On Hold by Choice

By Lindsey Townsend

When Leslie Loughlin got off the fast track, she practically left skid marks.

The Boston mother with the MBA and chemical engineering degree used to manage 120 people as a senior project manager for a consulting firm before her children Grace, 4 and Eric, 2 were born.

Now she works three nights a week at Baby Gap for the retail discount--and the chance to get out of the house. One day when she was out hunting for baby clothes, the manager jokingly told her she was in the store so much she should work there. By the time she left, he had talked her into filling out an application. “I went home feeling a little silly because it was so far off from anything I had ever done or wanted to do,” she says. But she took the job.

Somewhat to her surprise, she now says she is “having a blast. “It’s so relaxing compared to what I used to be up against. I went from working in a world-wide company making $80,000 a year to making $8 an hour and working for managers that are young enough to be my children,” she says.

Loughlin is happy with her choice for now. It provides flexibility, freedom and time to focus on her kids. Other perks? “No business suits, no nylons, no meetings, no constantly trying to prove yourself in a male-dominated field, no traveling, no deadlines, and no clients telling you to work Christmas,” she says.

New Priorities

But the work/family dilemma that Loughlin faced is not unique. It’s a private and painful problem that millions of women struggle with every year. And while no mother would deny that her children are “priceless,” the fact remains that the economic cost of being a mother is high for working women.

The average college-educated woman pays a “mommy tax” of over $1,000,000 in lost wages over her lifetime when she decides to have a child, according to Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood (Henry Holt and Company, 2001, $15). As an example, economist Shirley Burggraf has calculated that a husband and wife who earn a combined income of $81,500 per year and who are equally capable will lose $1.35 million if they have a child: most of that lost income is wages forgone by the primary parent.

While some simply walk away, choosing to invest 100% of their energies into keeping the home fires burning, others want to work, not only for the money, but for the sense of identity, contribution and accomplishment it brings. But unlike the baby boomer women before them, this new breed of “have it all” moms have decided that they don’t want the stress of 60-hour workweeks, constant travel and little or no family time. What they want is autonomy to set their own priorities.

Many experts believe that lifestyle factors are playing a role in these changing attitudes. More people are re-examining what’s really important in the wake of 9/11, and research shows that 20- and 30-somethings place greater emphasis on priorities other than work. In a study by New York-based research group Catalyst, 86% of Generation X women said having a loving family is extremely important, while only 18% of those women said earning a great deal of money is what matters.

A major trend now is to practice the art of “sequencing”: moving in and out of paid employment and choosing a variety of flexible work arrangements in order to successfully balance work and family. According to Mothers & More, a national not-for-profit organization that supports sequencing women, hundreds of thousands of American women choose to de-emphasize their careers every year in order to emphasize family. Two-thirds of mothers are not employed full-time all year, and 25% of these women will leave the workplace early-sometimes at the peak of their careers.

To some extent, stepping in and out of the labor force has become easier to do. New opportunities abound: women can work as consultants, and technology allows women to telecommute or freelance from home. That technology also makes it easier for professionals like Randi Popp Wells, a family physician in Charleston, South Carolina to balance work and family. She works three days a week seeing patients in the office with access to an electronic medical records system at home to complete paperwork.

But the reality is, the majority of corporate America still considers the ideal worker one who can work 40, 50, or even 60 hours a week, and most organizations still don’t offer job sharing, telecommuting or other arrangements that working parents say they need. Just 24% allow employees to bring children to work in an emergency, while 5% had on-site child care, according to a 2001 study by the Society for Human Resource Management.

“We’re the only country in the world that tries to cajole employers to do the right thing for employees, and it isn’t really working,” says Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood. Crittenden says that inflexible workplaces today guarantee that many women will have to cut back on, if not quit, employment once they have children. The result? A loss of income that produces a bigger wage gap between mothers and childless women than the wage gap between young men and women. “Our workaholic culture is taking an enormous toll on mothers. We need to stop thinking of it as a personal problem. This is a broad, systemic problem,” she remarks.

A small, lucky minority are able to cut their own deal and strike the perfect balance. Julie Root, an associate partner with Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, an institutional architectural firm, in Los Angeles, was a self-professed workaholic until the birth of her daughter Millie last December. “Part-time work is rare in my field, but I decided that I would outline a proposal to give it a shot. I consulted with some women in another department where some colleagues had cut back their work hours to accommodate their families,” she remembers.

Root’s action plan proposed 20 hours a week for three to four months after her maternity leave, eventually moving up to 32 hours per week with three days in the office and 8-10 hours from home. “I told management I wasn’t interested in climbing the leadership ladder-getting a promotion-for the next few years. I was more interested in just staying in the game,” she says. “They went for it.”

So far, the new arrangement has been a success. In fact, Root received a long-coveted promotion from associate to associate partner while she was on maternity leave. “I have this gut feeling that this is going to work,” she says confidently.

Other mothers willing to give up perks and prestige in exchange for flexibility and a reduced workload can sometimes find downshifting opportunities with previous employers. Helle-May Cheney was a customer service manager for an international medical and consumer products company in Chicago before opting for a non-managerial position working 15 hours a week after her son, now 2 ½, was born. While she feels her decision was the right one, she sometimes mourns the loss of her old identity. Her salary is now a third of what it used to be, and she has also given up benefits and bonuses. “I was a manager, and now I’m an administrative assistant-and I struggle with that,” she admits. “But I decided that while the company could always replace me, (my son) Stephen would never have another mother.”

It’s not just mothers of newborns who need flexibility. Parenting is a job that requires fluidity through a child’s life, according to Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More. Sequencing is the process of moving in and out of paid employment and choosing a variety of flexible work arrangements in order to successfully balance work and family. “This idea that once your child goes to kindergarten you’ve successfully launched them is totally wrong,” Brundage says.

Many children go through difficult periods where extra supervision and emotional support is critical: the middle schooler who’s getting bullied at school; the pre-teen who wants to spend hours surfing the Internet chat rooms; the teenager who’s hanging around with new kids that are smoking and drinking.

According to Brundage, it’s time for a cultural sea change in which all companies recognize and honor the fact that employees have other, valuable work to do: raising the next generation. “There are many corporations out there now attempting to recognize family needs, but without a societal shift, they won’t be truly successful until there is greater recognition across the board,” she says.

Too many companies still have the idea that allowing flexible solutions such as job-sharing, telecommuting and part-time is an employee luxury-a perk that is expendable, she says. “But the entire society benefits when children are well-raised and well taken care of,” she says.