As a young career woman, Elizabeth Drew Scholl could not imagine a life without paid work. Armed with a master's degree, she landed a plum job, managing a $50 million capital campaign for one of Chicago's top cultural institutions, the Lincoln Park Zoo.
"I was extremely career-oriented," Mrs. Scholl recalls. She even timed her first pregnancy so it would not conflict with the project's completion.
But before her daughter was born, she received an unhappy surprise: Her employer gave new mothers only a six-week disability leave.
"Babies don't even lift their heads up at six weeks on their own," Scholl says, indignation still rising in her voice at the thought of such a short leave. "I couldn't imagine going back and leaving her with a complete stranger."
When her boss denied a request for part-time work, she decided to resign.
"This was truly the hardest decision I've ever made," says Scholl, now of Highlands Ranch, Colo. "But I came to the realization that these jobs are going to be there when I go back to work."
That decision to stay home with a baby for at least a year is becoming more common. A Census Bureau report last month shows that 55 percent of women with infants under a year old were in the workforce in June 2000, down from 59 percent in 1998. This represents the first decline in 25 years. The drop is primarily among women who are white, married, over 30, and educated.
Authors of the census report speculate that as more women delay childbearing until their 30s and 40s, they are building nest eggs that allow them to take more time off. The robust economy that prevailed until recently also offered more options if they returned.
Many of these women, like Scholl, never expected to put "former" in front of their titles. She echoes the comments of other mothers when she describes the adjustment as "very difficult" at first.
"I was going from preparing million-dollar proposals to reading Dr. Seuss books," she says.
There is also the challenge of that classic dinner-party question: What do you do? As Scholl explains, "Saying I'm a stay-at-home mom is far less interesting than saying that I'm the manager of a $50 million capital campaign." She and her husband now have three daughters, ranging in age from 4 1/2 years to 2 months.
Among mothers in the key years for career advancement, between 25 and 44, 1 in 4 is home full time, according to Joan Williams, director of the Program on Gender, Work, and Family at American University Law School in Washington. For mothers in this group who are employed, 2 out of 3 work less than a 40-hour week. Only 8 percent work more than 50 hours.
Not just 'privileged' women
"There is still a very high level of family care in the United States," Williams says. "The homemaker is alive and well in America."
She refutes the popular impression that only "privileged" women stay home. In reality, she says, the lower on a socioeconomic scale the mother is, the more likely she is to be at home full time and the less likely she is to work full time.
Whatever a mother's economic status, homemaking remains underappreciated. "Your value to society seems to be plummeting when you're not doing what you were doing in the workplace," Scholl says.
Emphasizing the value of at-home parents is one goal of two growing national organizations, Mothers at Home, in Fairfax, Va., and the 8,000-member Mothers & More, based in Naperville, Ill. Web sites and newsletters also offer support and a forum for discussions, including options for working at home.
Noting that some mothers have always had a desire to be home, Susan DeRitis, a spokeswoman for Mothers at Home, says: "Now, women are taking control of their lives and saying, 'This is where I want to be.' They're not letting society or media dictate to them what they should be doing as far as raising their kids." She also sees more fathers at home.
More than 300 at-home mothers gathered in Schaumburg, Ill., northwest of Chicago, for the first national conference of Mothers & More. The dominant issue, organizers say, centered on the contribution women's unpaid labor makes to the economy and to society.
No good middle ground
"We feel strongly that our culture should place a higher value on the unpaid work that women do, primarily in raising the next generation to be good and productive citizens," says spokeswoman Catherine Carbone-Rogers.
The group also seeks to increase awareness of the economic penalties women incur in raising children. These include not only lost wages, Social Security, and pensions, but also diminished career possibilities. More than 70 percent of members say they will return to work eventually. Another 22 percent are uncertain. Seven percent intend to stay home permanently.
Kristin Maschka, of Pasadena, Calif., who attended the Mothers & More conference, heard many members voice frustration over their lack of choices. "Most of them are very committed to doing what's right for their kids," she says. "But they find themselves constrained by society in terms of the number of options they have."
Other women say they are pleased to see an end to much of the media-fueled divisiveness that once supposedly existed between working mothers and those at home. Women on both sides agree that different choices are appropriate for different families. One long-term perspective on the challenges that both groups face comes from Sherry Reinhardt of Berkeley, Calif. For 22 years, Reinhardt has been bringing first-time mothers together in small support groups. Some 5,000 women have taken part in these so far. She finds isolation to be one of the biggest challenges facing parents today.
Women who do declare a timeout at work often eventually find other rewards at home. Brenda LeBlanc of Ashland, Mass., left a decade-long career in accounting when her daughter, Samantha, was born two years ago. "I went crazy for the first six months," she recalls.
When Samantha was three months old, Mrs. LeBlanc attended an alumni function at her college. As the only mother not working, she found herself almost apologizing for being home.
Now LeBlanc no longer apologizes. "When people ask me what I do, I say, 'I'm home with my daughter.' They ask, 'Do you like it?' I tell them, 'Yup, I absolutely love it.' "'
Whatever a family's particular situation, Reinhardt and others urge parents to follow their own best leanings.
"Moms will be criticized for any choice they make — working or not working outside the home, and all sorts of other choices in parenting," Reinhardt says. "We need to clarify what feels right for us and then protect ourselves from the inevitable criticisms from family, friends, and society."