The Repercussions for Divorcing Women Who Have Opted Out of the Workforce

Lately, women are being encouraged to “Lean In”, which is the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s book that encourages women to take an active role in their career development. So I found it very interesting to read an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Opt-out Generation Wants Back In“. It not only spoke to me because of how confusing all of these messages can be for women, but also because as an attorney and mediator who works with divorcing couples, I’ve seen the fall-out when women who opt-out of viable careers to devote themselves to their families end up divorced.

The story, written by Judith Warner, is part longitudinal study and part confessional, covering the lives of three women over ten years who decided to “opt out” of the working world to take care of their children. With husbands who brought home mid-six figure salaries, it seemed to them like the ideal opportunity to step off the career track and choose instead to be home with their children.

But for the women in the article, betting on “perfect” did not pay off. For example:

  • A weak economy took its toll on everyone;
  • The women who wanted to return to full time jobs found it nearly impossible to find well-paying work;
  • And for one of the women, her marriage eventually ended while her children were still quite young.

 
The story of the divorced women reminded me of many of my clients. The stress of juggling two careers and the needs of children starts to take its toll on the marriage, so one of the spouses (usually the woman) decides that quitting her job and staying home with the children will reduce the stress that everyone is under. And things may get better for a while, but eventually the problems of the marriage become more evident. Perhaps it’s the financial stress of living on one income, perhaps the couple drifts further apart because they now have even less in common than they did before when both had active careers.

But when young children are involved, couples are understandably hesitant to just give up. They may be unhappy and unsatisfied, but they decide to stick it out. Until one of them just can’t anymore. And when that decision is made, it is likely that the woman is going to have to go back to work. And so begins the long, slow journey back into the workforce. It can take many months or even years for a woman who has stepped off the track to resume earning even close to the salary she was earning when she opted out.

In a case where one spouse brings in most of the income, it is not uncommon for divorce litigators to advise the non-earner of the family to stay out of the workforce as long as possible. The intent is to win more spousal support or child support by showing an income imbalance. By contrast, in mediation and collaborative law a more realistic approach is used to discuss the short and long term financial needs of the family. This cooperative climate puts neither party on the defensive and results in more honest negotiations and better long term results.

For women who have traded the boardroom for the nursery but now believe their marriage may not last forever, my advice is to get back to work as soon as possible. The longer you’re out of the workforce, the farther behind the curve you will fall when it comes to new technology or industry standards. Opting out of the workforce in order to care for children is an incredibly selfless act, but so is going back to work when one income just can’t support two households.

If you have questions about divorce mediation, collaborative law and how they can turn the tone of your divorce into a cooperative one, call me at 212-768-1115 or visit my website.

 

Andrea Vacca
570 Lexington Avenue Suite 1600 New York, NY 10022 avacca@vaccalaw.com