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CIOS - A Hierarchy of Family: A Family Communication Response to The Opt-Out Revolution
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


M. Chad McBride
Creighton University

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of family communication for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, I argue a hierarchy of family is present by exploring (a) the construction of motherhood, (b) the (re)framing of choice vs. responsibility of motherhood, (c) the limited construction of fatherhood, and (d) the hierarchy of good “family.”

Most women in the “Opt-Out Revolution” cite family or children as the driving force behind their decision to opt out of the workforce; therefore, it is only logical to do an analysis of “family” in this discourse. When approaching the texts of Belkin’s article and the forum postings, I asked myself general questions, such as: What does this discourse say about what it means to be family?   How is family “done” or enacted?   Who or what makes family?   By using these general guiding questions to start my thematic analysis, four broad categories emerged. In the following sections, I discuss: (a) the construction of motherhood, (b) the (re)framing of choice vs. responsibility of motherhood, (c) the limited construction of fatherhood, and (d) the hierarchy of good “family.”

The Construction of Motherhood

In the discourse surrounding the opt-out revolution, there were some competing constructions of what it meant to “mother” or be a mother, including the role of nurturer, the idealized 1950’s housewife, and the super-mom. Johnston and Swanson (2003) argued motherhood is often constructed as natural in the media, and of no surprise, this discourse highlighted the same theme. For example, as Belkin (2003) wrote, women are biologically “female/mother/caregiver” noting other species where this is true (p. 47). Women should be interested in “family” rather than “climbing a [corporate] power structure” (p. 47). Even women posting to the forum who had self-identified as career climbers reverted back into their “natural” role of nurturer once they had children. For example, anoukstein wrote she was “ambitious and tough and didn’t think I would have children. Now I have a 3 year old and my ambition seems to have vanished….I never thought I would feel this way. I just want to spend time with my son” ( #78-10/24/03). One of Belkin’s (2003) interviewees, who had a developed legal career before motherhood, furthers in the article:

This is what I was meant to do. I hate to say that because it sounds like I could have skipped college. But I mean this is what I was meant to do at this time. I know that’s very un- p.c., but I like life’s rhythms when I’m nurturing a child. (p. 5)

The rhythms associated with nurturing a child highlight this sense that women are innately nurturers and, therefore, should fulfill this natural part of themselves by having children and embracing motherhood. Not only is this role natural, but it is irreplaceable. One poster to the forum critiqued a father who suggested that his MBA wife not waste her degree. She wrote:

Does he think that paying an economically exploited stranger to cover these responsibilities will be sufficient? That having his child spend 60, 70, 80% of his or her conscious and formative life in the presence of nonfamily paid caretakers will be just fine? Has it occurred to him that he may need to step up to the plate himself if he so generously doesn’t want his wife to waste her degree or professional potential? Whose ambition will include the family? ( jacjcp , #91-10/25/03)

The answer to her question is obviously the mother. Women are not only constructed as the nurturers and caretakers, but as the only ones capable of doing so. These women feed into the myth and expectation that women, if financially able, should stay home with children at least until school age (e.g., Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Wolf, 2003). Additionally, women’s ambition should be familial, not professional. In this example, we start to see how family is constructed around the role of mother. Mothers are not only an irreplaceable part of the family but are indeed what make families.

The construction of motherhood in this discourse, however, was not solely centered on the innate nurturing role of mother. Interestingly, mothers were also constructed using language reminiscent of 1950’s housewife iconography. While Coontz (2000/1992) argued “people who romanticize the 1950s, or any model of the traditional family, are usually put in an uncomfortable position when they attempt to gain popular support” due to the “legitimacy of women’s rights” (p. 40), women here do not seem to encounter much resistance when recalling this imagery. They emphasize how mothers are members of the Junior League and can teach you “how to can [vegetables]” ( jeniferlewis , #45-10/24/03). Repeatedly, a mother’s ability to cook was highlighted and valued. One mother stood out in the group because she was “the best cook of the [play] group,” (Belkin, 2003, p. 47) and another reported having a nice balance to life with her “30 hour work week, active in [her] kids’ school, book club (!), even a home-cooked meal (or cookies!) now and then” ( ericawax, #7-10/24/03). While this mom did not totally opt-out of the corporate work force, she limited her hours to still manage to not just provide a home cooked meal but also bake the requisite cookies. Of course, these mothers did not fully live up to the mythicized 1950’s goddess; they did not parade around the house in their best dresses and heels, meet the other neighborhood ladies for bridge, or pride themselves solely on their husbands’ jobs. No, these women adapted this idealized notion of what it meant to be a mother. Now, these women still bake cookies and teach us how to can food, but they also participate in play groups and have cell phones with Internet access. Rather than joining for coffee at a neighbor’s house, they meet at the local Starbucks in their Lycra gym clothes.

Of course, not all mothers lived up to this idealized notion of motherhood, and this discrepancy proved to be a bone of contention on the online forum. Women talked about wanting or needing to work professionally, and women who did work outside of the home had a higher standard of motherhood than throwbacks to 1950s motherhood. Their new construction of motherhood highlighted the stereotype of “super-mom.” For example, abarnett922 wrote:

Instead of focusing on these pampered and privileged women who can tap into a bottomless pit of choices, Belkin could have focused on the rest of us who are no less educated, but who undertake the yeoman task of juggling work and motherhood…I’ll reserve my esteem for the working mother who still manages to make it to the soccer game, help with the homework, cook dinner, and finish the proposal by midnight. (#12-10/24/03)

These women privileged the mother who could do it all—maintain her career and still cook dinner, be involved in her children’s activities, and, of course, nurture. While some messages challenged the portrayals of nurturer and 1950s icon, this depiction of the super-mom also pressures mothers in a different way to perform in the second shift (Hochschild & Machung, 1989).

(Re)Framing of Choice vs. Responsibility of Motherhood

Another major theme in this discourse involved the framing of choice vs. responsibility involved in how to mother. As part of the second wave feminist movement, people fought for women to have choices in order to escape the “problem that had no name,” highlighted in Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). The women who opted-out of the professional work world defended themselves by noting they were fulfilling the second wave feminist ideals by exercising their earned right to choose their life path, specifically that of how to “mother.” Women would talk about how it is “nice to have choices” ( ericawax, #7-10/24/03). Another said she now has “the option = privilege to leave my job…or put my child in high quality day care” ( fahra, #97-10/24/03). Over and over, these women credited their ability to choose to be a stay-at-home mother with the women who came before them, noting how it was a privilege to do so.

This discourse surrounding this discussion of the privilege of choice also highlights women who could not choose to opt-out, mostly due to financial strain (see also Simpson & Kirby, 2006 [direct link to article]). Even the women who opted-out of the professional work force recognized that some women could not have this choice to stay home. Even these women who had no choice but to work, however, still had the responsibilities associated with the construction of motherhood, and some posters to the forum question the necessity of work for those mothers who did work outside the home. For example, cuanpier wrote:

I will not be a working mother if I have any choice. The working moms I know…are stressed beyond belief—and so are their kids. I grew up in Europe and cannot help but notice that Americans have less time for family. If you are working in order to have a second car, to provide your kids with an SAT tutor, piano lessons, designer clothes and an address in the “best” school district, then you have a lot more choice than you think. (#34-10/24/03)

Again, mothers are framed as the cornerstone of “family” and, therefore, have responsibility for the quality of their family life. Over and over, mothers reported staying home because they witnessed their working friends struggle to do it all, noting how families and children suffered. cuanpier’s posting also questioned the necessity of working mothers. If mothers have to work to put food on the table, this work is excused. If, however, mothers work for luxury items such as tutors, piano lessons, and designer clothes, they are not fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers.

In sum, an interesting framing and reframing of choice vs. responsibility associated with motherhood emerged in this discourse. Women who opted-out excused their behavior as not taking a step back for feminists by highlighting their choice in doing so. As women from a feminist generation, they had the ability to choose their life paths, and they chose to be full-time mothers. This choice, however, is only socially constructed because taking care of the children, and ultimately the family, is the responsibility of mothers, whether they work at home or in the professional world. Therefore, these women simply chose their pre-constructed responsibility. In other words, the women who opted-out did not make a choice to do so; they simply were fulfilling their natural responsibility. Further, women who chose to enter the professional work world were questioned, scrutinized, and reframed as being selfish or harming their family and children, highlighting that the only real, “natural” choice for women to make was to stay home with their children.

The Construction of Fatherhood

Not surprisingly, the construction of fatherhood in this discourse was much more limited. This limited representation of fatherhood, however, also highlights the value placed on fathers as a non-integral component of family. Griswold (1997) noted the emphasis on the provider role increased in the mid-20 th century due to increased materialism, but other scholars have argued that the perception of fatherhood as provider is shifting to one of nurturer (e.g., Gavanas, 2004; Morman & Floyd, 2002). However, in the few times fathers were referenced in this discourse, the 1950s representation of fatherhood was also emphasized. Simply stated, fathers are providers. margotsinger noted that “there are simply plenty of qualified men to carry the load (and earn the big bucks)” (#11-10/24/03). This role of provider came along with added pressure (presumably to support the Starbucks coffee, books for the book club, and Lycra gym outfits). As cde203 wrote, “ While I am sure most of these men appreciate that their children are being cared for by their mothers rather than nannies, I…wonder how many of them feel added pressure to succeed…to maintain that Starbucks lifestyle on only one income” (#96-10/25/03).

While fatherhood was equated with the pressure to provide, never in this discourse did being a father have anything to do with having a relationship with children. Again, fathers are only a necessary part of the family insofar as they provide the financial support to sustain it. Fathers do not need to have real familial relationships, or in some cases, fathers are not capable of having these relationships especially if the relationship involved anything other than financial support. As juanitasherpa shared in a forum posting:

A father in our neighborhood tried to be the one to “stay home with the kids” because his wife’s salary was higher. After a year or so, he would tell anyone who would listen that he was going crazy. He went back to work part-time for a low salary just to get out of it, and he made no bones about the reason. The children were sent to day care. (#63-10/24/03)

While researchers have found that men are capable of caretaking (e.g., Risman, 1998), this example highlights and reinforces the myth that not only are men not necessary in the actual rearing of children, they are also not capable.

Hierarchy of Family

Finally, within this text, a hierarchy of family also emerged. Through this discourse, people constructed what did and did not count as “family.” As part of a more politically correct world, however, other family forms were also highlighted in the discourse, but a hierarchy with the “ideal” family was privileged and all others were presented as sub-standard. Four major family types emerged in the discourse and were hierarchically arranged. Burke (1969) argued that hierarchy is inevitable, as humans make sense of things by ordering them, but in doing so, hierarchy also creates a “‘naturalness of grades [and] rhetorically reinforces the protection of privilege” (p. 141). In creating a hierarchy of families in this discourse, the types of family at the top of the hierarchy are thereby privileged over others.

First, the most privileged and “ideal” family situation involves a husband who provided enough financially for his wife to stay at home to nurture their children. As highlighted in the framing of choice vs. responsibility and the construction of mother/fatherhood, mothers alone are responsible for the quality of their family, and if a mother has a choice between working professionally or staying home to raise her children, she should choose to stay home. Therefore, this family type, for those who can do it, is privileged. “It’s about a generation of people saying that family does matter as much, maybe more, than a job” (boffo3, #72-10/24/03). If family is important and valued, then a mother’s responsibility is to stay home with her children to ensure their nurturance as well as the sanctity of the institution of family, again harkening back to the 1950s nostalgic vision of suburban utopia (e.g., Coontz, 2000/1992).

In the discourse, posters also acknowledged this ideal was not always attainable. They recognized many women did not have the “privilege” to stay at home because they had to contribute to the family’s finances. As Wahl, McBride, and Schrodt (2005) suggested in their analysis of online adoption, to be a “good family” one needed to own a home and be middle class. The posters acknowledged that some mothers needed to work outside of the home to maintain this lifestyle and be a “good family.” Therefore, the second family type in the hierarchy included a mother and father who were dual career earners. These families, however, were constructed as sub-standard. Having privilege, by nature, constructs one as having higher status. Therefore, the women (and families) who could not afford this privilege are inherently lower on the hierarchical ladder. One mother wrote, “I stayed at home with my children until they went to first grade because it was best for them” (kaysmith0, #35-10/24/03). Staying home with children is “best” and those who do not have the choice to do so are not “best.”

Similar to this family type was another where the mother did not have the privilege to stay at home. The third family type on the hierarchy of families included single mothers raising children. Like married mothers who did not have the choice to stay at home, single mothers had to work to provide the finances and manage the “real” responsibilities of motherhood on the side. As one person who critiqued Belkin’s (2003) article on the forum said, “ Well, we know that all those frou-frou Sunday Magazine ads on the pages around and between Belkin’s piece aren’t targeted at single moms from the outer-boroughs and the Great Unwashed beyond. Hers is a feel-good piece for the Muffy set” ( bucklandrum, #24-10/24/03). bucklandrum thus noted the privileged stay-at-home audience as different than single moms. Inherently, different does not mean “less than” but within the discourse this hierarchy was highlighted. As cliberante wrote, “Ironically, my marriage is giving me freedom to choose, where my singledom until nearly 31 did not” (#22-10/24/03). Again, the privilege of choice places single mothers lower in the hierarchy. By having a husband, she now had more options and could ultimately fulfill her innate responsibility of motherhood.

Even lower than single mothers in the hierarchy of what is “family” are married couples without children or childless single people. Again, women are constructed as biologically responsible for motherhood, and those who do not mother are not fulfilling their natural responsibilities, making them “less than.” In both dual-career and single mother families, people argued for corporations to create family friendly policies to support the needs of the family. Primarily, these policies were constructed to help women, rather than men, fulfill their motherhood responsibilities. Those posting to the board who did not have children, however, critiqued these policies. For example, boffo3 complained:

Everybody talks about balance and quality family time as if it is only for people who have CHILDREN. I am thankful that a large, influential demographic is getting big business to notice that traditional work arrangements are incompatible with a “life”; but [why] aren’t [other groups] getting any press. (#72-10/24/03)

By constructing family policies which only include families with children, couples or individuals without children then become “not” family. The few people within these family forms who posted were often bitter because of this family hierarchy. As sfilimon wrote:

When mothers and fathers took time off for family reasons (whether a few months for maternity or paternity leave, or a few hours for a soccer game), my “childless” colleagues and I had to make up the work. Now—this is much more the fault of my employers than it is the parents with whom I worked, I realize. But it was this “extra” work which created and made me resent 60-hour weeks—work that I didn’t otherwise have. These experiences convinced me of a couple of things, namely that the definition of “family” is far too narrow and means “parents with young children” (and never applies to “adults who have an elderly parent living with them”), and that many office policies are “family friendly” to the point that they’re downright UNfriendly to everyone else. (#74-10/24/03)

sfilimon went on to discuss feeling “slighted when a female colleague got pregnant, and then—suddenly—‘earned’ a complete home office set-up and a 36 hour work week from home, all without reduced pay or benefits!” While these policies did support family responsibilities, they were limited to people with children, framing all others without children as not being family.

Creating family-friendly policies is not inherently problematic, but it does add to a structured hierarchy of what counts as family. Further, in organizing and creating hierarchy, we also create bureaucracy (Burke, 1984) and set up a structure that not only places particular families at the top but also systemically and systematically privileges them. With all of the discourse surrounding the opt-out revolution, family is constructed in a very specific way. Further, even all families with children are not equal. As discussed, “mother” equals “family,” and mothers are responsible for the raising and quality of their children. Therefore, mothers who are able to make this their primary responsibility create the ideal family at the top of the hierarchy with all other types falling short. It is important to note, however, that this discourse also privileges heterosexual marriage. Those who are not married, heterosexually coupled, or are in gay/lesbian relationships fall in the bottom of the hierarchy of family, if they can even be considered to have or “be” family at all. While this discourse is often framed as being family-centered and interested in familial well-being, like the construction of mother/fatherhood, it more often reifies old standards of what counts as family; sets of a hierarchy of what a good family, mother, and father should be; and limits alternative forms of each.


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