Careers Working With Autistic Children

I remember the first time I saw Diane Keaton’s 1987 movie, Baby Boom. It came out a few months after I had married my husband, Bill. He was in business school, and I was the primary breadwinner. I had a job working in marketing at Fidelity Investments and was struggling to support us on my modest salary. In the movie, hard-charging New York advertising executive J. C. Wiatt gets unexpectedly saddled with a relative’s baby. It doesn’t take long for her to realize she can’t “do it all” and so she ends up leaving New York City for life on an upstate farm. Eventually, J. C. finds professional success as an entrepreneur and personal fulfillment as a mother to her adopted daughter. In other words, she was the harbinger of working, pausing, and thriving.

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When I first saw that movie, I was deeply critical of J. C.’s “choice.” Ironic, I know, given my own path. But at the time all I saw was that she’d abandoned her career. And for what? A baby?! To me, her “choice” represented failure. Only now, all these years later, do I see it for what it was: an innovative career solution that brought her even greater life satisfaction and success.

I also understand it for what it revealed: a deep failure of our system, in which those with caregiving responsibilities are forced to make compromises that may solve their problems as individuals but don’t change the system for the benefit of all.

In 2004, when Professor Pamela Stone extensively interviewed fifty-four highly skilled women for her book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, it became clear their decision to abandon their careers was not a “choice” per se, but a reaction to a punishing and unrelenting work structure. Rather than view them as failures, Professor Stone saw them as pioneers whose actions reflected a “silent strike” against an unforgiving workplace. She wrote,48

They were not acquiescing to traditional gender roles by quitting, but voting with their feet against an outdated model of work …

When women quit, not wanting to burn bridges, they cited family obligations as the reason, not their dissatisfaction with work, in accordance with social expectations. Their own explanations endorsed the prevalent idea that quitting to go home is a choice .

These strategies and rhetoric, and the apparent invisibility of the choice gap, reveal how fully these high-achieving women internalized the double bind of the intensive mothering and ideal-worker models on which it rests. The downside, of course, is that they blamed themselves for failing to “have it all” rather than any actual structural constraints.

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