After the New York Times article “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” was published on August 7th, the internet has been full of “Mommy Wars” debates over whether women should work full-time, stay-at-home, or do something in between. We are reposting the recent blog post by Shannon Forchheimer of But I Do Have A Law Degree, which addresses the New York Times article and provides unique insight into “opt-ing out.”
Originally posted on But I Do Have a Law Degree on Friday, August 9, 2013
Is it just me, or is the whole stay at home mom/working mom debate EVERYWHERE now? It seems like every other day there’s a new article in the Atlantic or the New York Times or Huffington Post or [you name that news medium] about women leaning in, opting out, or scaling back. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great. I love the debate, and for the most part I love the articles. When I find good ones, I share them on Twitter and Facebook. Occasionally, if one particularly strikes me, I write about it. Like today.
Earlier this week the New York Times ran an article titled “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” This article profiles several women who, over a decade ago, decided to opt out of the work force to stay at home with their kids. (They were profiled in an article back in 2003, which you can read here). Most of the women left high paying, highly successful careers because the balance between work and family was too hard. They did so willfully, and hopefully. They wanted more time with their children. Sound familiar? The article asks, and answers, the question – what became of them?
Let me say at the outset that I approached this article with a bit of haste. For my own sanity, I don’t need to read articles, or hear stories, about women who have left their successful careers to stay at home with their children, and ultimately end up in dire circumstances. Perhaps they are divorced, alone, or destitute, unable to find a job or land on their feet. I know such situations exist, but I don’t need to read about them in detail. I am where I am at this point in time, and hearing such stories only bring me sadness, and anxiety.
But the article was compelling, so I read, and read, and read (it is a bit long). And sure enough, over the course of a decade, some of the women did fall on hard times. For some, their husbands stopped respecting them as professionals. For others, they lost their own sense of identity and self respect. Some ended up divorced, in small apartments, barely making ends meet. Others attempted to reenter the workforce, and were successful, but only made a fraction of the salary they once did. And others, through networking and volunteering they did during their time at home, found job opportunities they never would have otherwise. There were stories of success, and stories of failure, and a mix of the two. As the article stated:
“The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women – the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks – found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family friendly than their old high-powered positions.” (View quote here).
No surprises there. And in fact, I found very little surprising in the article. There are risks to making the decision that I did, and I am well aware of them. I assume everyone is, who makes such a decision. And it’s not that we all think we’ll end up like the aforementioned “superelite,” although I suppose, that is everyone’s best case scenario. It’s that we just don’t know. And in the absence of certainty about the future, we make decisions based on what works right now – in the present. For better or worse.
But it got me thinking…
Where will I be in 10 years? If you were to do a before and after profile of me, would I be the poster child for the downfalls of my own leap of faith – alone, divorced, single, poor, regretful? Will I be struggling to find employment, and acknowledging that so many “told me so,” and I just didn’t listen?
Or will I be fulfilled, personally and professionally? Will I be my own version of a “superelite,” in a completely different professional field, or in no field at all, but at peace, reaping the benefits of my husband’s financial successes? Will I be the inspiration for other women who want to opt-out and stay at home?
The fact is, I don’t know. And by taking the path that I have, I have surrendered to the fact that I may not be making the “right” choices. Perhaps I have already foregone the safest, and most conservative options for myself as a woman, professional, and lawyer.
Right now, I can I honestly say I don’t care (a sentiment I may come to resent someday). I don’t care because right now, I am where I want to be. I am spending my time with my children. I am controlling my own time. I am, in small ways, directing my professional destiny. I am following my heart – a luxury that few are afforded, and one that I am so incredibly grateful for. It is not easy, and I have my moments, but overall, I am completely at peace with where I am today.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t all fall apart. As a woman, with (soon to be) three children, I am not independently financially secure. Though I dabble in and out of the professional world and maintain networks and contacts, I still see my identity as that of a stay at home mom, and in reality, that’s how much of the professional world sees me. And how that will affect me, both monetarily and emotionally, in the years to come, remains to be seen.
Despite all this, I refuse to live in fear of potential regrets. In fact, in my favorite quote from the article (which is completely self serving), the women before me advise I shouldn’t do so:
“[N]ot a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job – no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been – more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work – but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.” (See full quote here).
And in that quote lies my relief, and my source of peace with my decision. Relief because I know I will feel the same. How can I regret spending this time with my children? Time I will never get back? No matter what, no matter where I end up – I will never regret it. How can you regret something that is your life’s biggest source of joy?
But where I do feel regret is, in a sense, for the collective good – for the ideal world that these women spoke of. The idea of part time work that offers real advancement – of a chance to have a balance, and “have it all.” When we women that want such opportunities opt out of the workforce, “‘[our] ability to imbue workplace culture with [our] values is gone . . . . [We] leave, and the door closes behind [us], and everything stays the same.” (See full quote here). I am certainly trying to maintain my professional network, and engage in work that empowers women, and in particular, stay at home moms. But am I in a power position to really affect change? No. And who knows if I ever will be again.
My story is still unfolding. Check back with me in 10 years or so…
Shannon Forchheimer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2005, where she served as a Senior Editor of the Journal of Constitutional Law. Upon graduation, Shannon joined the New York office of Skadden Arps as an associate in the Litigation Department, where she represented clients in complex commercial litigations and government investigations involving RICO, federal securities laws, ERISA, and breach of contract. In 2007, Shannon relocated to Washington, DC, and joined the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, where she continued to focus her practice on complex litigation, and represented government contractors suing the Government for breach of contract and CERCLA violations.
After the birth of her second son, Shannon left law firm life. While at home full-time with her young sons, Shannon started a popular blog, “But I Do Have A Law Degree,” which was voted one of the “Top 5 Lawyer Mom Blogs” by FindLaw’s Legal Blog, Greedy Associates.
In 2012, Shannon joined Montage Legal Group as its Lead Attorney for Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. Shannon lives in Washington DC with her husband and two sons.
For more information about Shannon Forchheimer, subscribe to But I Do Have a Law Degree, follow the blog on Facebook, and visit Best Laid Plans: The Journey from Skadden to Montage. Contact Shannon at ShannonF@montagelegal.com.