Back-to-work blues for moms

What happens when women who "opt out" of their careers later want to opt back in?

Published November 23, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

As Broadsheet noted yesterday, the "opt-out revolution" spearheaded by women with elite educations who jettison or interrupt their careers to become stay-at-home mothers has lately become sexy, front-page news. Time magazine, the New York Times Magazine and a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times have featured the phenomenon on their covers -- usually accompanied by a photo of a lovely, long-haired, Type A Wellesley or Harvard Business School grad, cradling her offspring, evidently smitten. By contrast, any news concerning the difficulties such mothers face when returning to work tends to be relegated to the dim recesses of magazines and papers, if it is reported on at all.

In the Job Market section of last Sunday's New York Times, a report about women returning to work after a hiatus for motherhood begins with the cautiously optimistic headline: "Some Signs of Easier Re-entry After Breaks to Rear Children." But from there, the tone of the piece turns negative, urging mothers to keep up their business contacts, to volunteer only for "resume-building activities" -- no class field trips, no "soup ladling" -- and to be prepared to return to careers several rungs below those they left. Assessing the available opportunities, the article announces that most large, Fortune 500 companies remain reluctant to hire back-to-work mothers, and -- despite what you might watch on "Desperate Housewives" -- it is a trend that does not appear to be changing. Instead, says Laura Hill, president of Careers in Motion, women who are hoping to return to work might do well to set their sights on medium-sized and small employers and nonprofit and community groups that "cannot be as choosy."

Read on and the news worsens. The Times notes that a study by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change has shown that even within that safe harbor of community groups and nonprofits, returning job seekers still receive a "frosty reception." Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned chronicler of the down and out, sums up the plight of the back-to-work mom thus: "The prohibition on resume gaps is pretty great ... You have to be getting an education or making money for somebody all along, every minute."

Once again for those of you who missed it: "All along, every minute." Reports of female professionals rediscovering the joys of motherhood are a trend worth covering, but they are only part of a very important story. The limited prospects for mothers returning to work reflect the other half of that story -- the dark side of the maternal fairy tale so often neglected in the media. Ehrenreich's words remind us that the basic values of our society have not changed: Fealty to the moneymaking treadmill trumps family values pretty much everywhere. For mothers who take time off to raise their children -- no easy job, remember -- the road back can be hard.

By Cecelie Berry

Cecelie S. Berry is the editor of "Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood," which received an American Book Award for 2005.

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