Opting Out Without Kids

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve heard all about the supposed “opt-out revolution.” It’s that thing where elite women trade in their high-powered jobs for full-time motherhood. It’s gotten a lot of press since the term was first coined in Lisa Belkin‘s 2003 New York Times Magazine piece.

(Note: One might ask whether women actually opt out or get pushed out, but that’s a post for another time.)

What’s missing from original conceptualizations of opting-out is the notion that those of us without kids might too choose to leave a successful career for something we deem more fulfilling. Several autobiographies rectify that gap and communications scholar Elizabeth Wilhoit has just published an analysis of three such works in the journal Gender, Work, & Organization.

The Premise

Wilhoit begins from the premise that workplaces are gendered organizations wherein the ideal worker is an unencumbered man for whom work is primary, advancement is the goal, personal identity revolves around work, there is little life outside the office, and meaning and dignity in work are less important than work in itself, for itself.

Wilhoit argues that “these gendered factors” can have the effect of pushing any woman – mother or non-mother – out of culturally valued careers and into alternative pursuits.

As a sociologist of gender who also studies the workplace, I am totally picking up what Wilhoit is putting down.

(Translation: I concur with Wilhoit’s premise.)

The Findings

Wilhoit goes on to analyze the autobiographies of three non-mothers who “opted out” of the workplace: Gesine Bullock-Prado’s My Life from Scratch, Margaret Roach’s And I Shall Have Peace There, and Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life.

(MAJOR CAVEAT: not all of these women are childfree; none were mothers at the time that they opted out but Kimball now has two children.)

Here’s what she found:

1. The women featured were frustrated by a lack of meaning in their jobs. Work consumed their lives so there was no opportunity to find fulfillment elsewhere and the “linear, masculine career model” employed at their workplaces emphasized a definition of success that was externally motivated rather than internal or personal. Their new pursuits enabled them to not only find internal meaning and satisfaction but also to nurture meaningful relationships in their communities, with their neighbors, and with friends and partners.

2. The women featured valued the autonomy they felt in their new lives, which Wilhoit contrasts with the gendered career model where “factors like hierarchy, job descriptions and linear careers constrain workers.” Having choice and control over how they worked created a sense of dignity and meaning for opt-out’ers.

3. Opting out led the women to overturn the “masculine organizational assumption that career is one’s primary source of identity.” Getting out of the rat race gave the women the chance to process how much more complex their identities were – and could be – than the work-centric identities they’d embraced prior to opting out.

4. Wilhoit concludes that “masculine organizations may not value issues like meaningful work, work/life balance or autonomy, or may only allow certain employees access to these aspects of career.” And how.

The Analysis of the Analysis

I applaud the attention to the fact that A) the concept of opting out overlooks the reality that our workplaces most value a masculine approach to work and B) mothers aren’t the only ones opting out.

At the same time, it seems worth noting that all of the workers in question here are part of an extraordinarily elite group of professionals. Even if opting out really is just that and not the result of sexist work structures (suspension of disbelief required here), most workers don’t have the luxury to consider opting out.

Finally, and probably at the forefront of everyone’s mind, if ever I do find a way to opt out (or get pushed out) myself, my only remaining question is this: What will it take for me to become the traveling roller derby queen I really hope to be?

What "opting out" looks like in Amy's world

What “opting out” looks like in Amy’s world

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