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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.

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