I want a kid in the corner office

by Esther Emery

I have a fantasy in which a moving truck pulls up to a glass-and-steel office building in Sorrento Valley, drops off a crib, a changing table, and an infant play gym and leaves with a row of potted palms. This happens not because the CEO who inhabits that particular corner office is female, but because that CEO is a parent who finds the elusive “have it all” balance between work and parenting to be something worth changing the rules for.

I was just dreaming about this while surfing BlogHer, where a podcast interview with Lisa Belkins unearthed her controversial 2003 NYT Magazine cover article, The Opt-Out Revolution, and its infamously quotable centerpiece, “Why aren’t women running the world? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.”

Belkins notes that the “revolution” part was coined by an editor writing headlines, not by the actual text of her piece, and deflects as obvious the criticism that many women can’t ‘opt out’ because they are so singularly short of options.

Obvious, indeed.  But neither BlogHer nor the Times have asked Belkin to address the lack of an “opt out” trend among women who don’t live in upper to middle class, hetero, two-parent homes.  I guess that isn’t her beat.

Five years later, Belkin is encouraging moms and dads alike to follow their hearts, and to work out an arrangement that suits their unique personalities and temperaments. She shares the personal truth that her husband would go “stir-crazy” in the house all day, while she doesn’t have any interest in putting in the corporate thirteen-hour day.  That’s why she’s the primary caregiver for their two children.  Because it just made sense.

I’m a primary caregiver, too. And the lesser wage-earner. I opted out of my fast track (ish) corporate (ish) gig a long time ago, for reasons completely unrelated to childbearing. One of the things I’m doing with my flexible work day is reading “Speaking from the Heart: Gender and the Social Meaning of Emotion.”  I borrowed it from Renee Moreno, that super cool co-owner of the Pannikin in La Jolla, who made me a cinnamon-honey latté to accompany a conversation about playwriting. Good life, hmm? Here’s an excerpt from the book:

The key to answering questions about gender is to try to understand the contexts in which gender effects show up. This means we must shift from merely describing what women and men, boys and girls do and believe, to examining those beliefs and behaviors as they operate in the ongoing social relationships within which those beliefs and behaviors have meaning.

Hello, academic speak.  I don’t know who this Stephanie Shields lady is, but I can give her at least the respect I give Belkin, so I’m gonna give this a try.

Part One: Isolate the Behavior.  What Belkin and I and the other married women in her opt-out army are doing is…drum roll please…taking care of our babies. Whether that means giving up jobs, or renegotiating them so we can work at home, or going part time, we’re going where our babies are.

Part Two: Add Context and Stir.

  1. Our babies aren’t welcome in the workplace. Generally speaking, we of the two-parent middle/upper class had babies because we wanted to. Your babies maybe aren’t quite as amazing and wonderful as mine, but they’re probably pretty close. We like them.
  2. Someone has to take care of them. There is no daycare in the world that fully replaces a parent. I know we’re not addressing single working parents right now, but if we were, we would need go no further to see how challenging it is to keep your kid well taken care of while you work. Kathy G. just quoted the poverty rate among single-parent homes at more than twice that among married couple families. (And I’m only estimating that low because her government-issue stats split by gender.) But I digress. My point is, even during the hallowed work day, parents are still parents. Ultimate responsibility for the well-being of your children doesn’t magically go away between the hours of 8am and 6pm.
  3. The men aren’t opting out. Well, come to think of it, some of them are.  But not in equal numbers. In my household, a prime reason for job assignment is that baby’s primary food source is my body. The other is that hubby makes better money than I do. I bet we’re not the only ones. In fact, run either one of those functions across our sample, and you’re going to get a gender disparity. The wage gap persists. Even if we manage to get our sample down to women who really aren’t worried about money (and I have to admit I don’t know any of those), everything about this decision triggers gender-specific socialization. My temperament could hardly be less suited to domesticity, but somehow, here I am.

My personal truth is that Nick and I are socialized into gender roles within which he experiences the most psychic distress related to being “irresponsible” by not working enough, while I experience psychic distress related to “burdening” him with the care of his own child.  I have a feeling that sort of insecurity will fall by the wayside as we mature, but right now it does affect what we do.  Nick misses Milo like crazy while he’s at work. I’m bored and lonely while I’m not. But we’re doing the best we can.

I’m thinking about this almost obsessively as I prep for a six-week contract at a company that isn’t as baby-friendly as MOXIE and New Village Arts. It’s hard to avoid psychic distress when I literally want to be two places at once: where my baby is, and where I can be a fully functional working artist. In this scenario those two places are across town from one another. I hate even thinking about it.

Personally, I don’t find a whole lot of opting involved in our opting-out. That’s why I’m aggressively dreaming of a baby-friendly workplace.

What about you?

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