Original Publication: New York Women – October, 1988
When Nancy Conger, 42, quit her job as a vice president of U.S. Trust of New York three years ago, she had just given birth to the second of her three children. Her eldest was then thirteen, and she had been working full time since he was three. “I already knew quality times tends to be bull unless you have no responsibilities at home,” she says, “but you walk in the door and the first question is, ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’ Now I am active in his school and able to listen to him when he wants to talk.” Lie many other women working full time, Conger quit a job she loved because she felt she couldn’t fulfill work demands and provide her children with the care she felt they deserved.
She is not alone. There was a time not long ago when a generation of smart, ambitious girls dreamed of becoming just like their fathers, who worked in offices and stayed away from the house all day. Then they became mothers, and the male model didn’t fit their needs anymore. Despite years on the job with immeasurable psychic and professional investment, many of the best and brigthest women leave the corporate world and never return – they change careers entirely, work part time or start their own business. (Two thirds of the small businesses started today are headed by women.)
After leaving her job, Conger studied on her own and passed the exams required for certifcation as a financial planner. Subsequently she has begun her own small financial advisory business registered with the SEC. Although her income is not what it once was, her husband’s career is solid and she saved for years before quitting. “If you have a computer and a modem, you can do almost anything,” says Conger, who feels her community work has helped her find clients and that she is laying the foundation now for a business that can easily expand if and when she chooses to work full time. Currently she drops off her one-year-old daughter at her sitter’s house and works while her sixteen-year-old son attends high school and her three-year-old son goes to nursery school. The most important aspect of her work, she says, is that her time is her own: “Some days I spend all day at it; some no time at all. It changes every day, but I do it on my own terms.”
After her second child was born, Dora Clayton (not her real name), 33, lasted exactly one day back at work as associate articles editor of a women’s magazine. “I kept thinking, Why am I doing this to myself? Then I felt my milk let down, and I started to cry.” Clayton left just as her doctor husband was completing his residency. She has begun to accept freelance writing assignments, but now there is only one paycheck coming in, and the Claytons have dropped plans to renovate their apartment. Few clothes were bought this year, and vacations were spent at home. Even so, Clayton’s husband is glad about her decision, and ultimately so is she. “I’d rather be at home worrying about work than at work worrying about my kids.”
In a more enlightened world, of course, women wouldn’t have to make such wrenching choices. But despite the strength of their numbers in the work force, women have made surprisingly few demands in the workplace, and consequently they’ve gotten little in return. For the most part, the business world remains serenely inflexible. Today 52 percent of all women with children under the age of one year work – up from 32 percent just ten years ago. Corporate America has barely acknowledged the need to provide adequate child care, and the idea that a woman might want to keep her job but temporarily switch her hours to part time (while her children are young), instead of having to leave a job where she may already have put in ten years, is practically unheard of. Flextime – including options such as job sharing or working at home via computer – is currently available to only 20 percent of the work force.
The situation in New York is particularly difficult. “New York is type A-plus,” says Carol Kanarek, a lawyer whose consulting firm, Kanarek & Shaw, finds jobs for experienced lawyers and counsels women lawyers who want to switch to part-time work. “The definition of part-time work for New York lawyers,” says Kanarek, “is nine to six, five days a week. Law is so traditionally male that women are placed into a male-dominated structure and told to sink or swim.” Rather than maintain a schedule that requires them to turn almost 100 percent of child care over to someone else, hundreds of women have simply decided to get out of the pool
“I fought with myself to accept the fact I couldn’t do it all,” says lawyer and ex-Pan Am lobbyist Hope Winthrop, 37. “After my first child, one of the motivating factors of going back to work full times was that I did not want to lose my feelings of equality. I didn’t want to admit anything had changed in my life.” Although Winthrop did return to work, she quit when she became pregnant with her second child. “I think it would have been terrific to share my job with another woman, but I didn’t have any choice,” she says.
The city is filled with women searching for solutions to the work/parenting dilemma. Former Merrill Lynch Eurodollars trader Rose Ann Nielsen is now at home with a three-year-old and an eleven-month-old. Nielsen loves the world of finance but found the hours brutal. So she is now enrolled in an interior design course, hoping she has a flair for that more flexible profession. According to Horst H. Stipp, director of social research for NBC, whose article “What is a Working Woman?” was published in the July issue of American Demographics, one in three women who stopped working in 1986 did so to devote time to her home and children. Only one in a hundred men who took a work break did so for this reason. Hope Winthrop thinks this need is something of a blessing in disguise: “Women are incredibly lucky that by having children they are able to make these changes in their lives. I sometimes think men never dare make radical changes. It’s both very hard and very liberating.” Five or ten years from now, Winthrop says, “I’ll do something entirely different.”
This trend toward having it all but not all at once has been dubbed “sequencing,” which is also the title of a book by Arlene Rossen Cardozo, a former biological researcher and home-based mother of three daughters. Cardozo notes that many women have rejected a definition of motherhood based on fatherhood: “Fatherhood became the very model for motherhood. Men don’t stay home to raise their familes . . . why should women?” After rejecting this definition for herself, Cardozo began writing at home – three books ago – for only a half hour each day at first. (A half hour, she writes, is the time it took for her third daughter to throw exactly thirty-seven toys out of a nearby window.)
Cardozo found scores of women in situations similar to her own: women who were at first thrown by the lack of external structure in their lives but who in the end learned to become their own bosses. Thus the “high rate of sequencing women who become entrepreneurs. . . . is not [an] accident.”
Hope Winthrop, for one, first saw the possibilities of starting a business to sell custom hand-painted children’s furniture when she was pregnant with her second daughter. Some ten months later she found her partner, Anita Boston Dana, by chance at F.A.O. Schwarz, where Dana, a mother herself and a former teacher of the deaf who lives north of Boston, was displaying small pieces of furniture she had hand-painted. The two clicked instantly, but it took them two and a half years of searching for the right manufacturer and setting up the business with the right advertising before their first catalog was ready to go. They advertised in The New Yorker and Child magazines, bought mailing lists and culled lists of private schools. Dana paints the furniture and ships it from Massachusetts; Winthrop handles sales in New York. Both women work half-days and slack off in the summer when their children are all home. “If we wanted this to explode, we could do it,” says Dana. “Right now we have all the work we want.” The impetus for beginning their business, however, was not purely financial. Says Winthrop, “I could not think of myself as just doing nothing.”
For many working mothers, the idea of just quitting and no longer thinking of themselves in terms of their careers is the toughest hurdle. “If part of your definition of who you are is your occupation or work, it’s hard to let go,” says Patsy Glazer, who was once vice president for community affairs at Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. “It’s the reason many women go back. Not all go back for the money.”
But many women feel that staying at home is by far the best choice they could have made. “There is a kind of feeling of superiority, [that] you’re really giving the best to your kids,” reports Felicity Gund, 39, a former Sierra Club official now expecting her third child in four years. There are drawbacks, though — prejudice against housewives abounds (most often, mothers report, on the part of working women).
The loss of status is especially hard for younger women who have always trained for the fast track. Wendy Gordon, 31 and the mother of two young boys, says she is the only one she can think of from her class at Princeton who has opted to stall at a “junior senior position.” Gordon, who is currently on maternity leave as an environmental scientist for a public-interest law firm, had been working three days a week. Now she’s not sure about returning at all: “I could juggle it with one child, but my expectations at work were far greater than what I could produce on my hours.” Such guilt, Gordon feels, stems from being part of a generation that is “prone to excess . . . If we could only slow ourselves down and delay gratificiation at bit, I think we would all end up in the same place.”
Cardozo suggests that women who are coping without the stimulation of work, without their own money and without their titles should keep up their professional contacts, keep abreast of changes in their fields and seek a support network – even if it means moving to a different neighborhood to find one. No matter what, it takes a while to adjust. “I had a year of isolation,” says ex-lititgator Joan Chase, mother of a three-year-old and a two-year-old. “I was very lonely. It changed because every time a mommy walked into the park I talked to her.” As a result, Chase is now part of an Upper East Side children’s play group filled with mothers like herself. “It’s not an easier life,” says Eileen Nolan, a former Newsweek picture editor. “The rewards are not as immediate – like receiving a paycheck every two weeks.”
In the end, every woman who decides to quit for a while assumes a risk. Most women who do so believe the twin assaults on their self-esteem and their bank accounts are more than outweighed by a profound sense of relief that they are doing the right thing for themselves and their children. Many are also surprised by the reward and challenge – the fun – of their new work. Some months after she left Morgan Guaranty, Patsy Glazer received a call from William Grinker, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration. He asked her to undertake a study on part of the city’s controversial foster-care system. Glazer finished the project in nine months, working three days a week, and now does regular freelance consulting and evaluation work for the public sector and nonprofit foundations. She couldn’t be happier: “Right now I’m working on an organizational analysis of the city’s Emergency Medical Services, including riding around in the ambulance. It’s fascinating!”
Like many other women who have made similar choices, Winthrop thinks her decision to quit her profession for a time has taught her a valuable lesson: “I would describe it as an adventure. So often you think, Oh this would be a good idea, but you never do it; it’s interesting to know you can do something even if you’ve never done it before.”
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.