editor for Real Simple. Sadly, working and not working are perceived not as two distinct choices, but rather as a competition about who has made the better choice.

The most pressing concern isn't choosing work or family, but finding some way to reconcile our seemingly conflicting ambitions. Most of us want to work or need an income, and we crave an identity beyond "mom" or "dad." Yet we also want and need to be there for doctor's appointments and soccer games, to help with homework, for music class, or for bath time. Emotionally, there are conflicts: mothers who work outside the home are kept awake at night by the fear that they are failing their children, and mothers who stay at home are anxious about compromising their goals and presenting their kids with a narrow model. Most mothers need money, we need time away from our kids, and we need time with our kids. Even before women are officially parents, they weigh these options, and long after the decision has been made, the debate still lingers. The looming question then is, How can we have all this and feel less compromised?

In my observation, the rare woman who actually chooses parenting over her professional life beyond her child's early years usually does so both because she didn't have the professional life she wanted and because she's among the minority that doesn't need the money. And women who do take on parenting full-time usually aren't saying that "motherhood is the most important job," but rather that they want a break from their unimportant job. "With the exception of six weeks postpartum, this was the first time since high school that I had a good excuse not to work like a maniac, and I was grateful for the break," said the writer Hope Edelman, describing her decision to drastically reduce her work hours after her husband's work hours increased.

In Salary.com's "Top 10 Reasons to Leave Your Job," parenting didn't even make the list. Salary (obviously) was number one, and other reasons included poor management and inadequate benefits. According to many studies, even aging parents are a more bona fide reason for leaving the workforce than taking care of kids. Statistically speaking, the only recent dip in women's workplace participation was about a slumping economy and the dot-com bust—not parenthood. Kids are a better excuse than admitting that your career ambitions changed, you are bored, you aren't as successful as you wanted to be, you want early retirement, you want to "take it easy," you are buying time before the next career move, or you don't really want to commute.

For most women, there's no debate about working, that's just how life is. Parenting exclusively without ever earning an income is a possibility for only a handful of women in this country. And though the majority of women don't have the luxury of a debate, the issue stays current precisely because it is predominantly a middle-class issue, and society has a bias toward that constituency, not to mention that logistically, they are an easier demographic to target. It's harder to follow undocumented and freelance professions—from seamstress to writer—than to poll the fifty women in management who report to work every day at Colgate-Palmolive on Park Avenue.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, even those women poor enough for public assistance are rarely allowed to use those subsidies to raise their children. This wasn't always the case, so in some ways we have moved backward. In recent years the state of Minnesota pioneered an At-Home Infant Care Program that allows working parents who meet the income eligibility—a household income under twenty thousand dollars—to receive funds to care for children younger than one year old. In addition to financial barriers, there are societal implications to not working, which is one reason that poor and middle-class mothers are more likely to work than wealthier mothers. Not only are poor women more likely to need the cash, but if they are poor and not working, they are "lazy," whereas women who are wealthy and not working are "making choices." (There might be emotional hurdles to not working, too, but there is less respect for that being a legitimate consideration.)

Among my peers, I noticed that those who were the most strident about the need for professional success were also the most likely to be won over by motherhood. Their career ambitions were almost too high—wanting to be Oprah by the time they were thirty—and rather than acknowledge failure in not being able to attain that level of success, they found a socially acceptable way to explain their changing dreams. On the other hand, women who had more reasonable professional expectations at the outset tended to find solutions that allowed them to continue on professionally.

When pushed, I would say that women should work—for themselves, for their children, and to preserve their relationships. As Helen Kirwan-Taylor admitted in London's Daily Mail, "In my view, making a child your career is a dangerous move because your marriage and sense of self can be sacrificed in the process." Working itself isn't necessarily the crucial detail, but rather how "work" affects and overflows into the rest of our lives. Having an identity beyond "Mom" or "Mrs." helps women in their relationships with friends and lovers, and in negotiating more equitable child-rearing arrangements with their spouses or partners. In addition, a more balanced range of interests helps you to not micromanage your household and reduces the obsession with children. As constricting as it might feel not to be able to pick up your kids from school every day, it can be liberating not to have to do some things—make your child's lunch every day or research the best Gymboree class to enroll your children in.

While the "work" issue isn't paramount, women's ability to work, and encouragement and access to do so, is a natural inhibitor to overprocreating. Knowing that you are capable of responsibilities beyond the house and economic independence makes you less dependent on the home for your identity and instills confidence. Not to mention that if we want our children to work, then we should mirror that back to them. Of course, there are other influences over their lives, but what their parents do is supreme. Among my friends, the majority of those who are primarily "mothers" were raised by stay-at-home mothers, while the majority of those who are motivated professionally had working mothers. According to many studies, sons of working mothers expect to raise their children, too, and sons of stay-at-home mothers expect a wife will take care of all of those child-rearing responsibilities. When I meet with students, I can pretty easily discern who had working mothers: these young women are less intimidated by their own ambitions and these young men are less conflicted about taking on child rearing. In my younger son's first year of life, I was often lecturing on college campuses, and so hired babysitters regularly during my travels. Of the dozen or so, about one-third were male. Most told me they loved babysitting because they had helped to care for their siblings.

In my own life, I'm both a worker and a full-time mother. I work from home most of the time and spend my day juggling. I work at least eight hours a day, but often do so at one in the morning, and I always put in a few hours each weekend. People don't understand my scenario; they want me to fit neatly into one category because to present an alternate possibility challenges their sense of how things are supposed to be.

It used to be that a person who found a way to do it all was "unique." Today, there are more people who combine work and family in their own ways. We forget to use the evidence of diversity that is right in front of us. "Most of the friends I talk to would like an interesting part-time job or to job share when they have young kids, rather than a hellish full-time corporate job, as the reality is 9 out of 10 times women are still the primary care givers," one San Francisco mom wrote to me. One day in the course of researching this book, I made phone calls while my son napped. I called Carol Mills, the event planner for the bathing suit designer Malia Mills, and pitched an event for the Third Wave Foundation. Carol was interested but asked me to call back in thirty minutes; she was dropping off one child at ballet and picking up another. Another call was to the television producer Jennifer Donaldson, who was mid-carpool and couldn't talk. She called me back the next morning when her kids had gone to school.


Excerpted from Opting In by Amy Richards. Copyright © 2008 Amy Richards. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Copyright Page,

Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. How did you react to the theme of the New York Times Magazine cover story that inspired this book and is described in the introduction? To what degree does media hype influence your mind-set about the evolving role of women—mothers or not— in American society? To what degree does the media's portrayal of contemporary women match the realities of your own life?

2. In the introduction, Amy Richards outlines feminism's accomplishments in the realm of motherhood and calls on readers to consider the power of the individual to effect change and to sustain the momentum of change. What impact have these accomplishments made on your own life? How has the role of mothers changed within your own family in recent generations, particularly in your mother's and grandmother's generations?

3. What revelations in Chapter 1: "To Work or Not to Work Is Not the Question," were most surprising to you? Why does the all-or-nothing approach to careers and motherhood reign in most media coverage of the issue? Are the more essential facets—flexible schedules, paid family leave, parenting partners, and equality in pay—overlooked in the dialogues within your circle of friends, relatives, or coworkers?

4. Richards describes family-friendly European legislation that contrasts sharply with American lawmaking. In what way does this disparity reflect cultural values on both sides of the Atlantic? Is America's corporate culture inherently at odds with the needs of its workers' families?

5. What is the best way to cope with misinformation or hyperbole regarding biologically based parenting instincts and the challenges of contemporary parenting? To what extent did abortion debates of the 1970s shape the public's perception of questions regarding women's reproductive realities?

6. Richards provides a rich history of women who challenged conventional notions of motherhood before and during the rise of the Women's Liberation Movement. Do you believe that, intentionally or not, the movement led to the marginalization of motherhood? Historically, how have race and economic status influenced the direction of such debates?

7. In reading Opting In, what did you discover about men and parenting, and men's evolving perceptions of themselves as fathers? In what ways is fatherhood a feminist issue?

8. How do you personally define "real" birth? What is the best way to reconcile the roles of midwives, medical doctors, doulas, and mothers themselves in the process of giving birth and caring for a newborn? How should the tandem of privacy rights and public health be managed?

9. In Chapter 4: "William Doesn't Want a Doll: Raising Kids Today," Richards describes her own upbringing and the way it influenced her perception of herself and family definitions in general. How would you characterize her ultimate prescription for creating identities and definitions that liberate children from stereotypes of gender, race, and class?

10. What issues lie at the heart of gender-based parenting inequities? Are these issues primarily cultural, economic, psychological, biological, or something else altogether? Have you ever enacted a Marriage Agreement or a similar document? To what degree do you and the mothers in your circle welcome the concept of sharing parenting duties with fathers? Is fatherhood still essentially a symbol of virility and prosperity for most dads?

11. Richards offers wisdom for navigating the ways motherhood can affect a woman's friendships. What is at stake for women who respond critically to their friends with children? What is the result of anxiety over whether parenting looks "too easy" or "too hard"? How significant do you think female friendships and a sense of sisterhood are in the lives of contemporary women?

12. How would you describe your relationship with your mother? Was she a barrier or a gateway to your individuality? Is a nurturing, maternal personality a prerequisite for a good mother (or a good father)?

13. Which of the organizations listed in the book's Resource Guide are you likely to consult, either for information or to spur the types of actions described in the final paragraphs of Opting In? Do you feel satisfied with your level of involvement in furthering the cause? How would you answer the essential question posed in the closing chapter: "What do today's parents want"?

14. Discuss the book's title. What does a twenty-first-century woman opt for when she opts in to motherhood? What options does she have? Which options are difficult for her to access?

15. What predictions can you make regarding the ways our society's daughters and granddaughters will address the issue of motherhood? Which debates are likely to wane, and which ones are likely to become even more heated in future generations? Will sweeping legislation be the key to change, or will reform be achieved through other means?

16. In what ways does Opting In expand on themes described in two books the author has coauthored, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism? What makes Richards's voice distinct from others participating in these dialogues?

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