To work or not to work?
Length: 1952 words (5.6 double-spaced pages)
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Why the educated homemaker is opting out of the workplace and why other women are not
It’s 5 a.m. and Laura Williams squints at her computer’s bright light. She presses the letters on her keyboard and replies to as many emails as she can before another busy day at her full-time job begins.
After she makes breakfast for her family, her husband Ryan gets their daughters, Emma, 4, and Anna, 18 months, ready. Then the Williams family sets out to drop Emma at pre-school, and then mom and Anna drop dad at work.
Sounds like your typical family morning: the family gets ready, the kids go off to school, and mom and dad go off to work, right? Well, sort-of.
Seven years ago, 29-year-old Laura Williams was living the professional life she always imagined. Armed with a degree in social work from Cornell, Williams had an impressive resume that could practically name her job of choice. But today, she’s living the life she never imagined she would have: she’s a stay-at-home mom.
Williams is a part of a growing national trend where educated women earning good salaries temporarily ‘opt out’ of the workplace to take care of their children.
With professional experience ranging from public relations at XEROX to handling media affairs for 1997 U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky at Boston University, Williams had employers from Rochester, N.Y. and Cambridge, Mass. offering her higher paying and higher power jobs.
But the newly married, successful professional was also thinking about starting a family. So Williams turned down these career advancing offers and continued at the Boston University Public Relations Office.
“I knew early on that I did not want an 80-hour per week job,” said Williams. “Getting a graduate degree, working part-time, and starting a family are three things that did not mesh.”
Williams, 36, who described herself as a go-getter, said she always felt ambitious while growing up.
“I knew I wanted to work professionally,” she said. “I always thought I would work part-time and have children.”
But after working at BU through her first pregnancy and simultaneously taking graduate classes at the university, Williams became anxious; yet she wasn’t ready to walk away.
“This was definitely the most stressful time in my life,” said Williams, whose own mom was a stay-at-home mom. “At the time you think you can do it all, but finally I approached my boss and convinced him to let me work from home.
Williams said that although she felt fortunate to have this opportunity, she often felt torn between her job and her baby---even at home.
“I had a responsibility to respond to media inquiries,” she said. “Yet there’s this human being next to me, relying on me, pulling my heart strings.”
Ultimately, Williams decided to be a full-time stay at home mom, and she’s not alone----according the 2000 US Census, children under 15 represented 84 percent of the 49.7 million children under 18 living with two parents. Of these, about 11 million lived with "stay-at-home" moms.
“Women are realizing when they carry a baby for nine months that it’s okay to follow your heart,” said Williams. “It’s more important to be there with your child than to be a successful CEO, or attorney, or in any high position.”
Laura Mastrobuono is also a stay-at-home mom who opted out of her high paying pharmaceutical sales job to raise her children.
“Work is work, but family is forever,” said Mastrobuono. “This was planned. We [she and her husband] were always conservative financially, but we lost half of our income when I left.”
Mastrobuono, who graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in business administration, said that she has no regrets about leaving her career but admits that she and her husband sacrificed material items as a result.
“We do not have a lot of the newer high tech stuff, but everybody makes choices and it is definitely worth it,” she said. “Time with my children is more important than stuff!”
Mastrobuono also said that her husband has always been a very active father and his role in their family has not changed since she left work.
The only concern that Mastrobuono expressed is her frustration with government penalties for not working.
“I wish that there were tax advantages for families with a stay-at-home parent,” she said. “It could potentially benefit society if fewer children were in daycare and coming home to empty homes.”
As the tax law currently stands, families with two working parents can set aside pre-tax money in a ‘dependent care reiumbursement account’ to pay for things like pre-school and summer camps.
“These are things that I now have to pay for without that benefit,” Mastrobuono said. “When I worked, I had a 30 percent savings of the cost of those things.”
But Mastrobuono said the world is a tough place today and raising her children well is more important than any benefit.
“The child care shuffle gets old fast and work suddenly loses its’ appeal when you have somebody else depending on you,” she said. “When you are sitting in a meeting that is a waste of time, you realize that your time could be better spent else where.”
Mastrobuono said she is never bored, because when it’s not play time, she is grocery shopping or doing laundry.
She also said that living in a town with many Moms who are at home makes her occupation even more enjoyable.
But there are still a lot of women who think staying home is boring. In 2002, there were an estimated 6.2 million majority-owned, privately held, women-owned firms in the U.S., employing 9.2 million people and generating $1.15 trillion in sales, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.
Gladys McKie is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University who worked through her sole pregnancy and daughter’s childhood.
“I could never stay at home,” said McKie, who is working to earn her PhD one night a week at Northeastern. “It’s just very boring….I can’t live through my daughter’s eyes.”
Statistics show that women like McKie are continually increasing their education and completing degrees throughout the country.
Take the state of Minnesota for example, where the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women has increased by seven percent since 1990, according to the United Way.
The organization also said that women in that state earned 60 percent of associate degrees, 58 percent of bachelor's degrees, 62 percent of master's degrees, 46 percent of doctoral degrees and 45 percent of first professional degrees in 2000.
McKie, who was previously self-employed and worked from home before transitioning to Northeastern, said she had no problem having a babysitter spend time with her daughter while she advanced her career.
The undergraduate day school lecturer also says she doesn’t understand how families can afford to have one parent at home considering today’s economy.
“I don’t see how they can do it financially,” she said. “It is very difficult to survive these days unless you’re married to Donald Trump, and I’m not.”
But Williams said that no matter what she has to sacrifice, raising her children is the most important thing she can do, finances aside.
“I don’t have a retirement, and we are more careful now,” said the stay at home mom, who admits she’s trying to do more financial planning. “I had a good salary and I could contribute a lot to the family financially…but I really feel furtunate to have the opportunity to be home.”
So what drives these educated, well-to-do, intelligent women to give it all up and walk away?
“My second child was my turning point,” Williams said. “All of a sudden, I realized how much of my first daughters life I had missed.”
Williams then decided that this portion of her life would be devoted to her children and to creating this ‘experience’ for her family.
“Being a mother is challenging, defining, and it’s only for a while,” she said. “I really had to distance myself from other peoples expectations and decide what was best for me as a parent and them as children… I need to invest that much into their lives.”
But on the other hand, McKie feels that her 10-year-old daughter, Kate, reaped the benefits of daycare.
“Kate is an atypical situation because she is an only child who never had other kids around,” she said. “Daycare allowed her to grow academically and meet new kids.”
McKie, whose husband is also a professor at Northeastern University, says she seldom felt torn between work and her daughter, and only runs into a problem when Kate is ill.
“I’ve never had to cancel classes, but it proposes a problem when she is [sick],” McKie said. “I have to find someone to take care of her last minute.”
She also says that being a stay-at-home mom is a thing of the past and that times have changed.
“My mom was a stay at home mom,” said McKie. “But today it is more unusual to stay at home.”
Williams and Mastrobuono agreed that their husbands liked the fact that they were successful and career oriented. But both women said their husbands soon realized how important it was for them to be home with their children.
Williams, who believes that some women have a stronger maternal instinct than others, said she and Ryan waffled on what to do for quite some time; but since they’ve made the change, they’ve never looked back.
“We have absolutely no regrets,” she said. “My children are different when I’m with them, they never liked having babysitters and nannies.”
Williams also said that being a stay-at-home mom requires skills similar to those practiced in an office: patience, presence, and remembering that kids [versus colleagues] are people too.
“When the day ends, I think, woah, this is difficult,” she says with a soft grin. “But I also think of all the people who don’t have this option, and realize this is the most important way I can spend my time.”
McKie says that women who stay at home are able to volunteer and get more involved in their childrens lives at school, and Williams said that this is one of the best parts about her job.
“I realized that before, I was missing out on things at Emma’s preschool,” she said. “And now, I have the chance to participate in any that I want.”
As far as the future, Williams, also an exercise instructor and avid runner, is optimistic.
“I plan to live to be 100,” she said. “That means I can start a career as a psychologist at 50 and still have 20 years to fulfill my career goals…the apex of my career is still to come.”
Williams said that even though she has taken some time away from her career, she still feels like she has accomplishments.
“I feel successful, happy and well-adjusted,” she said. “I have engaged children with distinct personalities who have a lot to offer to the world, and most of all, I’m a part of that.”
Both Williams and McKie agreed that staying at home is a personal option and advised young women aspiring to be professionals and moms to do several things when faced with the choice:
“It is an individual decision,” said McKie. “You have to consider a lot of things including finances and interests.”
“Enjoy your career, but when you get to a bridge where family and kids are in the picture—follow your heart,” said Williams. “You really need to think about how quickly kids grow up---this is the time kids need their family most because it makes an impression on them for the rest of their lives.”