10 Scariest Excerpts from “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In”

“The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” Judith Warner’s long essay for the New York Times magazine, is an instant classic in the pantheon of “As An Impossible List of Demands Pile Up Upon Them, Can Privileged American Women Achieve Satisfied Self-Actualization In a Way Almost No Human Beings Have Ever Expected To Before?” think pieces. It is thoughtful, well-reported, covers many important issues, and is also somehow darker in its evocations than any of its predecessors.This piece has everything: strife, school boards, seasonally-appropriate candy, scenes that have the emotional tenor of death traps despite being best-case life scenarios for a lot of us. Here are 10 excerpts that raised my anxiety levels to their daily high point.


“An apartment,” O’Donnel, who is 44, sometimes says bitterly, when she’s reminded of her former life with her ex-husband in their custom-built, six-bedroom home.


But money was not the primary focus of the women I spoke with — whether they needed more of it or not. Rather, what haunted many of them, as they reckoned with the past 10 years of their lives, was a more unquantifiable sense of personal change. They had been supremely self-confident when they took the “plunge into full-time motherhood”… Many even spoke of it as a unique post-feminist adventure — “Real women’s empowerment is being able to do what you want to when you want to,” Amy Cunningham Atkinson, a Yale graduate and former “60 Minutes” producer (and 2004 Lesley Stahl interviewee), told me. But now they were learning that some things were beyond even their prodigious powers of control.


She was doing it all without dropping any of her maternal duties — not school pickup, not homework, not dinner, not party planning, not even those photo books for the grandparents. She had a housekeeper now for the heavy cleaning. But she still pushed herself to provide the special little touches at home, like making sure her kitchen counter always had a bowl of “seasonably appropriate” candy — even if that candy, to her great annoyance, was now perpetually buried under a pile of unsorted junk.


“I think a big issue is that we both want to be taken care of at the end of the day, and neither of us has any energy to take care of the other,” Carrie said. “It’s the proverbial ‘meet me at the door with a martini and slippers.’ Don’t we all want that? A clean house and someone at the door? I think when I wasn’t working I had some guilt that that wasn’t me, but now I want to be that other person. . . . When you’re absolutely exhausted, it’s hard to be emotionally generous.”


Many of Stone’s high-earning husbands came, over time, to want their wives to stay home. “This round, I’m hearing more, ‘My husband really prefers that I be home,’ ” Stone said… Many of the women I spoke with were troubled by the gender-role traditionalism that crept into their marriages once they gave up work, transforming them from being their husbands’ intellectual equals into the one member of their partnership uniquely endowed with gifts for laundry or cooking and cleaning; a junior member of the household, who sometimes had to “negotiate” with her husband to get money for child care.


Friends and family were surprised: as an upper-middle-class African-American woman, didn’t she have an obligation to climb the career ladder? She countered that being able to stay home was another stage in the evolution of the American dream in which each generation does better than its predecessor. Didn’t she have a responsibility to her children to be as devoted to the emotional work of keeping a family thriving as the well-off white mothers in town?


Ted’s expectations were formed by his own mother, a stay-at-home mom in an age in which the identity had no such title, whose “whole goal her entire life,” he said, “was to make sure her boys had a clean house, clean clothes and were well fed.” Given this, it seemed natural to him that Kuae, as a self-proclaimed stay-at-home mother, might want to try putting some more time into their home. Into things like “the shuttling of kids, the picking up the house, the laundry, the shopping.” Even, he ventured further, “balancing checkbooks, cleaning, setting up the home Wi-Fi, fixing an appliance or whatever.”


He continued: “Being the kind of person I am, Type A, wound, always going after something, I wonder what I could have done, having 12 years to sort of think about what I want to do. I sometimes think, Wow, I could have been an astronaut in 12 years, or I could have been something different that I’d really enjoy and that I never was afforded the financial opportunity or the time or the resources to enjoy. Maybe call it jealousy. Maybe envy. What could I have been in 12 years of self-discovery? I’ll go out on a limb and say: ‘I’d like to try it. It looks pretty good to me.’ ”


It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some husbands find themselves eyeing their wives’ lives at home with envy. “Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” Ted Mattox told me. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.”


Arise didn’t have the prestige of NBC. And the pay was probably about half what Kuae, who would be doing her job from home, would have been earning had she stayed on her former, high-profile, pre-motherhood track. As a freelancer, paid a day rate, she didn’t have benefits. And there were no formal guarantees as to the number of days she would work each year. Nonetheless, she was ecstatic… But last month, Kuae’s show was put on “indefinite hiatus.” The businessman financing the network was going through a cash crunch and “deep cuts” were announced. Kuae e-mailed me to say that after just six weeks, she found herself out of a job. She was, she said, “back to Square 1.”


Photo credit World Bank Photo Collection/flickr