WSJ–Data Prove “Opting Out” Becoming a Work/Life Balance Strategy with Potentially Negative Financial Consequences

Is There Another Way? Yes! But We Don’t Hear About It Until Now…

Sue Shellenbarger’s terrific article in today’s Wall Street Journal offers sobering proof that one of my fears is coming true: “Opting out” is becoming a work/life balance management strategy that is no longer limited to high-income mothers. It is trickling down to mothers in lower earning brackets, and the result may have potentially negative long-term financial ramifications on their families.

I am all for each of us making work+life choices based on our unique circumstances. However, I’m concerned that too often those choices are not being made using 21st Century thinking or facts, and instead are being guided by outdated approaches. It’s this mismatch between the outdated and often inaccurate way we, as a culture, still think about how to manage work+life and today’s realities that is causing many of us to make choices that may not be optimal given our specific set of circumstances. That includes our personal financial reality.

How could we change some of these outdated and inaccurate way of thinking and optimize our individual work+life decision-making? Here are some examples drawn from the article:

“Opting Out” was never intended to be a work+life strategy, it was only supposed to be a commentary on a trend. I am still not sure how it happened, but somehow a term coined by Lisa Belkin of the New York Times to describe how a group of highly-educated women from Princeton dropped out of the workforce morphed into a “model” for how all mothers should handle the transition to motherhood.

Over the past three years since the “Opting Out” article was published, I’ve increasingly heard women of child-bearing age say, “I’m developing my opting-out strategy.” And often these would be women who didn’t even have children yet! My response is always the same. “Why? Instead, be creative. Look at all of the countless ways to combine work and life and find that “fit” based on your realities because….

It is not “all or nothing”—This is one of the most entrenched holdover 20th Century work+life beliefs that is no longer true. Parenthood is a big transition (along with eldercare and retirement); however, it is one we all get to plan for. Whether it’s nine months of pregnancy or completing an application for adoption, we usually know its coming. So that gives us ample time to give strategic thought to how we are going to handle it.

The truth is that there are countless creative ways to find your unique “fit”. One of these new models is called “Shared Care” developed by the Third Path Institute where mothers and fathers share caregiving in a way that allows them both to work and care for their child (or elder).

If you are ready to stop working, there is no better time to present a plan for a different work+life fit because it is much easier to get a reduced schedule when you are already working then when you try to get back into the workforce—Three of the reasons cited in the article for mothers choosing to “opt out” included: lack of extended maternity leave, lack of flexible return to work options, and switching to a more family-friendly career.

Here’s a question: Did they ask if they could extend their leave? Did they present a plan for a flexible return to work? Did they just assume their career wouldn’t be family friendly without first trying to make it work? I would venture a guess to say they didn’t say anything, because most of us don’t. Why? In part because we are afraid—afraid of “no,” afraid it will hurt our career, etc. But if you are ready to leave (which by the way doesn’t help your career), why not ask for workplace flexibility? The worst thing that can happen is “no.” Then you do what you were going to do anyway. But there’s a good chance the answer will be “yes.” But you won’t know if you don’t ask.

Brain research was never intended to prove that all moms should stay home full-time with their children. I worked at Families and Work Institute when Ellen Galinsky convened one of the most comprehensive childhood brain research studies ever conducted. The intention was to better understand how the human brain develops to create the highest quality care models both from parents and professional caregivers.

Never, not once, did the findings say that for optimal brain development mothers must stay home full-time in the first year. The findings found the parental care is very important and beyond a certain point time away from parents is not optimal, and that quality child care is important. However, we seem to have culturally interpreted those finding through the old traditional “all or nothing” lens which says, “If parental care is important all mom’s should not work.” No, that’s not it.

If you are a mother in a family that relies on your income, reducing your schedule and leaving your child in the care of a qualified person is not going to harm your child’s brain development. In fact, if you’re a mother that has to work full-time you aren’t necessarily harming them either. Brain research found it was a combination of many things all working together, some being more optimal than others. Not all or nothing.

Which brings us to quality child care, a subject that could have a dedicated blog of its own,, but I will only say this: Just as there are low quality care environments, there are also plenty of high-quality care providers. However, child care does cost money (too much money for most people, but that’s a different subject). The role child care costs play in the way we have historically calculated the cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to work is part of the problem; therefore, we need….

A New “To Work or Not to Work” Math Formula—Because the old formula doesn’t adequately account for the “softer” less easily measured costs of dropping out of the workforce that would offset the direct costs of care. I blogged about this subject on 2/13/06 (excerpt below):

If you reduce your schedule, you are going to make less money. How much less money will depend upon how much of a work reduction you are making. For many mothers with a reduced schedule an evaluation of your financial reality according to the traditional formula will look bleak.

The calculation based on the money you spend (e.g. child care, clothing, commuting, etc), versus the hard dollars you make, will result in a breakeven or loss.
Even if you like your job, a hard dollar breakeven or loss can make it hard to justify working, when you also like being with your kids. For some, the decision will be to stay home because they want to. But for those moms (and dads) who still aren’t sure, here’s new way to think about it—the New Work+Life “Fit” Formula. This new formula incorporates part of the Career Qualitative Value formula developed by Mike Haubrich, the same financial planner mentioned above. It includes some of the less obvious, less quantifiable, but equally valuable factors into the “work or not to work” decision-making process:

New Work+Life “Fit” Formula: Inputs-Outputs
• Salary
• Benefits (est. value per year)
• Value of Career Knowledge Retained or Gained (est. value per year)*
• Value of Work/Community Connections Retained or Gained (est. value per year)*
• Value of Work-Related Experience/Maturity/Wisdom Retained or Gained (est. value per year)*

Outputs – Direct Costs Associated with Working
• Child Care
• Commuting
• Taxes
• Drycleaning
*Not included in traditional formula

By including these less concrete, yet important factors into the traditional hard dollar equation, those on the fence redefine their financial success beyond the hard dollar. People can feel good about making less money, breaking even, or even losing money for a period of time, if it allows them to have the work+life fit they need today. If you or someone you know is on the fence deciding whether “to work or not to work” after having a child, share this formula with them. It will expand their decision-making beyond the hard dollars, and value the factors too often overlooked

Bottom line:
Again, let me restate, if staying home full-time to care for your children is what you want to do and your personal circumstances support that decision, great. However, there are countless other work+life fit solutions that wouldn’t require completely “opting out” and that might be more optimal given your unique circumstances. This is especially true for those with financial realities where leaving the workforce causes financial hardship.

We need use 21st Century facts and beliefs for creating the “fit” that works for all of us.