Myth #1: Only women with small children opt out
There are a lot of misconceptions of what opting out is, the main one being that it is only women with small children who opt out. However, research has shown that women who opt out, don’t necessarily do it when their kids are small. Most plan to continue working after having children. Having small children is hard; mothers with young children are often tired and slightly overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and crazy schedules, getting kids to daycare with the right gear, picking them up on time or on short notice when they’re sick, and nursing them back to health while also working at the same time, birthday parties, activities, gifts for teachers… I could go on. However, women with very young children often stick it out, grit their teeth, and just do it – often in a haze – but they do. It isn’t until their kids are a bit bigger that many actually have a moment to consider that maybe this just isn’t the way they want to live their lives. And often that is when they start to reconsider. Not necessarily when their kids are very little, although that obviously happens too.
I’ve met women who opted out when their children were grown. And some women I know who’ve opted out, don’t have children at all. Opting out isn’t only about women with young children; it isn’t only about women with children. I’ve interviewed women both with and without children, and their experiences, their reasons for leaving, their hopes and dreams, were all remarkably similar. Mothers often use their children as a reason for leaving. After all, it’s easier to say that you want to spend more time with your kids than to say things like ‘this working culture just isn’t working for me’ or ‘I’m being discriminated and I just don’t have the energy to take the fight’ or ‘you are not very nice to work with’. If you say you want to be with your children, people are generally not going to argue with that. Also, women are usually applauded for wanting to be there more for their kids. And the reality is, that these women are often so exhausted by the time they do leave, that they tend to choose the road that minimizes confrontation.
Myth #2: Women opt out to become stay-at-home moms
Most of the research done on opting out – and this also goes for the debate in the media – has been on women who leave their high-powered careers to be stay-at-home moms. In reality, however, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that shows that women are opting out in any great numbers to become stay-at-home moms. On the contrary, research has shown that the women who want to spend more time raising their children, generally also want to do something else, something outside the home that doesn’t involve their children. Like work; work that they can better combine with being a mother. Besides, like I stated above, opting out doesn’t have to involve children at all. Not all women who opt out even have children.
No, opting out is about opting in to a different mindset, alternative lifestyles, and working and/or living on one’s own terms. It can be anything really: downshifting, retraining and finding a completely new type of job, or staying at the same company but with a completely new mindset. It can also mean staying home full time, but it certainly doesn’t have to.
Myth #3: Only women with rich husbands who can support them opt out
Among my interviewees I have had single women without children, single moms, and women who did have a husband but who were the main breadwinners in their families. I have also interviewed women with husbands who could have supported them, but despite that, these women continued to generate their own income anyway after having opted out. Opting out does not have to entail giving up an income. It is rather about finding a way to have an income but on one’s own terms. Yes, the income was often smaller than it had been because a high-powered career is after all a high-powered career, and in that case they adjusted their lifestyles accordingly.
Myth #4: Women who opt out aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes
This is just completely wrong. The women I interviewed were all highly ambitious. They never even planned to opt out. They just realized they didn’t want to go on the way they had. Often they re-evaluated what was important to them, and some realized that they just didn’t share the values of the companies they worked for anymore. All of them had plans and dreams and wanted to continue working. And the ones that did opt out to stay home with their kids, knew from the start that it was only going to be temporary, that they would eventually start working again, but on their own terms.
Myth #5: Opting out is a women’s issue
I started out studying women because when working on a PhD you have to limit your study, otherwise you’ll end up writing an encyclopedia and not a PhD and you will never finish. I chose to study women, and quickly realized I had to also limit it to women with children, because I wanted to add to the current debate on opting out and offer an alternative view. But opting out is not only about women. It isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a societal and a contemporary issue. People – both men and women – are, for different reasons, increasingly looking to define the parameters of their lives themselves, and create ways of working that specifically meet their individual wants and needs. They don’t want to work in a specific way just because that is what’s expected of them, or because that is the way it has been done for as long as anyone can remember.
In fact, my plan is to study men next – that is men who opt out. Although different than the norms women deal with, men are also expected to live up to certain social standards. However, these social norms and traditions don’t necessarily reflect the multitude of ways that men want to live their lives. And like for women, mainstream career models don’t necessarily reflect the way many men want to work.
So, this is what I plan to do. No, I take that back, this is what I will do. Just like when I opted out in order to opt in to working on my PhD, I know that it is something I have to do. It’s important research and I feel passionate about it. If none of my funding applications come through, I’ll just have to figure out some other way to organize it.