Motherhood and Work
Family North Carolina MagazineNov/Dec 2007
by Alysse ElHage
After struggling for several years to balance her responsibilities as a mother with her high-stress job, Lisa Rider left a lucrative career as a mortgage loan officer to be a full-time mother to her three sons. Jenifer Carnes worked for several years after college but quit when her first daughter was born to fulfill a lifelong goal to be a stay-at-home mom. Sarah Thompson has job flexibility at the property management company where she works that allows her to be the primary caretaker of her two pre-school aged children.
All three women are college educated, with more freedom and opportunity than their mothers or grandmothers enjoyed, and they are part of an increasing number of married women in America to emphasize family over career. Although they are nothing like the typical 1950s housewives, their “family-first, career second” approach to motherhood and work has feminists up in arms.
Consider the following recent examples of how feminists characterize the choices some women make about work and family:
In The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much, Leslie Bennetts calls stay-at-home motherhood a “willfully retrograde choice,” which breeds economic dependency on men, and puts women and children at risk. Bennettsa married mother of two who works for Vanity Fairlaments the fact that “women continue to buy into a mythology that . . . consigns them to living what amounts to half a life.” She urges married women with children to go back to work before their husbands abandon them, die or lose their jobs.1
Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, asks: “If they [highly educated, elite women] choose to step away from their careers in which they have made huge investments of time and energy, what does it say to younger women? What does it say to the prestigious schools where they have been educated and trained? What message does it send to top drawer firms that hire them?”2
Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, authors of The Mommy Myth, denounce what they call the “new momism,” which “insinuates that, when all is said and done, the enlightened mother chooses to stay home with the kids.”3
A Growing Trend?
What troubles these feminists is that a significant number of well-educated women in the 21st century are choosing to temporarily leave or downsize their careers to give more of themselves to their children.
A 2005 survey of 2,500 “highly qualified” women by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Harvard Business Review found that 37 percent voluntarily leave their careers temporarily often because of childcare responsibilities or to care for their aging parents.4
In September 2005, the New York Times reported that about 60 percent of the 138 freshman and senior female students interviewed at Yale University said they expected to cut back on work or stop working altogether once they had children. Of these women, half said they planned to work part-time, and about half said they wanted to quit working for a few years.5
Nationally, the number of working married mothers with young children has leveled off in recent years. According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation of married mothers with preschool aged children dropped about four percent since its peak in the late nineties, with 60 percent of married mothers working in 2005. Among married mothers of infants, the labor force participation rate dropped from 59.2 in 1997 to 53.3 percent in 2000, with no clear trend since.6 Although the majority of married mothers are still in the labor force (24 percent work part-time7), the report states that the “labor force participation rates of married mothers with young children has stopped its advance.”8
North Carolina. The Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey shows that among married women with infants (i.e., women who had a birth in the past 12 months) in North Carolina, 45,339 (or 56.3 percent) are in the labor force, while 35,208 (or 43.7 percent) are not.9
What Mothers Want
When working mothers are asked, most say that full-time work away from their children is not their ideal job choice. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, six out of 10 working mothers said that part-time work is their ideal, while another 19 percent said they would not prefer to work at all outside the home.10
A survey of 1,000 working mothers by CareerBuilder.com found that most are missing quality time with their children. About 30 percent of working moms said they spend less than three hours per day with their kids, and 23 percent said they missed three or more significant events in their child’s life in the last year. In addition, 44 percent said they would be willing to take a pay cut if it meant more time with their kids.11
Lisa Ridera mother of three boys from Cary, N.C. made the choice to step off the career track for full-time motherhood. A graduate of Vanderbilt University, she had a successful career as a mortgage loan officer for a large North Carolina bank and was earning a six figure annual income. She says she never intended to leave her job to be a full-time mom. “I can remember my first son being one-year-old, and I was pregnant with my second,” Lisa says. “I would come home, eat with my husband and son, and return to the office to do paperwork until midnight. This continued on and off even after my second son was born.”
Although her husband’s aunt served as a loving nanny to her two young sons, Lisa felt guilty about being away from her children and anxious over her job performance at the same time. “I can vividly remember crying so hard because I just couldn’t handle the pressure,” she says. “I wasn’t as good of a mom as I wanted to be because of my job, and yet, I somehow felt I wasn’t doing my job as well as possible because of my responsibilities as a mom.”
Lisa began working out of her home, and then later switched to a part-time job, but she was still up late at night working and was always tired. When she got pregnant with her third son, she knew something had to change. “I knew in my heart that I no longer wanted to work. My older sons were now in fourth and second grade, and I was worn out. I felt like someone else had raised my first two children, and I wanted the chance to raise one of my own!” Lisa explains. “I never saw first steps, or heard first words, or experienced all the wonderfully hilarious things toddlers do in the course of a day, and I wanted to.”12
Motherhood As Career
While some women choose to leave the workforce after trying to balance motherhood and career obligations, others leave for more traditional reasons. Jenifer Carnes of Winterville, N.C., was raised by a stay-at-home mother and always dreamed of following in her footsteps. Although she has a business degree and worked for several years in banking and office administration, she quit working when her eldest daughter was born.
“Nobody can instill the ways of the Lord into their children like a mother can,” she says. “Motherhood is the highest calling from God on any woman.”
Because her husband does not receive health benefits through his job as a youth minister, a large part of their income goes toward health insurance for their family. Like many stay-at-home mothers, Jenifer finds creative ways to bring in extra income, such as baby-sitting a little girl for about 20 hours a week in her home.
For Jenifer, the sacrifices she makes to be at home with her kids are well worth it. “I don’t want to miss a moment of their childhood,” she says of her choice. “You blink, and they are in school every day for 12 years…You can always go back to your career, but your first priority is to raise your children.”13
Arranging Career Around Family
Not every mother has the option or the desire to leave their career to stay at home with their children. In addition to divorced or widowed mothers, many married mothers must continue working full or part time outside the home for financial reasons, while others simply enjoy what they do. Regardless of why they work, many women today are finding ways to arrange their work schedule around their families so they can do both.
Sarah Thompson of Wake Forest, N.C, works full-time for a property management company in Raleigh, but most of her work is accomplished at home. The mother of a three-year old boy and a 16-month old daughter, Sarah is part of the growing number of women to work for companies that offer flexible schedules (including work from home) to their employees.
According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 26 percent of working mothers have flexible schedules, up from 14 percent in 1991.14 A 2005 survey of national employers by the Families and Work Life Institute found that 31 percent allow some of their employees to work at home or outside the office on a regular basis.15
When Sarah was pregnant with her son, she approached her employers with a proposal that would allow her to work about 17 hours in the office and the rest of the time from home. They agreed. “My boss (and his wife, who is part owner of the company) knew I did not want to put my children in full-time daycare, nor could we afford it,” Sarah explains. “It was helpful that they had already been through the stage I was in and had brought their kids to work, and worked from home as well.”
Her children attend preschool for a few hours in the morning two days a week, and Sarah’s mother keeps them for one afternoon. The rest of the time, Sarah and her husbandwho works for the Stateare able to arrange their schedules so that one of them is at home with the kids. “I wanted the children as close to me, their Dad and a family member as possible,” she says of her choice to negotiate a flexible work schedule. “I couldn’t bear the thought of them going to day care 40-plus hours a week.”16
Too High a Price?
Although Lisa, Jenifer and Sarah have all made different choices regarding motherhood and work, the one thing they have in common is the decision to put their children’s needs ahead of their careers. With more married mothers making similar choices, critics have raised questions about the long-term career costs to women. For example, a 2005 study by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that, on average, women who leave the work force lose 18 percent of their earning power when they return. In addition, Hewlett found that women who try to reenter the work force after opting out for several years have a difficult time obtaining jobs.17
Lisa concedes that her choice to be a stay-at-home mom would probably be a disadvantage if she were to return to her career, but she does not regret her decision to leave the workforce. “If I returned to mortgage banking, I would have to start all over at the bottom. But that is not why I would not go back,” she says. “I love being a mom. I like getting up early with my high school sophomore and making him a good breakfast to start his day. I like riding bikes to school with my second grader. I like being the first one they see when they get home from school.”18
A Woman’s Choice
Women in the 21st century enjoy more freedom and opportunity than previous generations, with more women in the labor forceincluding in management and professional occupationsand more women holding bachelors and advanced degrees. Little girls can grow up to be virtually anything they want, including stay-at-home moms. The fact that highly educated women are choosing to make the full time care of their children their first priority, by either leaving the work force or finding family-friendly employment, is something to celebrate, not fear. Feminists told women they could “have it all,” so why shouldn’t that include the choice to mother their children, a job that requires a woman to be a nurse, psychologist, economist, nutritionist, teacher, sleep specialist and peacekeeper all in the course of one day? Mothers like Lisa, Sarah and Jenifer who choose to make financial and/or career sacrifices in order to raise their children deserve praise and support. For these mothers, and millions like them, the precious time spent with their childrenparticularly while they are youngis well worth any impact their choices may have on their careers.
Alysse ElHage is a senior research fellow with the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
1. Bennetts, Leslie, “Prologue,” The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, Hyperion, 2007, accessed at: www.EveryWomansVoice.com.
2. Stone, Pamela, Opting Out: Why Women Really Leave Careers and Head Home, University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007, pg. 15.
3. Douglas, Susan and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, Free Press, 2004, pg. 23.
4. Center for Work-Life Policy, “Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Women on the Road to Success,” Press Release, February 28, 2005.
5. Story, Louise “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2005.
6. Cohany, Sharon R. and Emy Sok, “Trends in labor force participation of married mothers of infants,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor, February 2007.
7. Cited in: Pew Research Center, “Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-time Work: From 1997-2007,” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends Project, July 2007, pg. 4.
9. U.S. Census Bureau, “Women 18 to 50 years Old Who Had A Birth in the Past 12 Months By Marital Status and Labor Force Status: North Carolina,” 2006 American Community Survey.
10. Pew Research Center, “Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-time Work: From 1997-2007,” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends Project, July 2007.
11. Delany, Mary, “How to Keep Sane as a Working Mom,” CNN.com, 2007, CareerBuilder.com survey.
12. Lisa Rider in email correspondence with Alysse ElHage, Sept. 30, 2007.
13. Jenifer Carnes. Interview with Alysse ElHage, Oct. 2, 2007.
14. Palmer, Kimberly. “The New Mommy Track,” U.S. News and World Report, 8/26/07.
15. Families and Work Institute, 2005 National Study of Employers, pg. 7.
16. Sarah Thompson email correspondence with Alysse ElHage Oct. 4, 2007.
17. Op. Cit., Center for Work-Force Policy, pg. 2.
18 Op. Cit., Rider interview with author.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.