By Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Issue 117, March – April 2003
For a long time it was assumed that professional success, power, and full-time motherhood were mutually exclusive, and women who took time out of their careers to parent were seen as leaving professional life forever. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. For the first time in 25 years, a growing number of women are choosing to take time out of the workforce to care for their children. The proportion of working mothers who also had infant children declined from a record high of 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2000 – the first significant decline since the Census Bureau began publishing this statistic, in 1976.1 According to a recent Census Bureau paper, “Older mothers (age 30 – 34) and more educated women are increasingly likely to not work after their first child’s birth.”2
Another new trend, known as “sequencing,” follows closely. Mothers and More, a national organization with over 170 local chapters, defines sequencing mothers as those who have “altered their career paths in order to care for their children at home.” Author Arlene Rossen Cardozo is widely credited with coining the term after she noticed that some women were “having it all, but not all at once” — spending years at work, then at home, then back at work again. Sequencing is gaining attention as more women choose to move in and out of professional careers to parent full-time. More than one in four female MBA graduates have had employment gaps, primarily to care for young children, says a recent study released by the nonprofit group Catalyst.3 And when women who are not mothers are factored out of the study results, the actual rate of sequencing professional mothers approaches 50 percent.
For those in the trenches of full-time motherhood, there are many inspirational success stories about women jumping back into careers after spending time at home. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government — was a full-time mom with three daughters who didn’t get started in her paid professional career until she was 39 years old. Our first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was also a stay-at-home mom with three young sons.
“The success of Former Secretary Albright and Justice O’Connor just goes to show that being a parent isn’t an either/or choice. Sequencing in and out of the paid workforce is not only possible, but possible at very high levels,” says Joanne Brundage, Executive Director of Mothers and More.
Mary Bond, a former Microsoft employee and mother of two, is getting ready to re-enter the workforce after seven years spent raising her children. Although she has some concerns about going back to paid work, she’s generally confident. “I’ve been successful in a variety of different occupations in my career,” Bond says. “Staying home is just one of many occupations I’ll have in my lifetime — although it’s probably the most important one.” She isn’t alone: In a country where the average person holds nine jobs between the ages of 18 and 34, people are no longer tied to just one job.4 The occupation of full-time parent is making a comeback as one of many jobs held in a lifetime.
“Things have changed in recent years,” Brundage observes. “Back in the 1980s, when a woman left a paid occupation to take care of children, she was seen as ‘retired’ for life. Now many women expect to sequence in and out of paid labor.” More women are taking time away from paid employment or working in unconventional settings, telecommuting, working part-time, or job-sharing in order to spend time with children. How did these modern heroines do it? What did it take for Madeline Albright to rise to the top after taking time out to parent? “I was never sure I’d have an opportunity to have a career because expectations were different in the late 1950s,” says Albright. “Basically, I was at home, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. A lot of people thought I was an odd duck, because most people at that stage were at home full-time with children. To that extent, it is kind of upside-down from where mothers are today.”
As family structure and occupation choices get more complicated, parents are finding unique, individual ways to spend time with their children. “Each person has individual approaches,” notes Albright. “For instance, I have three daughters . . . who have each done very different things.” Two of Albright’s daughters are lawyers; the third is a banker. All have children, and each has different work and family arrangements. One started a law firm with another woman in order to have flexible time, another works full-time and travels, and the third took maternity leave and now has a flexible schedule.
Former Secretary Albright comments on the new complexities of family with obvious pride in her daughters’ abilities to juggle work and parenting: “What’s happening on the other side [of marriages], and I see this with my sons-in-law, is that they spend more time with their children than their fathers did.” According to a recent study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, parents, both working and nonworking, in two-parent households actually spend more time with their children now than they did 20 years ago.5 It’s often difficult to navigate the emotional and financial complexities of parenting. Former Secretary Albright says, “For every woman, guilt is her middle name. I don’t think women who spend their time with children should be made to feel guilty for ‘not using their brain,’ and I don’t think women who work full-time should be made to feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children.”
To make matters worse, sequencing in and out of the workforce isn’t easy. The stereotype of full-time mothers “not using their brains” doesn’t just hurt feelings; it hurts wallets. Women who take time out to stay at home incur serious penalties that impact future career advancement. Mothers re-entering the paid workforce earn 10 percent lower wages than women with similar educational backgrounds and experience, according to research done by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University.6
Our economic system devalues unpaid work by calling it “leisure,” says Nancy Folbre, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Invisible Heart. Former Secretary Albright agrees that there’s a long way to go in recognizing full-time parenting as work. She maintains that being a full-time parent contributes to the nation’s productivity “because you’re involved in the most important thing in the world, which is raising your children.”
A new and vocal movement is starting to address the problems faced by parents who sequence in and out of the workforce to spend time with children. Ann Crittenden, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of The Price of Motherhood, is one of the women leading the charge. In 2002, Crittenden joined forces with authors Naomi Wolf and Barbara Seaman, the National Association of Mothers Centers, and other grassroots women’s organizations to launch Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS), a group that advocates improving the economic security of people who do caring work.
Crittenden suggests that while women have made significant gains in equality, mothers have been left behind. She finds that choosing to stay home with children has lasting financial consequences due to lost wages, unequal pay when re-entering the workforce, disparities in divorce law, and lost contributions to Social Security. “It’s partly because people in positions of power have no idea how complex, subtle, and highly skilled the job of full-time parent is,” says Crittenden. “People tend to think of it as babysitting, and that’s only because they have never done it. If they had stayed home with children, they would know better.” She adds, “Perhaps Former Secretary Albright’s and Justice O’Connor’s experiences as full-time parents actually increased their effectiveness.”
Justice O’Connor addressed this issue in a speech at the National Cathedral School in October 2000:
[M]y sense is that as women continue to take on a full role in the professions, learning from those professional experiences, as from their experiences as homemakers, the virtues derived from both kinds of learning will meld. The “different voices” will teach each other. I myself have been thankful for the opportunity to experience a rich and fulfilling career as well as a close and supportive family life. I know the lessons I have learned in each have aided me in the other. As a result, I can revel both in the growth of my granddaughter and in the legal subtleties of the Free Exercise Clause.7
Asked which experiences with young children prepared her to be the US Secretary of State, Albright answers, “Getting people to play well together!” She continues, “Some things are similar to children arguing and feeling that they can’t understand the other person’s side. You really would stop kids and say, ‘Try to figure out why the other person cares so much about that toy.’ So a lot of it is â€¦ basic respect for the other person.” Albright also mentions multitasking as a skill that can’t be avoided as a parent. “This is an ability that comes from having one eye on the child while you try to talk to the plumber and worry about something else at the same time. It’s definitely a skill that comes from dealing with nurturing and managing.” This formidable and accomplished woman gives this respectful assessment of the occupation of full-time motherhood: “Being at home, you’re a manager; that’s what you are.”
Albright isn’t alone in viewing the occupation of full-time parenting as a valuable occupation. Shifts in public attitude can be seen in polling data over the past decade. In a 1988 poll commissioned by Parenting Magazine, 73 percent of people said that they would prefer to keep working full-time instead of staying home as full-time homemakers.8 This is in sharp contrast to a 2001 poll done by Gallup/CNN/USA Today, in which only 13 percent said that the ideal situation is for both parents to work full-time.9
“The question that intrigues me is: How do you do the resume?” Former Secretary Albright points out that when women stay home with children, they are often left with large time gaps on their resumes; she suggests that we need new ways to include unpaid work on professional resumes: “What I did for the years that I didn’t have a paying job was list all the volunteer organizations.” (Former Secretary Albright was very involved in volunteer organizations, and served as chair of her school board and chief fundraiser for former US Senator Edmund Muskie.) “There ought to be some kind of a volunteer rating system so, for example, if you are a member of the school board, it is rated as a three, and if you are chair of the school board it is a ten.” A uniform rating system, she suggests, would allow volunteer positions to be accurately listed on professional resumes. Albright says that including the occupation of full-time parenting on professional resumes of successful women could go a long way toward challenging negative stereotypes and possibly even help curb the economic penalties mothers face when re-entering the workforce. If she herself were to write a resume today, she says, she would probably include parenting.
Former Secretary Albright has this advice for women navigating the very personal decisions of balancing work and family: “The thing that I have always argued is that we should have a choice. The best answer is for women to do what they want to do and be treated with respect, no matter what.”
1. US Census Bureau, Facts and Features: Women’s History Month, CB02-FF.03, February 19, 2002 .
2. Barbara Downs and Kristin Smith , US Census Bureau, “Maternity Leave Among First-Time Mothers.” Paper for the Annual Meetings of the Population Association of America , Washington , DC , March 29-31, 2001 .
3. Catalyst, the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan , and the University of Michigan Business School , “Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity ,” May 2000.
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among Younger Baby Boomers: Results from More Than Two Decades of a Longitudinal Survey Summary,” April 25, 2000 .
5. John Sandberg and Sandra Hofferth, “Children’s Mean Time with Parents in Two-Parent Families by Year,” University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study, released May 9, 2001.
6. Jane Waldfogel, “Understanding the ‘Family Gap’ in Pay for Women with Children,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12, no. 1 (1998): 137-156.
7. Sandra Day O’Connor, speech at the National Cathedral School, Washington, DC, October 13, 2000 . Excerpted with the permission of Justice O’Connor.
8. January 1988 poll commissioned by Parenting Magazine. Data provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut , Storrs .
9. May 2001 poll conducted by Gallup/CNN/USA Today.
Other quotations in this article were taken from the following telephone interviews conducted by the author: Madeleine Albright, April 5, 2001 ; Joanne Brundage, May 2, 2001 ; Ann Crittenden, March 31, 2001 ; Nancy Folbre, March 29, 2001 ; Jane Waldfogel, April 4, 2001 .
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Books and Articles
Byman, Jeremy. Madam Secretary: The Story of Madeleine Albright . Morgan Reynolds, 1997.
Cardozo, Arlene Rossen. Sequencing: A New Solution for Women Who Want Marriage, Career, and Family . New York : Collier Books, 1986.
Cooper, Matthew, and Melinda Liu. “Bright Light.” Newsweek , February 10, 1997 .
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued . Owl Books, 2002.
Dobbs, Michael. Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Owl Books, 2000.
Folbre, Nancy. The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. New Press, 2001.
Gabor, Andrea. Einsteinâ€Ts Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women. Penguin Books, 1996.
Gordon, Linda. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. Free Press, 1994.
Organizations Catalyst, 120 Wall Street, Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10005; 212-514-7600; www.catalystwomen.org . Catalyst is a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance woman in business.
Mothers and More, PO Box 31, Elmhurst, IL 60126; 630-941-3553; www.mothersoughttohaveequalrights.com . MOTHERS promotes the economic, social, and political worth and importance of family, child, and dependent care.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner lives in the Northwest with her husband, Bill, their children, Connor and Anna, and their dog, Cowboy. She writes frequently about motherhood, public policy, health, and new feminism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Bust Magazine, Brain Child, Mothering, and Hip Mama.
Photo by Kathryn Langsford.