By Ashley Robinson
The recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” hit closer to home than the publication’s usual articles do. (I guess I am migrating into that demographic now … sigh. Something I should just accept, perhaps.)
The lengthy article examined the lives of women, who back in 2003, decided to leave high-paying executive-level jobs to be stay-at-home-moms. Well, ten years later, these women want back in. They want to get back into the workforce and “shockingly enough”, are having a hard time doing so.
Their inability to find a job after a ten year hiatus was’t what stuck with me. I think that part was obvious, but it was how they got to the point where they felt they had to opt back in.
You see, a couple of months ago, my husband and I moved to San Francisco with our infant daughter, along with our dog and two cats. In the process, I quit my job and became something I never expected to be: a SAHM (hoping it’s only temporary). So, when I unpacked my boxes and put away the things, the hardest items to pull out of the boxes were my work clothes. The pencil skirts, the collared shirts, the high heels, and the suit jackets. What was I going to do with them?
Out of habit, I kept them toward the front of the closet. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I decided to think about it “tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day,” after all. But the fact of the matter is that I hardly even venture into my closet these days. I live in yoga pants and sweatshirts. If I get dressed up in this foggy, cold city, it’s leggings and tunics.
I have invested hundreds of dollars in work clothes and now they sit there gathering dust, taking up space. But most importantly, they represent my work self, my self that was once very much defined and had a certain level of value.
Yes, value. When you have a job, especially a high-paying one, you assign value to yourself based on your income, your benefits, your name recognition. Every time you get a promotion or a raise, your value goes up. It is the thing that elevates your social status. It is the thing that buoys your self-esteem.
Is this a good thing? Absolutely not. To live in a society where our self-worth is tied to a manufactured and inflated salary is not something to be proud of. But it’s the truth.
And I bet these women, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and were featured on respectable industry lists and were seen as icons of the feminist movement, thought they were indestructible. I presume to believe they thought giving up their career to take on the ultimate job (motherhood) would be a cake walk. No meetings. No clients. No late hours. Rewarding. Right?
For some people, it is.
But for some of us, it is not. While motherhood is much more rewarding than I ever could have imagined, it is not an easy transition by any other stretch of the imagination. Motherhood is learning what multi-tasking truly is. It is finally understanding why sleep deprivation is considered a torture device. It is quiet, and lonely, and isolating. It is finding new friends who you can talk about the most mind-numbing subjects with and won’t judge you. It is messy. It is having nothing to show at the end of the day but spit-up on your clothes.
There are no prizes for Best Mom, or Cleanest Burp Cloths. There are no raises or promotions. There are no co-workers to brainstorm with on big projects, new clients. There are no business cards to advertise your title or responsibilities.
And if you have opted out of a paying job, it means depending on your partner for financial means. I’m sure these women had great savings accounts and wonderful relationships with their husbands when they initially quit their jobs. But as the months go by, and you see the savings account dwindle and your ability to relate to your husband, and he to you, slow to a halt, you feel your value depreciate.
When your relationship with your partner falters, then there is a real self-examination of worth, of identity. While I am fortunate to say my relationship with my husband is strong, there have been times I resented him and his freedom. When I was up changing diapers at 3am or staying at home with the baby while he went out with his friends, I was frustrated with my situation. I felt like I was doing the hard work. Don’t I deserve a happy hour?
But then you start telling yourself that being at home with your child is your job now. You equal so many dollars in child care and house keeping and gardening. “I can’t resent him for not doing the dishes because he is paying for our groceries.” So your value is once again assigned. Your identity is restored.
But only until you open the closet door and see your collection of black dresses and that pair of lace tights you loved to wear with a certain pair of lace-up ankle boots. There’s the old you, waiting for your return, reminding you of who you are no longer.
And I’m certain these women featured in NYT Magazine had great wardrobes …
My take-away was this: that article was really freaking depressing. Shouldn’t have read it. I’m going to stick my head in the oven.
Okay! Just kidding. I’m no Sylvia Plath.
It reminded me that I need to find value in WHO I am. Not WHAT I am. I need to remind myself that I am strong, stronger than I ever was before I had a child. That I am passionate. That I some day want to own a coffee shop/wine bar and write historical fiction novels. That I want to eradicate dog fighting rings and visit the pyramids of Giza.
The mantra I have to keep repeating to myself is that I have an identity beyond the value others have prescribed to me. (Albeit, my most important identity is reliant upon that of a squealing, smiling toe-head sleeping in her crib right now.)
Opt-in, opt-out, do whatever. But make sure you know your value as a woman, not by your career or your domestic situation, because if you don’t, you won’t ever be settled.