Opt-Out Moms and Special Needs Kids

A recent New York Times Magazine story addressed what had happened to “opt-out moms,” the women who, a decade or so ago, left high-paying jobs to stay home with their kids.  As author Judith Warner relates, many have gone back into the workforce, most in lower-paying jobs in less high-powered fields than the ones they left. Many of their marriages have changed as well — some have divorced while others have changed from more or less egalitarian partnerships to more traditional arrangements, with moms more responsible for the hearth and dads more responsible for the bank account.

Understanding the stories of highly privileged moms is important because their stories are sometimes thought to express the cultural norms of what parenthood should be about. Warner is careful to warn her readers away from that path by demonstrating how unusual these moms are. First, they occupy a small niche in American society – the upper middle class of highly educated and well-connected women whose equally high-powered husbands were earning enough to maintain their upper middle class lifestyle without the wife’s earnings. Women earning less money and women raising children alone rarely have the option to stop trying to make a living, even if they can’t always do it. Warner makes a second important distinction. These women dove into daily parenthood in with an intensity reflective of a norm that many professionals and ordinary Americans now think is a bit over the top. And third, many of these women enjoy such high social and professional status that, when they decided to return to paid work, their path was smooth.

But there is a fourth distinction that Warner missed, which is about the children. Children differ from one another in how much caregiving they need every day. I’m not talking about whether a child benefits from intensive parenting. I’m talking about children whose health and safety, access to education and medical care, and even capacity to speak and move depends on some adult or adults being there for him or her.

Opt-out moms and many moms with special needs children are both alike and different. They may share a commitment to intensive parenting, for example. Both may have experienced a full or partial unplanned exit from paid labor. Their marriages may exhibit a more traditionally gendered dynamic than other marriages.

Differences are just as striking. Unlike the opt-out moms, many mothers of children with special health care needs do not use the word “choice” to describe the changes in their caregiving responsibilities and employment. They describe themselves as having to do what the child needs.  Their financial losses can be extreme but law and social practices provide few remedies. The fragility of their marriages and other family social relationships can be unusually great. And their opportunities to return to work similar to what they left are highly constrained by the ongoing care needs of their children, not to mention discrimination against parents with unusual cargiving responsibilities.

Take, for example, the case of Keith, who contracted polio when he receiving the vaccine as a toddler. His pediatrician advised his parents that “constant home physical therapy” was needed, so Keith’s mother left her job as a tax attorney to care for him. She lost $173,000 in earnings over the next few years, a loss that is not recoverable under the Vaccine Act. [Riley v. Secretary of Dept. of Health and Human Services, Not Reported in Cl.Ct., 1991 WL 123583 (Cl.Ct.)]. Or consider Justin, whose schooling was interrupted repeatedly by behavior problems connected with his attention deficit disorder. His mother left her job, a management position then paying $50,000 a year, so that she could spend more time working with the school to manage his problems and, when that failed, schooling him at home. Keith’s father successfully moved to attribute income to Keith’s mother in their litigation over child support, which meant she had to go back to work to make up the child support gap, or try to raise Keith in a home with far fewer dollars. [Dunlap v. Fiorenza, 738 A.2d 312 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1999).]

It is vitally important to be aware of differences among parents, just as we see Judith Warner arguing in her article. It seems to me also vitally important to take into account differences among kids. Just like moms and dads, they are not all the same. When their differences make a difference to their folks, their moms and dads might want us to take note.

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3 Responses

  1. anon reader says:

    In the two examples you gave (polio and ADHD kid), our financial policies have nothing to do with how opt-out moms or specialness of the kids. In the vaccine cases, we’ve made a decision not to cover certain losses to make vaccines cheaper and more accessible. Paying for caregiving at a tax attorney rate is simply the expense that we as a society cannot afford. As to the ADHD kid — the issue is not what the society wants to pay for, but what the kid’s father wants to pay for. The father thinks that a kid can be taken care of by lower-paid employees and is not willing to shell out the equivalent of his ex wife’s foregone earnings for the difference. Maybe he is right. Maybe the marginal improvement in the kid’s life is not big enough to justify that expense, and the mom just wants to milk her ex to the max. We don’t know. The point is, I am failing to see how these cases are unique to special-needs kids, as opposed to any other case of undercompensated losses from immunizations or former spouses inflating their losses (or reducing their earning capacity) to get a larger portion of family money.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “while others have changed from more or less egalitarian partnerships to more traditional arrangements, with moms more responsible for the hearth and dads more responsible for the bank account.”

    Who could have seen that coming? Mom leaves a high paying job to take care of the kids, and dad ends up being the one who earns the money. Why, you would almost suspect that leaving a high paying job effected your income, or something!

    Seriously, though, why relate ending up in a more traditional marriage as though it were a surprising development, rather than just being another way of describing what the woman has chosen?

  3. Sykes Five says:

    Because in many cases the husband and wife underestimated the extent to which having the wife leave the workforce and focus on managing the household and raising the kids, even in a “professional” or high-productivity way, would turn their egalitarian partnership into the “traditional marriage” they thought they did not have. It was subjectively surprising even if wise observers like Brett Bellmore could have seen it coming.