When I felt I should return to part-time professional work after 10 years of being a stay-at-home mom, I knew I was one of the lucky few. Not because I wouldn’t be home full time any more, but because I knew that unlike many mothers, I would not be working more hours than I wanted to. 

In spite of a dramatic increase since the 1950s in the percentage of employed mothers with children at home, national representative survey data consistently indicates that for mothers, the ideal work situation is not full-time employment. In fact, most mothers are working far more hours than they would prefer. Findings from The Motherhood Study appear much the same today as they did in 2005 — where 41% of mothers with children under age 18 were working full time, but only 15% of mothers with children in the home preferred to be. 

Women with the greatest power to choose are those who are married and highly educated. They do not feel the burden of providing, and could also choose ideal jobs if they wanted. Yet they are also the ones most likely not to choose full-time employment. Why?

When Judith Warner interviewed these women to find out why they chose to “opt-out” of professional work, in spite of significant opportunities she found that the experience of motherhood had reshaped their ambitions. They wanted to be able to experience motherhood “on their own terms,” to be able to be emotionally present, to able to give what they felt their children needed without feeling they were compromising professional responsibilities. In her words, “They have greater appreciation of some of the values of home and connectivity, which were somewhat alien to them in their high-flying professions.”

But these are not desires women feel they can be very public about. Many of my students describe being embarrassed to acknowledge their desire to become a mother. At the same time, they want to develop their gifts and talents, pursue educational opportunities and even do some professional work to contribute to their communities. In Lisa Belkin’s words, they just “don’t want to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries — to take time from their family in pursuit of success.” 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of a college at Princeton University, former director of policy planning for the State Department, and head of a major think tank among other accomplishments, has had a remarkable professional career. But she is most famous for having touched off a national conversation when she wrote in The Atlantic of her decision to leave a prominent position because she knew her son needed more of her time.

In one of the most widely read articles in the magazine’s history, Slaughter describes the questioning and criticism she received for her decision. All of the sudden she became aware of how much we have culturally denigrated the importance of care work — for both women and men — in spite of the fact that it is the caring relationships we nurture across our lives that actually gives life meaning. 

The truth is, as hard as mothering is for me sometimes, now that I have experienced it, I could not bear to live without it

Slaughter describes, “Across the board, we give caregivers the shaft, dismissing stay-at-home parents at dinner parties, barely paying nannies a living wage and punishing those who take career breaks to focus on family with a challenging on-ramp back to the professional world. …” Having experienced a dramatic change in her own heart, Slaughter notes, “When people say, ‘I’m home with my kids,’ I say, ‘You’re doing really important work,’ and I mean it,” she says. “Whereas before I was the classic woman that said, ‘Oh, what a pity.’ Like, ‘You’re not doing the real thing.’”

I love being back teaching and working with students. But there is no doubt I feel differently about my professional work now than I did before having children. During the hours when our children are at school, I feel driven to do everything I can so that the moment they walk in the door I do not have to be distracted by other work. Sometimes I wonder why I worry so much about that. But the truth is, I know my presence and focus in our home means something very different to me than even the meaningful experiences I often have in my professional work. I know I offer something to them and to our home that my husband cannot do in the same way. 

And the truth is, as hard as mothering is for me sometimes, now that I have experienced it, I could not bear to live without it. When I live it, even as I fail at it, I know I am part of the great story of maternal influence described by Jean Elshtain, “the self-sacrificing, loving virtuous power that has bound together the human family.” Nothing could matter more.