The economic landscape had changed greatly since these women — buoyed by their prestigious jobs and degrees, supported by their high-earning husbands, secure in their abilities to shape a new life worthy of their past successes — first decided to leave work and head home. In the years they were out of the work force, many of the professions they left contracted and changed; even once rock-solid fields like law were becoming insecure in ways that no one had previously thought possible.
The culture of motherhood, post-recession, had altered considerably, too. The women of the opt-out revolution left the work force at a time when the prevailing ideas about motherhood idealized full-time, round-the-clock, child-centered devotion. In 2000, for example, with the economy strong and books like “Surrendering to Motherhood,” a memoir about the “liberation” of giving up work to stay home, setting the tone for the aspirational mothering style of the day, almost 40 percent of respondents to the General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children (an increase of eight percentage points since 1994). But by 2010, with recovery from the “mancession” slow and a record 40 percent of mothers functioning as family breadwinners, fully 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.” And after decades of well-publicized academic inquiry into the effects of maternal separation and the dangers of day care, a new generation of social scientists was publishing research on the negative effects of excessive mothering: more depression and worse general health among mothers, according to the American Psychological Association.
I wondered if these changes affected the women who opted out years ago. Had they found the “escape hatch” from the rat race that one of Belkin’s interviewees said she was after? Were they able, as a vast majority said they had planned, to transition back into the work force? Or had they, as the author Leslie Bennetts predicted in her 2007 book, “The Feminine Mistake,” come to see that, by making themselves financially dependent upon their men — particularly at a time when no man could depend upon his job — they had made a colossal error?