As a young career woman, Elizabeth Drew Scholl could not imagine a life without paid work. Armed with a master's degree, she landed a plum job, managing a $50 million capital campaign for one of Chicago's top cultural institutions, the Lincoln Park Zoo.
"I was extremely career-oriented," Mrs. Scholl recalls. She even timed her first pregnancy so it would not conflict with the project's completion.
But before her daughter was born, she received an unhappy surprise: Her employer gave new mothers only a six-week disability leave.
"Babies don't even lift their heads up at six weeks on their own," Scholl says, indignation still rising in her voice at the thought of such a short leave. "I couldn't imagine going back and leaving her with a complete stranger."
When her boss denied a request for part-time work, she decided to resign.
"This was truly the hardest decision I've ever made," says Scholl, now of Highlands Ranch, Colo. "But I came to the realization that these jobs are going to be there when I go back to work."
That decision to stay home with a baby for at least a year is becoming more common. A Census Bureau report last month shows that 55 percent of women with infants under a year old were in the workforce in June 2000, down from 59 percent in 1998. This represents the first decline in 25 years. The drop is primarily among women who are white, married, over 30, and educated.
Authors of the census report speculate that as more women delay childbearing until their 30s and 40s, they are building nest eggs that allow them to take more time off. The robust economy that prevailed until recently also offered more options if they returned.
Many of these women, like Scholl, never expected to put "former" in front of their titles. She echoes the comments of other mothers when she describes the adjustment as "very difficult" at first.
"I was going from preparing million-dollar proposals to reading Dr. Seuss books," she says.
There is also the challenge of that classic dinner-party question: What do you do? As Scholl explains, "Saying I'm a stay-at-home mom is far less interesting than saying that I'm the manager of a $50 million capital campaign." She and her husband now have three daughters, ranging in age from 4-1/2 years to 2 months.
Among mothers in the key years for career advancement, between 25 and 44, 1 in 4 is home full time, according to Joan Williams, director of the Program on Gender, Work, and Family at American University Law School in Washington. For mothers in this group who are employed, 2 out of 3 work less than a 40-hour week. Only 8 percent work more than 50 hours.
"There is still a very high level of family care in the United States," Ms. Williams says. "The homemaker is alive and well in America."
She refutes the popular impression that only "privileged" women stay home. In reality, she says, the lower on a socioeconomic scale the mother is, the more likely she is to be at home full time and the less likely she is to work full time.
Whatever a mother's economic status, homemaking remains underappreciated. "Your value to society seems to be plummeting when you're not doing what you were doing in the workplace," Scholl says.
Emphasizing the value of at-home parents is one goal of two growing national organizations, Mothers at Home, in Fairfax, Va., and the 8,000-member Mothers & More, based in Napervlle, Ill. Websites and newsletters also offer support and a forum for discussions, including options for working at home.
Noting that some mothers have always had a desire to be home, Susan DeRitis, a spokeswoman for Mothers at Home, says: "Now, women are taking control of their lives and saying, 'This is where I want to be.' They're not letting society or media dictate to them what they should be doing as far as raising their kids." She also sees more fathers at home.
Last month, more than 300 at-home mothers gathered in Schaumburg, Ill., northwest of Chicago, for the first national conference of Mothers & More. The dominant issue, organizers say, centered on the contribution women's unpaid labor makes to the economy and to society.
"We feel strongly that our culture should place a higher value on the unpaid work that women do, primarily in raising the next generation to be good and productive citizens," says spokeswoman Catherine Carbone-Rogers.
The group also seeks to increase awareness of the economic penalties women incur in raising children. These include not only lost wages, Social Security, and pensions, but also diminished career possibilities. More than 70 percent of members say they will return to work eventually. Another 22 percent are uncertain. Seven percent intend to stay home permanently.
Women who leave the workforce often feel their hand is forced, Carbone-Rogers says. "They can't continue their career in the capacity they were in and still have any kind of family life. There isn't a very good middle ground in a lot of careers."
Kristin Maschka, of Pasadena, Calif., who attended the Mothers & More conference, heard many members voice frustration over their lack of choices. "Most of them are very committed to doing what's right for their kids," she says. "But they find themselves constrained by society in terms of the number of options they have."
Mrs. Maschka learned firsthand about her own limited options when she left her position as director of learning and development for Earthlink, an Internet service provider, after the birth of her daughter, Katherine, now eight months old. She considered working part time. Then a financial planner calculated that if she returned to work, Maschka would net between 30 cents and 50 cents on the dollar, after taxes and child-care costs.
Calling that "very depressing," Maschka and her husband concluded that the best solution for the family would be for her to stay home full time.
Changes in the income tax structure, she adds, would reduce the so-called "marriage penalty" that wives pay as a presumed second wage earner. That would help those who want to work part time.
For other women, part-time work remains an elusive dream. After the birth of her son, Xander, eight months ago, Aimee Mury of Framingham, Mass., took a 12-week maternity leave from her job as a training manager for a Big Five accounting firm. Then she began an ideal arrangement, working 24 hours a week at home as part of her employer's "distance teleworking" program.
Now, to cut costs, the firm is ending that program in her office. About 40 women, most of them mothers like Mrs. Mury, are leaving. Only one accepted an offer to return full time.
"I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm not going full time,'" Mury says. "Usually full time means overtime, too. That wasn't going to work with my personal values and the goals in my life right now."
She and her husband, John, a clergyman, hope their new arrangement will be financially viable. She also hopes her employer will eventually reinstate the part-time telecommuting program.
In the mothers' groups Mury has observed, she sees a shift in attitudes among women who might once have hurried back to work after maternity leave.
"Working part time and staying home part time seems to be politically correct," she says. "The thing to do is stay home full time if you can, part time if you have to. It's a twist I didn't expect."
Other women say they are pleased to see an end to much of the media-fueled divisiveness that once supposedly existed between working mothers and those at home. Women on both sides agree that different choices are appropriate for different families.
"In all sincerity, there is no judgment on anybody else and what they decide to do," Scholl says. "I just decided it wasn't going to work for me [to continue a career], and I needed to find another way."
Maschka, too, observes a greater acceptance of the varied decisions women make. "For the most part, the mothers I talk to see more commonalities than they do differences. They are very eager to have mothers come together in a way that we can really speak with one voice."
One long-term perspectve on the challenges that both groups face comes from Sherry Reinhardt of Berkeley, Calif. For 22 years, Ms. Reinhardt has been bringing first-time mothers together in small support groups. Some 5,000 women have taken part in these so far. She finds isolation to be one of the biggest challenges facing parents today.
Participants are fairly evenly divided between those who resume their careers and those who do not.
"Most women do not return to work easily, even though they love their careers and would like to find a balance," Reinhardt says. "They torture [themselves] about finding good childcare. They feel incredibly guilty for leaving their babies with another caretaker. They feel misunderstood by their employers and other employees."
Still, those who go back often find their lives stabilizing after a few months.
Some of these new mothers have observed women bosses whose heavy workloads prevented them from spending much time with their children. They want to do it differently.
For those who need or want to return to work, Reinhardt would like maternity leave to last at least six months. She expresses "serious concern" about the impact of corporate demands on parents and children. "The expectations in the workplace are absolutely stunning to family life."
More realistic hours would also help, Maschka says. Before she left her job, she routinely logged 50-hour work weeks. Her husband, a corporate real estate attorney, puts in 60 to 80 hours a week. Two careers, they realized, would leave no time for their family.
Yet many employers in professional fields demand the kind of hours her husband works, Maschka says. "Anybody who cuts back is not a team player, and is not considered for advancement."
Even in companies with family-friendly policies, such as job-sharing and telecommuting, a question remains: Do workers who take advantage of flexible options get marginalized?
"In most companies, you're taken off the fast track and you miss out on the plum assignments," Maschka says.
For those who stay home full time, economic issues can loom large. Paula Luksza of Framingham, Mass., who has worked variously as a journalist, a police officer, and a doctor's assistant, has been at home since her 17-month-old son, Jake, was born.
As she and her husband prepared to live on one paycheck, she wondered: "Where is the money going to come from?"
For now, Mrs. Luksza works part time at home, evenings and weekends, as a paralegal for two lawyers.
"What I bring in with these two jobs is not enough," she says. "Somehow, we scrape by. The whole financial situation is very difficult."
She plans to return to work eventually, but remains firm about wanting to stay home while Jake is young.
To call national attention to issues affecting women at home, Mothers & More has an advocacy department. Members are drafting positions on issues such as Social Security reform.
Similarly, Mothers at Home maintains a public-policy department to study political, economic, and cultural issues that affect mothers' decisions.
Women who do declare a timeout at work often eventually find other rewards at home. Brenda LeBlanc of Ashland, Mass., left a decade-long career in accounting when her daughter, Samantha, was born two years ago. "I went crazy for the first six months," she recalls.
When Samantha was three months old, Mrs. LeBlanc attended an alumni function at her college. As the only mother not working, she found herself almost apologizing for being home.
Now, thanks to a newfound confidence that has been developing since she joined a Mothers & More chapter, LeBlanc no longer apologizes. "When people ask me what I do, I say, 'I'm home with my daughter.' They ask, 'Do you like it?' I tell them, 'Yup, I absolutely love it.'"
Mury, too, expects her time at home with Xander to yield many benefits. "It will be an opportunity to ask myself, What are my passions? I know that God has given me a lot of gifts and talents," she says.
"I love being a mother, so there's passion there. I'm going to take some time to explore a bit."
Whatever a family's particular situation, Reinhardt and others urge parents to follow their own best leanings.
"Moms will be criticized for any choice they make - working or not working outside the home, and all sorts of other choices in parenting," Reinhardt says. "We need to clarify what feels right for us, and then protect ourselves from the inevitable criticisms from family, friends, and society."
For more information on at-home mothers' organizations: www.mah.org and www.mothersandmore.org.