People have been a little stunned when I announced I was taking a break from work for a few months to supposedly finish this book that’s been rolling around in my head for years. Will I be able to get work again when I’m ready? Who knows. Can we afford this? Definitely not. But I’m not doing this blindly I spent a decade at home when my girls where babies I know very clearly the pros and cons of “opting out”. I’m willing to give it a go this time around to try to fulfil one of my dreams and then I’ll settle back into employment until retirement … promise.
Here’s a piece I wrote about the “opting out” experience.
It comes as a surprise to me to discover I’m an “opt out” gal. Apparently this is a post-feminism phenomenon usually enjoyed by society’s elite and occurring after giving birth.
First documented in 2003 the “Opt Out Generation” were highly educated, mega achieving women who were happy to chuck in their well-paid, prestigious careers to stay at home with their babies. They took to their new roles with vigour and passion, orchestrating over-the-top birthday parties for the kiddies and running volunteer organisations as if they were a blue-chip company. Much to the dismay of old-school feminists they were proud to be refashioning a modern-day life taking full advantage of the “choice” feminism had provided for them. Their particular blend of articulate fervour was enough to get noticed by the New York Times Magazine, 60 Minutes and Time Magazine.
Recently New York Times Magazine revisited some of these women to find out how they were faring ten years on. There seemed to be a sense it hadn’t worked out too well for a number of them, marriages were impacted, divorces occurred, many ended up in a financial pickle, some found it difficult to re-enter the workforce. Were traditional feminists right to look a little smug and say I told you so?
As someone who did opt out I think it’s a little more complex than “shoulda stayed at work”. My decision to opt out occurred in a working class suburb of Brisbane supported by a tradie husband. 60 Minutes didn’t come calling because I was just an ordinary housewife ditching some moderately paid jobs.
My ten years of opting out came about as a result of circumstances as opposed to a great desire to embrace domesticity. A husband in the Navy when our first child was born meant long periods of solo parenting, with no family nearby to offer a respite to the childcare and inflexible workplaces it all meant returning to work was going to be challenging.
So I headed home, to the forty-year old, unrenovated three bed house affordable on one wage and concentrated on raising bloody good kids.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The process turned me inside out and upside down. I had no idea who I was any more. I was utterly convinced my life was over; these children would never grow up and on one particularly steaming hot weekday, standing in my desolate suburban street with no sign of any other life I was convinced the world had ended and, because it wasn’t announced on Play School, I hadn’t realised. I struggled with the isolation; I cobbled together some work-from-home in direct sales.
But opting out meant I was there for the major milestones. I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to go to the kindy concert, I knew the teachers and the classmates, and I was available when the children needed to talk. The usual childhood illnesses didn’t create a terror of losing work. We got to enjoy days of doing nothing, where my daughters made mud pies in the backyard and played under the sprinkler with no time pressure of needing to be somewhere else.
I was forced to rethink my identity, no longer linked to a job and in a desperate fight to not just be somebody’s mother. It was painful but progressive. It taught me resilience and creativity. It showed me it was possible to live a good life without being tied to the demands of a job and a boss.
There is no doubt it was financially difficult, and even today, seven years after returning to the workforce, it is clear I will never “catch up” in terms of superannuation or career progression.
My relationship with my husband still bears the scars of the stay-at-home years. Falling into the traditional roles meant it was difficult to revert back to our pre-baby equality even after I returned to work.
Yet this stage of my life taught me so much about who I am and what’s important to me. It made me stronger.
I wish everybody (with or without children, male or female) had the opportunity to take some time out and realise that life encompasses a lot more than just paid work and your identity is not reliant upon your employment.
We need conversations about the choices available; all voices need to be heard (without condemnation). Twenty years on we have the benefit of seeing the outcomes of a variety of choices. There are those who continued working full steam ahead, those who stayed at home and those who did a combination of both. Honest conversations about the experiences of these choices (good and bad) will help our daughters (and hopefully sons) make their decisions with greater clarity than we did.
Have you ever opted out?