Will younger generations learn to heed such cautionary tales? Not unless more women speak out to tell them why and show them how.
The prize, in the end, is incalculable: the chance to live the fullest possible life, to become our own most complete and authentic selves as well as to protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of fortune. In the history of the world, no females have ever enjoyed a greater range of opportunities than do American women today. Most of the barriers to realizing those possibilities are self-imposed—the products of an anachronistic myth that encourages female dependency while obscuring its price.
Fortified by a strong sense of their options and entitlements, many of today's young mothers see their decision to give up paid work and stay home with their families as a positive choice that reflects their values—one that should therefore be respected. But the real issues involved here can no longer be assessed in terms of such familiar catchwords as "choice" or "values" or "respect."
It has become inescapably clear that choosing economic dependency as a lifestyle is the classic feminine mistake. No matter what the reasons, justifications, or circumstances, it's simply too risky to count on anyone else to support you over the long haul. In an era of disappearing pensions, threats to Social Security, high divorce rates, a volatile labor market, and attenuating life spans, the social safety net continues to erode even as the needs grow—particularly for women, who are twice as likely as men to slide below the poverty line in their later years.
Choosing dependency can therefore jeopardize any woman's future—and that of her children. No matter what one's politics, this much is indisputable. But the ultimate toll of this willfully retrograde choice is even greater than the financial vulnerability it entails. Just as the Victorians sent men out into the public realm to earn a living while confining women to the private domain of the home, today's culture continues to promulgate a modern version of the female "cult of domesticity." Women are still presumed to find true fulfillment by limiting themselves to the care of their families rather than exploring their own intellectual, creative, financial, and political potential in the larger world.