Opt-Out, Lean In… Two Sides of the Same Coin

By: Cindy Chang Mahlberg

A decade ago, The New York Times Magazine coined the idea of The Opt-Out Revolution to describe the phenomenon of highly-educated career women who opted-out of the workforce to focus on raising their children. Last week, the magazine published another feature story entitled The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, revisiting some of the previously featured women and highlighting not-so-fairytale endings of divorce and work-force reentries to less prestigious and lower-paying positions. Through the stories of various women, the article delves into the ramifications of opting-out, including personal struggles with identity and sense of self-worth, marital dynamics that shifted from professional parity to gender-role traditionalism, and cumulative financial loss. While none of the women expressed desire to return to their pre-opting out jobs, even amongst the women who successfully navigated opting out with marriages in tact, healthy family lives, and meaningful work outside the home (whether paid or on a volunteer basis), there were inevitably disappointments and tradeoffs such as less quality time with their spouses.

Last spring, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg released her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which encourages women to pursue their ambitions and to overcome internal barriers that hold women back. At its core, her message hopes to inspire women to “lean in” and rise to positions of power and influence on the premise that more women in power and leadership will be good for both the individual woman and for society as a whole.

Whether opting-out or leaning in, both paths run the risk of leading to disappointment and disillusionment. A career woman who turns away from career to focus on her family can easily pin all of her hope and identity into her roles as wife and mother, leading to feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. A career woman who lasers in on her career can easily attach her entire identity and sense of self-worth into her professional outcomes and successes. Spouse, family, career…all of these are good things, morally neutral, if you will. However, when we hold on tightly to any of these things or even the totality of these things, they become ultimate things and they will ultimately disappoint.

So, whether we choose to opt out, opt in, lean in, or strive to “have it all,” the question is, what is the object of our affection?  What guides and motivates our choices, decisions, and actions? If it is ultimately the thing itself (i.e., spouse, family, career, etc.), what happens when things do not go as planned or expected? How can we bounce back? By looking beyond ourselves, past our own grit and determination, we may see that opting out and leaning in are simply paths rather than destinations.  In doing so, we may also discover what we are truly capable of and how to actually live that reality.

Cindy Chang Mahlberg is the Co-Founder of Women in the Mix, a venture dedicated to creating and delivering content that inspires, empowers, and equips women to thrive when combining work, family, and life.