Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom

I leaned out when I should have leaned in. But the problem is about much more than individual women’s choices.


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A year after I quit my job to stay home with my first child, I read Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work (2006), which chided well-educated women for doing just that. Why, she wondered, would a congressman “listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler’s?” Although my daughter was napping on me, I still managed to scrawl in the margins, “Because they vote!” I was her target audience, and I felt under attack.

Since then, similar books have followed, notably Leslie Bennetts’s The Feminine Mistake (2007) and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, published this year. While Sandberg pays more lip service to the hard work stay-at-home mothers do, her thesis is largely the same as that of her predecessors. She is quick to point out the risks of taking time off. “Women who take time out of the workforce,” she warns, “pay a big career penalty. Only 74 percent of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and only 40 percent will return to full-time jobs. Those who do rejoin will often see their earnings decrease dramatically.” 

Although her argument was familiar, the unease Sandberg’s book brought me was distinctly different from that caused by either Hirshman’s or Bennetts’s. Or perhaps I was just different. Older. The truth was, I hadn’t followed Sandberg’s advice. Career-wise, I leaned out when I should have leaned in. I anticipated children before I had them. When they did arrive, I scaled back my work. And recently I’ve been feeling some regret about that.

I was not the likeliest candidate for this position. Before I had kids, I wrote a master’s thesis on the importance of women’s economic independence. I wrote articles on feminism and getting women to the top. In other words, I knew this stuff. But I also knew that shortly after giving birth, I’d be moving to another city. My husband was finishing up his PhD, and there were no local positions in his field. So I left my job, figuring I could freelance while the baby napped. 

Rookie mistake. 

I hired a sitter, but for a time my work took a back seat to life. We moved and, two years later, moved again so my husband could take a job overseas. A second daughter arrived. Then, shortly after, I found myself in a situation I never predicted: sitting across from a divorce lawyer who didn’t even bother writing down my annual freelance income. I had published well and often, but my compensation was less robust. It would barely have covered a month of her costs.

I spent the next year or two beating myself up. I had, after all, made a choice of sorts. Though divorce is common, I never anticipated it, or the vulnerability even an amicable one could inspire. So, now more than ever, I get Sandberg’s point, often echoed by some on the left, who remind women that despite feminism’s emphasis on choice, not all choices are equal.

And yet lately I’ve come to believe that there is more to this story, especially given that nearly every mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their “work selves” completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid. The climb back into full-time employment seems monumental. “I’ll be 40 next year, with a PhD—I will not be an intern,” my friend recently vented, with perhaps a few expletives.

The tone is melancholy, but laced with frustration and anger. After all, we hadn’t spent our time home doing nothing. Children don’t raise themselves, and for various reasons, usually economic and personal, we decided to devote ourselves primarily to this task, at least for a time. 

And yet, while we are hardly alone—more than a third of mothers lean back from the workforce for an average of two years—much of what we hear about “stay-at-home” moms bears little resemblance to our lives. We don’t care overmuch about scones. And we take care of toddlers; we don’t resemble them. In fact, polls suggest most mothers want to return to full-time employment by the time their children are school-age. If we have failed, it is only in recognizing how, for mothers, discrimination and bias make this much easier said than done.

Even minor career breaks have dire economic consequences. Over a lifetime, women lose 18 percent of their earning power by leaving the workforce for only two years. A 2011 Harvard study revealed that female MBAs who took “a job interruption equivalent to 18 months” earned 41 percent less than male MBAs.

And these are the lucky ones: the ones who find work at all. A study published by the American Journal of Sociology found that people were significantly less willing to hire mothers over nonmothers. Moreover, “the recommended starting salary for mothers was $11,000 less than that offered to nonmothers.” 

* * *

I spoke to about a dozen women for this piece, and none of these numbers surprised them. ”I feel like I’m in a holding pattern,” one told me. Like many, she feels tired and underappreciated: “The other day, my husband asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up.”

Until recently, she had been the family breadwinner: a lawyer who, shortly after giving birth, left her law firm for a bigger one, hoping for more flexibility. But this didn’t go as planned. “On my second day back, they wanted me to stay till 11 pm,” she said. “I don’t want to feel when I’m leaving at 5 pm that I’m this bad person and that people are questioning my work ethic.”

After repeated failed attempts to negotiate a reasonable schedule, she decided to leave. Her preference is to stay home longer with her young daughter, but her family needs the money. On interviews, she never mentions her desire for flextime, and she confesses that her recruiter is skeptical about her prospects with large, prestigious firms.

Stuck between two reasonable desires—to care for her child and to find fulfilling work—this woman is typical of many stay-at-home mothers I met. She is also a reminder that mothers who do continue working—the majority of moms out there—routinely face discrimination that, when it doesn’t push them out of the workforce, makes their lives miserable.

First, there is the paycheck problem. Much attention is paid to the wage gap between men and women, but in reality it’s mostly a “mommy gap.” Labor statistics show that while full-time working women without children earn 7 percent less than their male counterparts, women with children earn 23 percent less. A mother is also 50 percent less likely to be promoted than a woman without children. It’s no wonder there’s a saying among work-life experts: “If you want equality, die childless at 30.”

Other forms of discrimination are more subtle. A frequent complaint among the working moms I met is that when they return from maternity leave, they have been in effect demoted—clients moved, cases shifted. “Compared to what I was doing before, it was not important work,” confessed one woman who left an investment bank for this reason. 

The sense is that employers, consciously or not, demote mothers, assuming they cannot live up to the hours and demands of the workplace. Ironically, some new mothers I met privately welcomed the break, needing all the “flexibility” they could get, while also resenting the lost pay and prestige. Others, like the woman at the investment bank, felt bored and frustrated that it was so difficult to find work that was both challenging and family-friendly. When a colleague encouraged her to join a business she was starting, promising she would be able to leave at 5 and work from home, she jumped ship. Unfortunately, that promise fell flat: her flextime requests were denied, and she felt stigmatized for even asking. “My boss always suggested I looked tired because of the kids.” Eventually, she left.

* * *

Technically, stereotyping of this sort is illegal. The nonprofit A Better Balance (ABB), dedicated to work-life issues, notes that although “there is no federal law that explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of their family status or family caregiving responsibilities,” women who are treated as less committed or capable because they are mothers are protected by laws against “family responsibilities discrimination,” or FRD.

But there are three main problems with FRD. One, few women know their rights. “Moms get tons of advice about what to eat, which stroller to buy, and how to get their bodies back in shape, but what’s missing is clear and comprehensive advice about how to keep and protect their paycheck after their baby arrives,” observes Dina Bakst, co-founder of ABB and co-author of the newly published Babygate: What You Really Need to Know About Pregnancy and Parenting in the American Workplace

But the second problem is that many mothers are happy just to have a job. Those women are tired, not often in positions of power, and scared to rock the boat. “We hear from low-wage women who can’t even get an extra bathroom break or a water bottle,” Bakst says. Suing is another realm altogether.

Finally, discrimination can be hard to prove. One woman I spoke with described telling the chairman of her law firm that she was getting married. His immediate response: “Pregnant yet?” The subtext was clear, the woman notes, but “I knew I couldn’t build a case off just that.” Her work assignments declined, and she left the firm soon after.  

Proving discrimination can also be difficult when 62 percent of private sector workers are discouraged or prohibited from comparing their wages with co-workers. The Paycheck Fairness Act, recently introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Rosa DeLauro, could change that by prohibiting employers from punishing workers who share wage information and further requiring them to prove that any pay discrepancies are unrelated to gender.

A few large legal victories wouldn’t hurt either. “What we really need are some big Supreme Court rulings that shake employers the way that sexual harassment did in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Bakst, although she is quick to point out the limits of litigation. The recently reintroduced Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, she notes, would significantly help by protecting pregnant women’s right to modest workplace accommodations so they are less likely to have to resort to litigation. 

Another idea would be to strengthen benefits for new mothers so that if they take time off, they are not penalized so onerously. I saw this approach in England, where I had my second child. Like much of Europe, England has generous family benefits, with new mothers receiving a year of job protection and thirty-nine weeks paid leave, in some cases up to 90 percent of one’s salary. New fathers get some paid leave, too, and can, during the first year, stay at home with pay for up to twenty-six weeks if the mother chooses to work. 

England also offers universal preschool after a child’s fourth birthday and fifteen hours of free “nursery” after their third (and sometimes second) birthday. Parents also have the right to request flexible work schedules, including the right to scale back to part time either temporarily or permanently. Employers do not have to grant the request, but they must provide an explicit reason for denying it. Finally, part-time workers, the vast majority of whom are women, must be paid on the same scale and receive the same benefits as full-time workers. 

These benefits can act as lifelines for women by significantly reducing that scramble time in the United States—the time between birth and kindergarten—when many women just give up, if they don’t get pushed out first. Further, when women are granted paid maternity leave, they are more likely to return to work and maintain higher wages than women without leave. 

One of the biggest challenges, however, is tackling resistance to government regulation of employee benefits and access to workplace flexibility. Also in Europe, governments generally pay for benefits like family leave, but there is little political support for that here. And getting employers to foot the bill seems unlikely. While some corporations, like Google, appear to be amenable to this approach, others that set the parameters of the debate do not—and politicians seem increasingly beholden to them. The GOP-sponsored Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, for example, is a pale shadow of the legislation sponsored under the same name by Ted Kennedy in 2007 and Carolyn Maloney in 2012. Kennedy’s and Maloney’s versions would have guaranteed employees the right to request flextime without penalty, as they can already do in England and other parts of Europe. Both efforts failed. The latest version, though it proposes to support employees, panders to employers instead, allowing them to give their workers comp time instead of overtime pay. It passed the House in May.

* * *

There is some reason to hope the tide is turning. President Obama just proposed a $75 billion plan for universal preschool. And, perhaps more significant, a recent poll released by the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that the majority of voters, both Republican (73 percent) and Democrat (96 percent), feel it’s important to consider enacting laws that provide for paid family leave and paid sick days. These figures are up from similar polls conducted just a few years ago.

But until this happens, mothers must fend for themselves. When I ask Allison O’Kelly, founder of Mom Corps, a staffing organization that helps connect mothers with flexible employment, what advice she has for new mothers struggling between childcare and work, she hesitates. “Honestly, I’m a big believer in staying in, because re-entry is so tricky,” she says. “But if you do take time off, do something, even if it’s small—even if it’s ten hours a week. Something paid is preferable to volunteer work, but if you have nothing else, then volunteer. Keep your résumé fresh.” 

It’s difficult to argue with such a practical approach. And yet it seems equally important to reframe this issue by focusing on the hurdles women face, not the individual “choices” they make. The latter may be a salable approach, pitting women against women, but it distracts from the more pressing issue of discrimination. Moreover, while choices seem black-and-white from afar, what you learn from sitting down with mothers is that life is more complicated than that. I’m not going to argue with the woman who tried for six years to have a child and then stayed home with her for three. Nor can I blame the many who leave work because they are tired of spending their entire paycheck on childcare. 

The stories I heard from such women are the stories of half the population, stories that politicians and businesses need to hear, and that women need to voice. “Show them how ready and motivated you are.” This is Allison O’Kelly’s advice on how to win over an employer, but it’s good advice all around.

Ruth Rosen reviewed the past century, and looks toward the next, of women’s struggle for justice, in “Feminism Has Come a Long Way—or Has It?” (Feb. 21).

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