Last week, the New York Times magazine published “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” a feature piece on women who made headlines a decade ago by “opting out” of their prestigious jobs to stay home with their children. Although most of the women are reportedly happy with their decision, author Judith Warner revisits a few mothers who are re-entering the work force and makes some predictably feminist conclusions about the whole “experiment.”
It’s striking to me that all the women quoted talk primarily about themselves, their (ex-)husbands only in how they relate to themselves, and their children very little at all. There are no quotes from the kids, by now teenagers who could speak for themselves. I find it puzzling that a nine-page article on mothers largely ignores the children and the effect on them. Instead, Warner writes of “the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms.” What a self-centered perspective. One mother complains that while she was home full-time, her husband expected her to do the demeaning task of keeping the house clean: “If I had any angst about being an overeducated stay-at-home mom, it was not about raising the kids, but it was about sweeping.” (An aside: Is it possible to be an overeducated stay-at-home mother? What part of the best of your education and training do your children not deserve?) Motherhood is a life of constant sacrifice, full of dirty diapers, sweeping up crumbs, and countless other little tasks that made one mom featured feel like a “loser” who had lost her “independent work identity.” These women seem to have understood that they’d be sacrificing their earning potential, but perhaps not that they would have to put others’ needs above their own wishes. No wonder they felt lost.
Throughout the piece, the assumption is that staying at home provides no intellectual stimulation. You have to go volunteer (for something that will lead to a job offer) or work part-time or re-enter the workforce once your children are in school if you want to use your brain again and be fulfilled. This is a shallow–and intellectually lazy!–understanding of intellectual stimulation. Throughout history, the life of the mind has not been an extremely lucrative activity, and many of our greatest minds pursued their studies out of a love of knowledge for its own sake, with their contributions not even being recognized in their own lifetimes. Isn’t this true of a mother’s work, much of which will not bear fruit until the next generation? Moreover, many men and women today would not characterize their workplace as a place of unremitting intellectual pursuit. In some privileged careers, this may be the case, but I’d venture to say that most 8-5 jobs provide no more opportunities to use your mind than home life.
Learning to create beauty and order in the home while tending to the needs of complex, constantly changing little people—being everything to someone—is a mind-blowingly challenging job, if you choose to do it wholeheartedly. My mother is always saying, “Only boring people are bored.” Growing up, it never occurred to me that homemaking was a boring career. My mother and her homemaking friends (most of whom have advanced degrees) spent my childhood talking about potty training, child psychology, politics, philosophy, pedagogical theories, and theology; they studied their children (my mom knows me better than I know myself) and prayed for them and discipled them. As an adult, sitting in on the conversations of these seasoned homemakers always inspires me to go home and read and study and think more. If women feel that they need to be in the public realm to receive intellectual stimulation, they’re opting out of a wealth of opportunity at home.
It’s near the end of the piece that Warner’s references to “scaled-down ambitions” and “success stories” of re-entering the workforce coalesce into a thesis with which I profoundly disagree. She’s concerned about SAHMs because “A younger generation of female high achievers, especially those who aren’t most highly privileged, aren’t getting a very hopeful message.” Warner’s high achiever seems to be one who is paid lots of money to work in a position of power. Jesus has a different take on success in Matthew 20:26-28. “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” My highest ambition for myself and my girls is to be like Christ, and the career of motherhood provides countless opportunities for sanctification. It is not inherently evil to have a position of prestige, power, or wealth. But I don’t aspire to those things for my daughters (or my son). I’m opting in to full-time motherhood because my husband and I want me to be the main one in my children’s lives telling them about the most hopeful message of all: Christ in you, the hope of glory!