Often, stopouts have racked up considerable track records, making them more confident about re-entering the workforce and not worrying as much as their predecessors did about a r?sum? gap sidelining them in perpetuity. "In my generation, if women took their foot out of the door for one second, it would slam shut," says Laraine T. Zappert, a Stanford University clinical professor of psychiatry and author of Getting It Right, a new book based on research with 300 Stanford Business School alumnae. "Women have proven themselves to be highly competent assets in the workplace," says Zappert. "They can negotiate for things that weren't acceptable, or even imaginable, 10 or 15 years ago."
The status of motherhood has also changed dramatically. Pop culture and celebrity hype have made mommydom hip, creating a new archetype. Pregnancy is paraded, full-tummied, in form-hugging fashions. High-profile stopouts, including iVillage Inc. (IVIL ) founder Candace A. Carpenter, White House adviser Karen Hughes, and entertainer Rosie O'Donnell, are also giving the choice more credibility.
Granted, the vast majority of mothers still work and wouldn't have it any other way, especially since quitting can come with huge costs to psyches, finances, and careers. Beyond personal losses, some worry that women overall could lose ground if the best-educated and most powerful are dropping careers to stay home. They fear an erosion in the gains in equality that have made it easier for women up and down the ladder.
It's a point well taken by many stopouts, many of whom are loath to be seen as copping out on women's-equality issues. But most also contend that feminism needs to evolve beyond its preoccupation with careers to value women's fertility and desire for family. Julie Turaj, a 30-year-old Yalie and Columbia Law School grad, always envisioned that she would return to her job at a white-shoe firm in New York after the birth of her daughter Samantha two years ago. But she kept pushing back her return date until finally, after 18 months at home, she handed in her resignation. "I had to create a new concept of feminism for myself," she says. "It's really about offering you the choice to be the person you want to be--not keeping you under a glass ceiling at work but also not telling you that you are selling out the feminist revolution by choosing to spend time with your children."
For Turaj, leaving her job meant creating a new identity that wasn't forged solely from intellect. "As a lawyer, you can sit there and look at a brief and find an objective standard to determine how well you've done," she says. "As a parent, you can't do that."
Plus, after having slaved so hard for so long, the office no longer holds the same allure for many mid-career women. "I had to ask myself--is that all there is?" says Theresa Marcroft, a 44-year-old Silicon Valley executive who chose to take a break for a year to stay home with her daughter after getting laid off in 2000. In her job as marketing vice-president for Cylink Corp., Marcroft traveled so much that she occasionally brought her child and nanny on European business trips.
Today, she's working as a marketing consultant, making two-thirds her old salary in half the number of hours. That's how many stopouts get back into the workforce--by avoiding traditional roles. Sabbatical returnees often choose free agency over Corporate America, working as part-time executives or entrepreneurs. Some 61% of those in the Harvard study who said they had left the workforce but planned to return reported that they would seek nontraditional jobs--and that their goals were different than when they graduated.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that women can't easily jump back into their careers once their kids hit first grade. Susannah Rabb Bailin, a Harvard MBA from the Class of '88, says she would advise young women to take breaks later. "[Children] come home as preschoolers, and it's: `Can I have one cookie or two?"' But with older kids, the issues--sexuality, peer pressure, intellectual growth--get more complex. Adds Bailin: "Your presence feels far more important as your children get older--and no one tells you that."
Returning to work can also be difficult considering that stopouts are often deeply involved in community fund-raising and their children's schools. A company's loss is often the community's gain, with many a school board, in its depth of experience and skills, resembling a corporate one. These women often throw all the energy and skills they poured into their careers into trying to create world-class childhoods for their kids.
But not everyone slides so smoothly into the role of stay-at-home mom. Aurora Pucciarello made the switch after her youngest son reached out for his nanny one night instead of her. Within a few months, Pucciarello had sold her business, Max Distribution, a fast-growing logistics company. But staying home wasn't easy, either. "I was never totally happy," says Pucciarello. "It was a harder job for me to be home with my kids than to manage 125 employees." She found herself aching for an outlet and consumed with the need to work. She devised mad, Martha Stewart-like projects, such as painting the inside of her 5,500-square-foot house herself. She doesn't regret her five years at home but realizes she's engineered for a career. "Personally, I think God wires you a certain way. Not every woman needs to be with her children 100% of the day."
Yet many careers demand 100% of women's energy and attention, making the combination of work and family a near-impossible setup. "There must be a new paradigm, a new way of organizing this so that all these amazing, talented people don't just have to bail out," says Gang of Niner Russell. "But I just couldn't figure it out." Until someone does, many moms will likely feel as if work-family balance is still more about "or," not "and."
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