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On Hold By Choice

When Leslie Loughlin got off the fast track, she practically left skid marks. The Boston mother with the MBA and chemical engineering degree used to manage 120 people as a senior project manager for a consulting firm before her children Grace and Eric were born.

Now she works three nights a week at Baby Gap for the retail discount–and the chance to get out of the house. One day when she was out hunting for baby clothes, the manager jokingly told her she was in the store so much she should work there.

By the time she left, he had talked her into filling out an application. “I went home feeling a little silly because it was so far off from anything I had ever done or wanted to do,” she says. But she took the job.

Somewhat to her surprise, she now says she is “having a blast. “It’s so relaxing compared to what I used to be up against. I went from working in a world-wide company making $80,000 a year to making $8 an hour and working for managers that are young enough to be my children,” she says.

Loughlin is happy with her choice for now. It provides flexibility, freedom and time to focus on her kids. Other perks? “No business suits, no meetings, no constantly trying to prove yourself in a male-dominated field, no traveling, no deadlines, and no clients telling you to work Christmas,” she says.

New Priorities

But the work/family dilemma that Loughlin faced is not unique. It’s a private and painful problem that millions of women struggle with every year. And while no mother would deny that her children are “priceless,” the fact remains that the economic cost of being a mother is high for working women.

The average college-educated woman pays a “mommy tax” of over $1,000,000 in lost wages over her lifetime when she decides to have a child, according to Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood.  While some simply walk away, choosing to invest 100% of their energies into keeping the home fires burning, others want to work, not only for the money, but for the sense of identity, contribution and accomplishment it brings.

But unlike the baby boomer women before them, this new breed of “have it all” moms have decided that they don’t want the stress of 60-hour workweeks, constant travel and little or no family time. What they want is autonomy to set their own priorities.

A major trend now is to practice the art of “sequencing”: moving in and out of paid employment and choosing a variety of flexible work arrangements in order to successfully balance work and family. According to Mothers & More, a national not-for-profit organization that supports sequencing women, hundreds of thousands of American women choose to de-emphasize their careers every year in order to emphasize family. Two-thirds of mothers are not employed full-time all year, and 25% of these women will leave the workplace early-sometimes at the peak of their careers.

To some extent, stepping in and out of the labor force has become easier to do. New opportunities abound: women can work as consultants, and technology allows women to telecommute or freelance from home.

But the reality is, the majority of corporate America still considers the ideal worker one who can work 40, 50, or even 60 hours a week, and most organizations still don’t offer job sharing, telecommuting or other arrangements that working parents say they need. “We’re the only country in the world that tries to cajole employers to do the right thing for employees, and it isn’t really working,” says Crittenden.

A small, lucky minority are able to cut their own deal and strike the perfect balance. Julie Root, an associate partner with Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, an institutional architectural firm, in Los Angeles, was a self-professed workaholic until the birth of her daughter Millie. “Part-time work is rare in my field, but I decided that I would outline a proposal to give it a shot. I consulted with some women in another department where some colleagues had cut back their work hours to accommodate their families,” she remembers.

It’s not just mothers of newborns who need flexibility. Parenting is a job that requires fluidity through a child’s life. Many children go through difficult periods where extra supervision and emotional support is critical: the middle schooler who’s getting bullied at school; the pre-teen who wants to spend hours surfing the Internet chat rooms; or the teenager who’s hanging around with new friends that are smoking, drinking and experimenting with drugs.

Whie many corporations now attempt to recognize family needs, without a true a societal shift, they won’t be truly successful until there is greater recognition across the board. Too many companies still have the idea that allowing flexible solutions such as job-sharing, telecommuting and part-time work is an employee luxury.

But the entire society benefits when children are taken care of and well-raised.

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