Joanne Brundage, founder of FEMALE, thought she had the working-mom routine nailed.
For 6-1/2 years, the postal carrier in Elmhurst, Ill., juggled her job, her daughter, and her role as a wife.
"With our first child everything worked really well," says Ms. Brundage in a recent phone interview. "For the first 2-1/2 years, my parents took care of my daughter while I worked. Then she went to a very good day care. And then kindergarten."
She expected to do the same when her son was born. Then things fell apart.
For one, Ms. Brundage's parents could no longer care for an infant. In addition, her son wasn't as easygoing as her daughter.
But returning to her job - which she had held for 10 years - was important to her.
"I always felt very strongly about working for a living - even after having children - and being economically independent," Brundage says.
So she spent her 13-week maternity leave looking for in-home care. With no candidates, she extended her leave another month. Eventually she and her husband - also a postal carrier - hired a nurse. But the night before Brundage was to return to her route, the woman called to say she had reconsidered.
With no other leads, Brundage decided resign. "At this point we were getting pretty broke," she recalls. "One of the reasons I quit was to recapture my retirement money so we could pay our debts."
What she didn't anticipate was the impact leaving her job would have on her morale.
"I suddenly didn't know who I was. I was very depressed, and I felt guilt-ridden about being depressed because I knew a lot of women didn't have the choice [to stay at home]."
She also felt isolated. Often her only adult contacts all week were the grocery-store checkers. And that, she says, strained her marriage.
"If your husband is the only person you see all day who can speak full sentences," she says, "you hit him at the door ... and you want every detail of his grown-up life because you no longer feel like you have one."
Brundage tried to connect with the few at-home moms on her block. But they either didn't understand why any mother would want to return to the work force, or they criticized working women who put their kids in day care.
After about a year, Brundage was "desperate" to find other at-home moms. So one Sunday morning, she and her husband sat down to come up with a name for a group. They settled on FEMALE, or Formerly Employed Mothers at Loose Ends (since changed to Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge).
Four women responded, and on Aug. 13, 1987, FEMALE held its first meeting.
At year's end, the group, now 15 mothers, advertised in the Chicago Tribune. The response: 64 calls in two days. A few months later, Ms. Magazine ran a letter about FEMALE, and after hundreds of mothers contacted the group, it went national.
Today, Brundage, with three children, is no longer an active member. She left FEMALE's board five years ago to start a home business.
Yet she says her perspective on work and family is forever altered: "The most common experience we hear from members is that they make quite a transformational change [while at home]," she explains. Most plan to return to work, "but a lot of [us] feel we will never go back into the workplace and let that shape the rest of our lives if we can help it."
Working at staying home
* To make the transition from career track to mommy track:
1. Find other stay-home parents.
2. Make time for yourself. Join a gym with child care.
3. Pursue creative outlets. Take a class or work part time at something you've always wanted to try.
4. Discuss finances with your spouse. "Economics often gets pushed to the side when you're having a child," says Laurie Neylon, who left work as a business consultant. "As a result, a lot of women become slaves to going back to work."
* Among FEMALE's 5,500 members:
* 63 percent are full-time, at-home mothers.
* 37 percent work part time.
* 96 percent plan to return to work.
* 52 percent have college degrees.
* 30 percent have postgraduate degrees.
Source: FEMALE, P.O. Box 31, Elmhurst, IL 60126 (630) 941-3553