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The supermom myth 

WORKING IT: Balancing act for Ryall.
  • WORKING IT: Balancing act for Ryall.

When Mallory Jewell had her first child 10 years ago, her plan was to go back to her job in human resources at Alltel — as the company’s first professional-level part-time employee.

But when she decided midway through her maternity leave to quit altogether and stay home with her son, only her husband, his mother and her mother supported her decision.

“Everyone else in my family and professionally were not supportive,” she said. “I really felt I had let people down.”

A decade later, professional moms-to-be are at least as likely to encounter the opposite attitude, thanks in part to a rash of stories in the New York Times and other national media over the last four years that have trumpeted a supposedly growing trend of successful, professional women “opting out” — choosing to leave their careers behind, at least for a couple of years, when they have children. These women are portrayed as the new supermoms: Able to have it all, one part at a time.

The trouble with these stories, though, is that they are at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate. And experts in work-life issues say they’re having a dramatic negative effect on efforts to solve the very real problems most mothers have reconciling their roles as caregivers with their desire — and, for most, need — to continue working after they have children.

The “new” trend of professional mothers leaving the workforce has been written about in the New York Times for the last 20 years, says Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Last fall, Williams published a study analyzing 119 newspaper stories written since 1980 about the opt-out phenomenon.

But the storyline really picked up steam in 2003, when the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece called “The Opt-Out Revolution” that profiled a book club in Atlanta and a moms’ group in San Francisco, both made up of Ivy-League-educated women who’d left their high-paying jobs to care for their children full-time. Two years later, another Times story claimed that 60 percent of female Ivy League students the reporter had surveyed said they already planned to quit their jobs or work only part-time when they had children.

Some of the articles cite census figures and academic studies — specifically, that the percentage of mothers of infant children who worked peaked in 1998 at 59 percent, and dropped to 53 percent by 2005. But most rely heavily on anecdotes — stories of individual women, mostly white, all very well educated, and all married to men who happened to make enough money that they didn’t need a second income.

The numbers simply don’t support the idea of a growing trend involving large numbers of women, said Heather Boushey, an economist with the Center for Economic Policy Research and author of a paper called “Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth,” published in 2005.

“This is really one of those very interesting stories where every journalist in New York and Washington knows someone who does [choose to stay home], and writes a bunch of stories about it,” she said.

The census numbers, Boushey said, don’t tell the full story about new mothers leaving the workforce. They don’t reflect the fact that the recession of 2001 hit women harder than men; more women in general found themselves out of work. Women with very young children — and highly paid husbands — had less financial incentive to fight to stay in the workforce, and perhaps more incentive to explain their unemployment as a choice made for the good of their children.

“If you go out and interview women who are at home and you say, ‘You’re a mom — are you at home because you’re taking care of your kids or because you couldn’t find a job?’ They may have cultural and social reasons to say it’s because of family, but most also say they would like to get back to work,” Boushey said. “What we hear is the first part — that’s what gets reported.”

In addition, Boushey said, the type of woman usually featured in opt-out stories — white, 30-something, with a graduate degree and a professional job — make up at most 8 percent of all working women. And highly educated women are actually more likely than other women to continue working after they have children, she said.

“When women invest in higher education, they tend to make the most of it,” she said.

That was exactly the thinking behind Little Rock attorney Bridgette Frazier’s decision to go to work full time less than a year after her first child, now 9, was born. She had just graduated from law school, so she decided to stay at home with her son at first.

“It was hard — I missed having people to talk to,” said Frazier, 35, who has worked for the state House of Representatives for the past seven years. “I felt like I was wasting away — ‘Did I go to law school for this?’ ”

And, Frazier said, she doesn’t know anyone from her law school class who’s now a stay-at-home mom. Even Jewell says she’s happy staying home in large part because she’s rarely there: She has a heavy volunteering schedule at her children’s elementary school, and she’s also carved out a second career of sorts working contract jobs as an organizer for political and non-profit campaigns.

Propagating the myth that more mothers are able to, and happy to, leave their careers behind temporarily to raise children is much more than a simple inaccuracy, Boushey and Williams say.

Such stories mask the very difficult reality most mothers face balancing work and family, and let the government and employers off the hook for making the kind of concrete changes that would vastly improve that reality. Williams’ research, for instance, cites a 2004 study that found that 86 percent of mothers who quit working said they did so for job-related reasons — not simply because they wanted to be home with their babies.

“Having newspapers explain to all and sundry that women are leaving because they want to go home, and not because of workplace conditions, sends the message that nothing needs to change about the workplace to do right by women,” Williams said. “I’ve been on Capitol Hill and had a congressional staffer tell me, ‘My boss is not interested in work/family issues because he’s not interested in the problems of professional women opting out.’ The misrepresentation of women in the workplace has concrete, highly negative effects on public policy.”

Take, for instance, the issue of maternity leave. A study from McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy found that of 173 countries surveyed, the United States is one of only five that don’t mandate some amount of paid time off when a woman has a baby. (The others are Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and Liberia.) Of the remaining 168 countries, 98 offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave.

The United States does have the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave per year for maternity and other health and family related reasons. But it only applies to workplaces that employ more than 50 people, and only to employees who’ve been at their job for at least a year. That covers only about half the U.S. workforce. And of those who are eligible, only workers who can afford to go without their paychecks can actually take advantage of FMLA.

A Department of Labor survey done in 2000 confirms this. In the 18 months prior to the survey, 23.8 million people took some amount of FMLA leave — 18 percent of them to care for a newborn or newly placed foster child. Leave-takers were more likely in general to be married or living with a partner, and more likely to be in higher income groups.

In that same period, another 3.5 million people said they needed to take FMLA leave, but couldn’t. The most common reason cited — by 77.6 percent of respondents — was that they couldn’t afford to.

“The U.S. has the least family-supportive public policies in the Western world,” Williams said. “Unhappily, that’s not changing fast. … It’s a combination of factors. One is that we just don’t have a social safety net of any sort for any reason. So the costs of raising the next generation are not seen as public costs to be broadly shared — they’re seen as a private problem.”

That’s reflected at the individual workplace level as well, said Sarah Beth Estes, director of the gender studies program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“When somebody gets sick, we don’t say ‘It’s your choice to get sick,’ ” she said. “But something about the popular rhetoric surrounding what happens when people have kids — it’s seen through different eyes.”

That’s partly because employers often simply shift an employee’s work to others, she said, instead of looking for a long-term solution.

“That often gets construed as, ‘Oh, my breeder co-worker is relying on me to pick up the slack.’ A supportive supervisor with some vision and the ability to reframe that argument can present it as, this is just another one of those things we can expect in the workplace. We need to come up with a solution on an organizational level, so we’ll not just ask Bob to do all of Sally’s work.”

There are some private employers that offer paid maternity leave, but they’re unusual. Most new mothers cobble together vacation and sick days if they want to take any time off after giving birth, and a significant proportion don’t take any leave at all.

“It is amazing that most people don’t have access to paid leave, and just over half have access to unpaid leave,” Boushey said. “It makes it incredibly difficult for families. Most people have kids at some point, everyone was a kid at some point, and many will care for parents at some point. They need access to time off at some point to cope with life now that we don’t have anyone at home to do that anymore.”

University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry is one of the lucky ones. She had enough accumulated sick leave — eight years’ worth — that when her twins were born in January 2006, she was able to take an entire semester off with only a few weeks coming through unpaid FMLA leave. And once she went back to work, a sympathetic boss worked with her and her husband, a professor in the same department, to create a schedule that minimizes their need for childcare while allowing them both to work full time.

But only 25 percent of U.S. workers have any flexibility at all in their work schedules, and even fewer have as much flexibility as Parry and her husband.

“If I worked for the physical plant at the university, none of this would be possible,” she said.

The overarching problem, Williams said, is that today’s workplace is badly mismatched with today’s workforce.

“We define the ideal worker as someone who’s available 24/7,” she said — and the ideal mother as one who’s available to her children around the clock. That might have been realistic 50 years ago, when most families had one adult in the labor force and one at home taking care of the children full-time, but 70 percent of households today have all adults working outside the home.

“Women feel guilty no matter what they do,” Williams said. “If they work full-time they’re guilty of not being the ideal mother. If they leave their jobs for awhile or work part-time, they’re guilty of not being the ideal worker. … It’s a problem of two incompatible social ideals and institutions.”

Two significant problems result from this mismatch.

First, a lack of part-time jobs in high-paying professions.

“The majority of employed women would like to work reduced hours, but reduced-hour jobs in this country are not good jobs,” UALR’s Estes said. “They do not have benefits. Women and anybody who wants to do anything outside of work — whether raising a family or caring for elderly parents — don’t really have a good option for doing that.”

Karen Ryall, a pharmaceutical sales rep with three children, said staying at home full-time wasn’t an option financially for her family — but working part-time wasn’t an option professionally.

“We don’t have that with our company,” said Ryall, who works for a division of Johnson and Johnson. “Our company’s always on top of the ‘working mothers’ list [of employers with family-friendly policies]. Working part-time is possible for some, “but that’s for if you work at the corporate office in New Jersey. If you’re out in the field, that option’s not there.”
It’s not there for Frazier either. She had her third child 14 months ago, and “in a fantasy world, it would have been great to be able to work from 9 to 2,” she said. “But that’s not reality. It was all or nothing for me.”

Still, she said, she loves her job, and she’s better off than mothers who work for private law firms, where “part time” can still mean working 50 hours a week, and motherhood often means derailing from the partner track.

“I can go home at 5 and be a great mom,” Frazier said. “I’m not thinking about work when I go home.”

Another major issue, Williams said, is outright discrimination against mothers in the workplace. One study showed mothers are 78 percent less likely to be hired than other applicants, and are offered salaries that average $11,000 less than non-mothers for similar positions. The study showed mothers are also held to higher standards of punctuality and performance, beginning when a woman gets pregnant, returns from maternity leave or cuts back to a part-time schedule.

“It exists in hiring, promotion, firing, every level,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunately an extremely strong effect.”

But, she said, employers are finally starting to recognize that such discrimination is illegal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May finally issued guidelines on discrimination against mothers and other caregivers.

“When I started to work on this 10 years ago, the common understanding was that discrimination against mothers was based on parenthood [rather than gender] and existing law didn’t protect against it,” she said. But motherhood is a major trigger of gender stereotypes, and other studies have shown that people perceive mothers to be less committed and qualified than non-mothers with the same education and experience. According to the EEOC, the number of pregnancy discrimination complaints rose from 3,977 a decade ago to 4,901 in the 2006 fiscal year.

Another reality the opt-out myth tends to gloss over is what happens to those women when they try to re-enter the full-time workforce. The stories also tend to focus on women in one particular phase — after they’ve opted out, but before they divorce — not realistic in a country with a 50 percent divorce rate, where a woman’s standard of living is almost guaranteed to fall if her marriage breaks up.

Williams’ research cites a study showing that even though 93 percent of “highly qualified” stay-at-home mothers of young children want to go back to work, only 74 percent do — and only 40 percent work full-time. A mere 5 percent said they wanted to go back to the same employer they left.

“Younger women are sent a very clear, strong and consistent message that if they ‘take a few years out’ they can re-enter with relative ease,” Williams said. “Which is flatly in contradiction to a massive amount of evidence.”

Women who don’t continue to work full time after their maternity leave ends pay a lifetime penalty, Williams said. If they spend a couple of years working part-time, they’ll earn 10 percent less over their lifetime than they would have otherwise. And women who quit work altogether for two or three years usually return to lower-level jobs than the ones they left. They’ll earn 20 percent to 30 percent less over their lifetimes — 37 percent if they stay out of the workforce for more than three years. This also means less money contributed to a woman’s retirement plan.

“Often, once you step off the career path you’re toast,” Williams said. “I’ve known people with MBAs who go back to work as receptionists. … The image of women leaving for a few years and re-entering with ease unfortunately is science fiction. But it’s science fiction that appears in far too many newspapers in this country.”

Fixing these real, pervasive problems requires both concrete changes in policy and a wholesale shift in cultural attitudes toward working parents.

“We need to provide some support to adults raising the next generation in the form of paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, part-time work when children are young, etc.,” Williams said. “We need to end the workforce/workplace mismatch.”

On the legislative front, options include not only broadening access to maternity leave, but also requiring employers to give workers flexible schedules if they want them, unless there’s a legitimate business reason not to. California is leading the way at the state level: Several years ago, it implemented paid family leave, covering about 50 percent of an employee’s salary for six weeks. The cost is covered by a fund employees, not employers, pay into.

Supporting working mothers isn’t just a social concern. It’s a real economic issue as well. When highly trained, experienced women leave the workforce, employers often spend an enormous amount of money finding and training their replacements. Those women also represent a huge loss of potential to national productivity levels — not only while they’re staying at home, but when they’re rehired to lesser jobs when they return.

Employers and policy makers need to let go of the fantasy that working mothers’ problems would be solved if they’d just stay at home after they have kids, Boushey said.

“Everyone cares about families,” she said. “But we haven’t been able to get beyond ‘If Mom would just go back home, everything would be OK.’ ”

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