December 20, 2008

To Opt

I went on a job interview.

OK, so not a paying job.  An internship.  Two days a week.  And I couldn’t have been more delighted when I learned I’d gotten the spot.

After five and a half years of — now, how shall I say this? — Unemployment?  Staying at home with the kids? — I stick my toe into a formal work environment again.

I notice three things about my hesitation as I waffle over how to describe the last five and a half years.  One starts with a negative.  (UN.  As in UNhappy.  UNfulfilled.  UNpaid.)  The other sounds like a positive decision but comes off as if it were a really fun fakey vacation to a theme park.  (You know.  You’ve just gotten off the Whizzmatron and are standing by a large metal trash can, holding your hair back — and also the hair of several small children who have just drunk blue Slurpees — as everyone retches from the effects of Zero G, and someone asks to ride again,  and you think, “Why not?”) The last is a simple declarative sentence. (I stick.  Manly, no?)  The truth is in there.  Somewhere.

Even as I walked into the interview, I had these grammatical and internal complexities on my mind.  I’ve been mulling them over since second grade (I’ll save that one for another posting).  I got more serious in graduate school, when, pregnant with triplets, I prepared for an oral exam on the history of American women and work.  I found it difficult to maintain a stance of scholarly disinterest as I checked articles and books off my long list.  I’d be wrapping my head around the cultural and political factors that had shaped American women’s lives over the centuries when one fetus or another would deliver a swift kick.  The most important lessons I took away from this reading were: 1) When America goes to war and most men join in the fight, women work and get paid to do anything and everything that theretofore had been considered unladylike and off-limits,  2) When the economy shrinks, men — traditionally white men — get the pickins’, and 3) drink gallons of water when carrying higher order multiples — it reduces the blood concentration of the hormone that causes contractions. 

I gave birth and began raising children in a period of extraordinary economic expansion. Though I watched CNN reporters live from Iraq as I gestated, for me, my family, and those I knew, we were not “at war.”  Jobs were plentiful.  Money was plentiful.  And in my life, children were plentiful.  I left gainful employ for what I believed – and still believe — good reasons.  I had absolutely no idea when or how I would make my way back to a place where I would be going on a job interview.

Some of what I’ve needed to do in the last five and a half years has been downright head-bangingly impossible.  Much has been plain old fun.  Never have I needed reminding that it’s been a privilege or that it is because I am privileged that I’ve been “at home.”

When I read Lisa Belkin’s farewell column in an October Style section of The New York Times and found her declaring ownership of the phrase “opting out” and the “revolution” it inspired, I had a grammatical hiccup akin to the one I experienced writing the beginning of this post. I remembered the article  Belkin wrote for the Times Magazine called “The Opt Out Revolution.” In it, she described women very much like me: married mothers with advanced degrees and promising careers who “opted out” of the job market to “stay at home with the kids.”  Her descriptions weren’t always flattering. Women used to running organizations and managing large staffs were putting their PDAs and Filofaxes to work overscheduling and micromanaging their children.  They channeled their ambitions into their offspring, morphing from accomplished fast-trackers into aggressive stage mothers.  Belkin’s use of “opting out” bugged me.  To “opt out” put a premium on the work place.  It cast women’s decisions in terms of a negative — what we/they weren’t doing, rather than what we/they were.

The verb “opt” comes from “option.”  An option is a choice.  Choices often come only to those who have possibilities.  I wish there were a word, a grammatical phrase, that could simultaneously honor and complicate “opting in.”   I don’t imagine anyone putting a lot of energy into this phrase-mongering any time soon.  I come back to those oral exams.  We’re in a time of economic contraction. Options are evaporating.  I worry that even with advances in discrimination law, we will fall back into sexist habits.  Will women have fewer choices as employers hire young male college grads to fill empty positions?   Will women be “staying home with the kids” because they have to — there won’t be jobs, and they won’t have day care?

In January, as I zip myself into business casual two days a week, I’ll still be thinking about what it means “to opt.”  And I’ll be hoping that you will help coin a new phrase, something better than “opting out.”  Send me ideas via “comments,” please.