Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Opting In.

New York Times writer Lisa Belkin ignited a firestorm in October 2003 with her piece "The Opt-Out Revolution [1]," about high-achieving career women who left their careers to be at-home parents. This past week, Belkin was back, touting a bookend to her controversial article. This time, in her piece entitled "After Baby, Boss Comes Calling [2]" Belkin dissected what happens when at-home moms try to opt back in to the workforce.

After weeks of media and blogosphere hullabaloo over Leslie Bennetts' assertions in her book The Feminine Mistake that women who do anything short of full-time employment once they become mothers are risking career and financial suicide, it was Belkin's turn to weigh on women and their work. In fact, the "Today Show" featured both Bennetts and Belkin - seated right next to one another - on a segment during Mother's Day weekend entitled, "Why are moms giving up careers [3]?" A few days later, Belkin appeared on "Today [4]" again, this time with author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who wrote Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women On the Road to Success, saying that while there are many obstacles faced and penalties borne by women who leave paid employment, there's a small, but fledgling "opt-in" movement.

Over the years, critics have lambasted Belkin's original "Opt-Out" article for many reasons ranging from the people on whom she focused - high achieving graduates of prestigious colleges - to not focusing enough on the fact that women are oftentimes forced out of their workplaces because their jobs and employers present work conditions that are inhospitable to work-life balances. (To be fair, her 2003 piece did explain how the women quoted in the article arrived at their decisions to leave, many of whom said their departure was a direct result of inflexible workplaces.) "Belkin gave short shrift to the potential barriers to reentry and the economic vulnerability of women who depend on husbands to support them, let alone the long-term implications of that choice," Bennetts wrote in The Feminine Mistake.

But with her new article, Belkin seems to have heard her critics' complaints loud and clear. In her May 17 Times piece entitled, "After Baby, Boss Comes Calling," Belkin did not sugar-coat the impact of stepping off the career track, but did offer optimism that women may not always pay substantial penalties for gaps in paid employment in the future, particularly when the Baby Boomers retire and employers will need skilled employees.
". . . [N]ow it is time for another phrase, 'opting back in,' a term that . . . reflects the growing acceptance by business of a nonlinear career," Belkin wrote. "It's a movement that's still in its infancy. And it is hard to separate lip-service by companies from true commitment for the moment. But should it take hold - should the stopping and starting, the ramping down and revving back up of a career become the norm - it would transform the workplace."

The key word in that excerpt? Should. Because the workplace isn't quite there yet, as Belkin, Bennetts and Get to Work author Linda Hirshman all note. Belkin pointed out that although some companies may proclaim that they offer flex-time and telecommuting, "a policy is not the same as real change. I hear regularly from workers who were all but laughed at when they tried to take advantage of a flexible program that was nothing but corporate window dressing."

However Belkin's article -- which quotes from Hewlett's book about how mothers can opt back into careers -- has an upbeat quality, highlighting a handful of companies, from investment banking firms to law firms, which are encouraging women who've taken time out from careers to rejoin the work world. Pointing to a growing niche of businesses which provide opportunities for at-home moms to sharpen their skills and network, Belkin balances her optimism over mothers' chances of successfully opting back in, with a realistic note:

"So I am too jaded to believe that this small handful of trendsetters will bring transformation overnight. They will not change the fact that too many employers still look at a resume gap as a disqualifying mark; or that women who leave and return pay an average 18 percent salary penalty compared with those who never pause . . . And I am not so jaded that I don't recognize that this is a promising, and important start."

What is promising is that this focus on mothers and their work in a realistic, non-judgmental fashion doesn't transform women into caricatures of combatants in some kind of either-or, all-or-nothing faux mommy war. If Belkin's approach - pairing an exploration of the downsides of opting-out with new ways to change a prevailing workplace culture that's hostile to families and people striving for balance - catches on imagine what could happen . . . substantive discussion, and, dare we suggest, actual, positive changes for working parents.

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