by Lauren Young
In her new book Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself , Amy Richards explores the tricky landscape of motherhood in the 21st Century. Richards, age 38, who is the mother of two young boys, is a well-known feminist and a leader in the Third Wave movement. She is also is the cofounder of Soapbox, a progressive speakers bureau. I recently caught up with Richards to talk about her new book, focusing on the issues affecting working parents. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q. The first chapter of your book is titled: “To Work or Not to Work Is Not the Question.” So why does the all-or-nothing approach get so much ink?
A. There are two reasons why. It’s an upper-middle class dilemma. As a society we are more focused on that demographic. We are most invested in that community—what are they doing—and base our choices on what they’ve made acceptable or not. It also masks a much deeper question: Do we want to work? The majority of us not only need to work financially. Most of us want something beyond the monotony of our homes and the joy of our children. I want to retire that question as being about that specific thing. What it is masking is the issues we have with other women. Who is a better mother? Who does society care more about? Who will my children think is a much more respectable person in society? This question has dominated because it’s masked our desire to be more competitive or confront other women. When I talk to a lot of my friends, the debate never ends, even when we have made up our minds. We each need something unique, but most of us need a combination of working and being around for our children and the household responsibilities.
Q. What options do working mothers have today? Do men have the same options?
A. We want to complain that parental leave isn’t paid, but there are a lot of employers who offer paid leave—or just leave—and there are employees who don’t take it. The problem is that we haven’t changed culture enough to start taking advantages of the options offered to us.
Whether you take six months of maternity leave or a year, I actually think it shouldn’t necessarily be right in the beginning. Yeah, maybe you want to spend the first couple of weeks at home. And maybe you can bring your baby to the office when they are so much easier and more portable. But I actually think you should take leave later on when your children are more mobile and engaged.
Q. You are an advocate of working. Why?
A. People who work definitely seem happier when they work—I say “work” very loosely.
You may not be the primary breadwinner, but if you have other responsibilities, it gives you an excuse to not be a perfect parent. If your job is to be a full-time parent and your kid is still throwing temper tantrums at age 7, there’s a lot more pressure to fix the problem. If you work, people say, ‘Oh, she works” even though it isn’t a good reason.
And assuming both partners are working, it gives you a lot more leverage to ask for help. In 1970s and 1980s women left the home for the workforce in record numbers and worked crazy hours. Then they came home and worked the second shift—that created a lot of anger.
Q. Are there any other advantages to working?
A. Another reason why people who work are happier is that the reward in the workplace comes to you personally. The measure of how good of a worker you are is more likely to come directly back to you. Women who work are afforded more moments to be told you are doing a really good job, even though you may have missed that one meeting.
The reward in parenting is displaced: It comes to you through your child. When you aren’t working, that lack of acknowledgment gets internalized.
And then there are the economics of work. Obviously stay-at-home parents have a different experience. When you are bringing an income into the family, you have some say over how it should be spent. When women cannot bring that into relationships, their decision-making is not prioritized to the extent of what the breadwinners get. There are exceptions, of course, especially if you’ve saved up money to bring economic leverage to the relationship even after you work.
Q. What surprised you the most in researching this book?
A. One of main things that surprised me is how many options already existed. I started the book and research thinking: We need flexibility in the workforce. We need mandatory paid leave. We need workplaces that respect parents. I was shocked at how many opportunities there are. I was surprised at what a great template there is to implement things I
thought were in the realm of fantasy. When you poll women with careers or middle class women, most want to exchange linear success for more of a plateau in their careers. Such as: “Rather than promoting me, how about giving me a month vacation?” We need to see that type of progress valued more.
Q. If there are so many opportunities offered to us, where does all of this parenting angst come from?
A. Women hold on to the role of parenting so tight because they are fearful of what their identity is. Will their kids go to hell and they will be blamed? Similarly, fathers are not treated with enough respect. If a guy has an individual interest in parenting, people think he is doing it to help his wife out—he’s so great because he takes his kids
on a Saturday morning to give his wife a break. We need to change our perspective on what is men’s rightful role in childrearing.
Q. How does your own husband support you?
A. Peter sells wine and teaches music to kids, and we both are home a lot. Some people look at our situation and presume it’s that way because of who I am. But Peter wants to be spending that time with his kids.
Q. How do you forge your own path as a parent?
A. Find out what your way is. We are living in an Über Baby moment. How many more stores, strollers, cribs, baby magazines, and baby TV shows can we chose from? One of the things I argue in Opting In  is that as punished as another generation felt in not having choices, this generation feels punished to have so many choices.
The hardest struggle is trying to figure out how to fight through all of that. You need to ask yourself: “What is important to me?” Some people may say: “I’m not great with kids when they are little, so I’m going to work 50 hours a week, and not feel guilty about it.” Other people may think; “The only way I can be a good worker is to work from
The best scenarios are the ones where parents are doing a little bit of everything. We all want balance. We want to work out, visit a grandmother who lives far away for a night by ourselves. We want to visit with friends, make kids laugh, check emails. People want that variety of experience.
We are in a pretty unique moment—maybe it is because of the dotcom era or the freelancing era—to finally realize that we can pick and choose a bit more. We have more room to change our minds and to find out what works for us.