JTA: Is Opting Out A Cop Out?

At a recent kids-included party in Jerusalem, I spent much of the time either on the floor with my daughter Mari or trailing her around to make sure she didn’t eat anything toxic. A successful American journalist living here chatted with me for a few minutes, and as I left her to intercept my daughter before she reached a stairwell, she told me, “Don’t worry. They get older. You get your dignity back.”

Funny, I didn’t even have any spit-up on my clothes. But her words tapped into the part of me that feels inadequate.

It occurred to me that being a stay-at-home mom was perhaps not the best strategy for an insecure woman. And now that Mari, who recently turned 2, had just started a half-day preschool program, I started to wonder how I came to “opt out”?

Beyond the “lean-in” versus “opt out” debate are a million women with an infinite number of nuanced variables that contribute to the big decision.

If I were following the trend of those around me, I’d have gone back to work. In Israel, women receive 14 weeks of maternity leave and are entitled to take off another 12 without pay. At my neighborhood park in Jerusalem, I was one of just two mothers who came every day with her baby. The other babies and toddlers were with full-time nannies or their saftas — some had taken early retirement to care for their grandchildren.

But even though I’m living in this “working gal” environment, I was raised in a different one within a Jewish community on Long Island, where the women in the 1970s and ’80s opted out long before the phrase ever evoked the hot-button issue of work-family balance. It’s just what women did, with some, including my mother, returning to work when the youngest child started a full day of school.

Sometimes I wonder if the social mores of my childhood have influenced me and my decision, even if I’ve left behind most of the other values.

Another consideration that guided me away from the workplace was the state of the work to which I’d be returning (a topic that’s often not mentioned in the debate). I was a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker whose biggest project lost funding midway through production, though I managed to finish it. I also wrote fiction in my spare time.

Journalism, documentaries and fiction: I give you the trifecta of hopeless endeavors in these declining days of old media.

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