Pamela Stone
University of California Press, 2007

Reviewed by Kimberly Clum, Ph.D.

On the recent cover of a best-selling U.S. women’s interest magazine, a headline queried: “Too busy to live?” Inside the magazine, the headline linked to a series of articles offering (as always, invariably “new”) tips promising to render various aspects of daily living less stressful and less burdensome by instructing the reader on how to become more efficient, more organized, less cluttered, and less overwhelmed. Addressing such dilemmas has become a ubiquitous feature of American women’s interest magazines; proffering the Holy Grail of “simple” solutions that will allow the reader to better manage her time, energy, effort, and attention.

The on-going and apparently profitable appeal of such offerings is importantly connected to the contemporary realities of American women’s lives. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the traditional depiction of an American woman as a stay-at-home mother and/or wife (who, if she entered the formal labor market, at all, retreated from it during her child-raising years) appeared archaic and outmoded. By 2004, more than 70% of all American women who had children still at home were in the formal labor market (Boushey 2005). Today, the “typical” American woman combines motherhood and family life with paid work. That it is commonsensical to a female readership that this combination poses dilemmas and conflicts that make her time, energy, and attention immeasurably overtaxed resources speaks to the core of sociologist Pamela Stone’s argument in her new book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.

Stone enters into what has become a densely populated landscape of popular and scholarly literature on “work and family” issues through a novel angle. Rather than explore the experiences of current working mothers, she focuses on the relatively small, but significant percentage of “high-achieving professional” (180) women who have left successful and promising careers to become stay-at-home mothers. These women had been fully immersed in the balancing act that characterizes the modern American woman’s life, juggling highly demanding professional jobs with motherhood, when they “opted out” of their well-established careers to devote themselves to full-time child-raising. Stone finds that the women frame their departures from their careers as a “choice,” a choice they made as a result of coming to realize the irreplaceable value of their full-time parenting to their children. At the crux of Stone’s analysis is her examination of the degree to which this decision was really the fully agentive choice that, almost without exception, the women frame it as having been.

Stone’s investigation into these issues is based on qualitative interviews with 54, primarily white woman from across the U.S. While she characterizes all of the women as having been among a professional “elite,” she sampled to cover a range of occupations from more traditionally male professions to traditionally female ones (e.g., financial analysts to teachers). Stone argues that the experiences of this rather elite (and white) group of women are critical for a number of reasons. Perhaps most significantly, these women had access to the very resources research suggests are most critical in managing the dual responsibilities of work and family. They could afford quality child-care and pay for housecleaning services, as well as other forms of employment “supports” (14). In addition, employed in the kinds of jobs and within the kinds of workplaces that, ostensibly, are the most “family-friendly” (allowing workers significant autonomy in arranging their work schedules and tasks and providing generous leave policies), these women had access to the flexible work arrangements considered key to managing potential conflicts between home and work. As Stone puts it, if these women “cannot combine work and family successfully, who can?” (14) What does these women’s retreat from professional careers suggest about women’s “overall progress toward parity with men” in the labor market (14)? Do these elite women’s “abandonment” of their professional careers and return to the traditional role of homemaker and stay-at-home mom signal the embrace of a new, neo-traditionalism – a retrenchment of the gains of the feminist revolution?

Stone’s answers to these questions provide a fascinating and compelling window into the gulf that exists between American ideals of gender equality and the stubbornly persistent ways in which “home” remains a feminized domain and “work,” a masculinized one. In myriad ways, Stone’s analysis of these women’s experiences reveal how deeply gendered care labor still is in American society – gendered as women’s responsibility – and how fully workplaces and jobs still are organized around an implicitly male ideal worker, one unfettered by responsibility for the primary care of others. Stone convincingly shows that rather than the outcome of a freely determined choice, these women are “pushed” out of their jobs and into full-timing mothering roles as a result of inflexible aspects of their jobs, the demands of intensive mothering expectations (the dominant cultural ideals informing contemporary American motherhood), and their husbands’ equally demanding career orientations. The truly novel contribution of Stone’s analysis is in her ability to show how the seemingly egalitarian surfaces of these women’s marriages and the seemingly “family friendly” surfaces of their workplaces mask the deep structure of gender ideologies that wind up virtually over-determining these women being “pulled” into full-time motherhood.

Stone’s book is exceptionally clearly and engagingly written and very well organized. Although published by an academic press, the book seems targeted towards a broader audience, one including policy-makers as well as the general public. This targeting means that Stone’s discussion of her study design and research methods are placed in an appendix (a decision that seems an increasingly popular strategy to maintain a book’s academic credentials while appealing to a popular audience). In addition, and disappointingly, Stone’s more theoretically sophisticated arguments (and there is much material here that could be the basis of even more theoretical exposition than what Stone already elaborates) are relegated to endnotes. While this may enhance the accessibility of her text, the richness of the analytic material in the endnotes could have deepened her discussion without compromising its readability.

The book is an illuminating and important read for any scholar interested in work-family issues in the United States, especially for those interested in influencing public policies and/or encouraging employers to be more responsive to the realities of workers’ non-work lives. It would certainly be appropriate for an undergraduate audience. Its lack of engagement with more theoretical literature may be frustrating to a graduate student audience. Yet, even for the more theoretically-minded, to ignore the significance of Stone’s incisive and suggestive observations about the gendered, cultural expectations regarding professional careers and parenting in the United States would be a shame.

Boushey, Heather (2005) Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth. Briefing paper. Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C.

Kim Clum received her Ph.D. from the Joint Program in Social Work and Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on gender, labor, the social reproduction of inequalities, and anthropological analyses of U.S. public policies. Her dissertation explores the social experience of immobility among a group of single mothers working as nursing assistants at a facility in Michigan. This research suggests that contemporary low-wage workplaces in the United States are key sites for investigating how the social and economic tensions engendered by the wages and occupational immobility of low-wage jobs are managed by both employers and workers and, through this management, depoliticized. 

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