And Career Makes Three

Mothers don't have to opt out. And they don't have to feel guilty about it, either.

The Feminine Mistake

By Leslie Bennetts
Voice/Hyperion, April 2007
320 pp., $30

In the ongoing war between stay-at-home moms and their working sisters, professional women defying the retro-trendy "opt out" movement have lately been taking it on the chin. Fighting back, Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts launches a missile into the heavily defended bunker of today's strident homebodies with her passionately argued The Feminine Mistake.

Her thesis, which lards recent research on women and work with dozens of stories from blindsided women, is as clear as a dinner bell: Far from doing their kids a service by staying home, women who leave the workforce are gambling their future, and that of their children's, by putting all of their chits on the prospect of a husband's lifelong support. A lot can go wrong with that fairy tale, Bennetts argues. The villain isn't just divorce (now at about 20%, even for college-educated women). Death, illness, and job loss are also lurking. Then there's the fact that careers now routinely span four decades, while one's hard-core child-rearing years generally last about 15 years—a "temp job" in the words of one pundit. Getting back in the game is a feat that even well-credentialed women are finding tougher than anticipated.

Bennetts is blunt about the dire consequences of not controlling your own income. The typical woman's 401(k) balance is 40% lower than a man's, and according to a 2005 White House conference on aging, more than 30 million of America's 40 million boomer women will not be able to afford to retire.

The book's most refreshing observation, though, may be the simplest: Engaging in meaningful work is as important to a woman as it is to a man. Guilt-ridden over missing the soccer game, too many women end up saying, "I work because I have to," as a way to deflect criticism. Bad move, says Bennetts. Not only is it half true and a negative message to send to their daughters, but it denies women the pleasure of owning one of the most important parts of life. "There's a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction in being good at something (besides parenting)," says one female cosmetics executive. "If you miss that, you really miss a big part of life."

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