The recession has already shifted habits and attitudes and will likely usher in long-term cultural changes about which economists, sociologists and political strategists are churning out predictions as we speak. Here’s mine: The economic crisis will erode women’s interest in “opting out” to care for children, heightening awareness that giving up financial independence — quitting work altogether or even, as I did, going part-time — leaves one frighteningly vulnerable. However emotionally rewarding it may be for all involved, staying home with children exacts a serious, enduring vocational toll that largely explains the lingering pay gap between men and women as well as women’s higher rate of poverty. With the recession having raised the stakes, fewer mothers may be willing to take the risk. If it’s not yet the twilight of the stay-at-home mother, it could be her late afternoon. Certainly it is long past nap time.
I wasn’t worried, frankly, about the long-term economic consequences, partly because nobody else seemed to be. Most articles and books about what came to be called “opting out” focused on the budgeting challenges of dropping to one paycheck — belt-tightening measures shared by both parents — while barely touching on the longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks. The difficulty of reentering the workforce after years away was underreported, the ramifications of divorce, widowhood or a partner’s layoff hardly considered. It was as though at-home mothers could count on being financially supported happily ever after, as though a permanent and fully employed spouse were the new Prince Charming.
I myself witlessly contributed to the misinformation when I wrote an article about opting out for a now-defunct personal-finance magazine. Amid chirpy budgeting tips and tales of middle-class couples cheerfully scraping by, I quoted a financial advisor bluntly outlining the long-term risks. My editor wasn’t pleased. “It’s so … negative,” she said, and over the phone I could almost hear her nose wrinkling. So I, neophyte freelancer eager to accommodate well-paying client, turned in a rewrite with a more positive spin.