The New Debate Over Working Moms

As more choose to stay home, office life is again under fire

NanC Weiland thinks she knows why one friend's kids are fat, TV-addicted disasters and another's are "miniature adults," obsessed with brand names and always ready with a smart-mouth remark. By the time these moms get home from work, they are too exhausted for parenting. "That's why I think you've got to be home," Weiland says. "It's the best thing for the child--and it's the best thing for the family."

Talk like this might make Weiland sound like a 1950s revivalist, but just a few years ago, the 30-year-old wanted nothing to do with June Cleaver. In fact, until recently, Weiland was the kind of woman you could imagine feminist crusader Betty Friedan wanting to have drinks with. Weiland worked her way through college by waitressing and then waited 7 years after she married to have a baby so she could travel and develop her career in sales. Three months ago, she and her husband, Thomas, had a little girl.

When she was working, NanC often felt she had to fight falling into the role of housekeeper and cook at home. The battles with her husband seemed constant. So once Ava was born, the couple decided to forgo NanC's income so she could stay at home. They'd get by on one car and almost no meals out. Thomas, a product manager at Inc., now takes the bus to work and eats his lunch out of a very un-New Economy pail that NanC packs for him. She wants her daughter to know she got an education and made it in her career. "But now, there's no more battle," she says. "I clean the house, I cook, I take care of the money, and I take care of the baby. And when my husband comes home, he comes back to a peaceful home," she says. "It has made me believe that this is the way it's supposed to be."

There are plenty of stay-at-home moms who think exactly as Weiland does, just as there are many working mothers who think people such as Weiland are trapped in some bizarre, Stepford Wives time warp. "I have friends who start drinking at two in the afternoon, take antidepressants, can't stand the sight of their own kids, and don't even speak to their husbands anymore," says one working mom of her stay-at-home sisters. But it's not as if either group has found a formula for that still-elusive peace of mind. Working moms battle feelings of guilt over leaving their children and powerlessness over the stress in frenetic careers, while stay-at-home moms fight feelings of isolation, boredom, and purposelessness, with studies showing depression rates among women highest for those at home with preschool children.

Some 25 years after women started pouring into the labor force, you would think the work-and-family dilemma would have eased, or that the judgments women have about each other's choices would have at least lost some of their sting. But in some ways, the tensions today are fiercer than ever, exacerbated by the New Economy's demands on dual-earner couples for 60-hour workweeks on the one hand and the increased option for some to stay at home on the other.

Often, the divide appears in that awkward pause that creeps up at cocktail parties when a stay-at-home mom is asked the perennial compartmentalizer: "What do you do?" Working mothers say they feel it when they get shut out of school volunteer work as if it were punishment for having careers. Even play groups are sometimes divided along party lines. "What is so unbelievable to me is that 9 times out of 10, the jibes, the tensions you feel--they all come from other women," says 33-year-old Erika Brown, chief marketing officer for Internet Venture Works Inc. in Waltham, Mass., and mother of a 15-month-old. "It's a galvanizing topic that puts women in one camp or another."

It's this can't-win-no-matter-what dynamic that is distracting women from drilling down to the real problem: the way the workplace in Corporate America is designed. According to Joan Williams, co-director of American University's Gender, Work & Family Project and author of the recently released book Unbending Gender, most jobs are centered around the notion of an ideal worker who labors at least 40 hours a week--and often 60--without ever taking a break or downshifting for child-rearing. "If you define the ideal worker around men's bodies and men's traditional life patterns, that's not choice," says Williams. "That's discrimination."

With the deck stacked like this, Williams says, it's no wonder women wind up feeling like failures in both arenas. To fit into the ideal-worker mold, women often feel they have to sacrifice being good mothers. Yet leaving the workforce altogether often marginalizes them economically--some 40% of divorced mothers end up in poverty.

RIGGED. For women at the top, the problems aren't monetary but psychological. Michele R. Bolton, an executive coach at ExecutivEdge in Silicon Valley, recently completed a three-year study of some of high tech's most powerful and successful moms, some of whom are still working and others who have decided to stay at home. The research became a part of her recently released book, The Third Shift. What Bolton discovered was that both groups of women were plagued with doubts about their choices and tormented by their own second-guessing. "When you are uncertain about your own decision, it is a natural human tendency to discount or marginalize someone else's decision," says Bolton. "If you are feeling pretty good about what you do, you don't tend to worry about what someone else is doing."

But feeling pretty good about what they do, mothers say, is almost impossible. For six years, Danielle Davis, a 32-year-old mother of two and senior public-relations counselor at Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc., fantasized about being home with her kids. If she quit her job, she thought, she'd obliterate her constant regrets about being out of the house all day and then blowing in at six to get dinner started. So she worked it out with her husband, an Immigration & Naturalization Service agent, to stay at home with her sons, then aged one and six.

But the move hardly solved all of her problems. She couldn't volunteer at her six-year-old's school, as she had planned, because on one income, child care for her infant son would have cost too much. Accustomed to being a 50-50 partner with her husband, she now felt as if she had nothing to contribute--not even to conversations. She soon found herself feeling bored, sad, and disappointed, missing the action at the office. "I felt bad I didn't want to be home with my kids," she says. Nine months later, she was back at work.

Even so, Davis sometimes feels "a negative vibe" from the other moms, 90% of whom stay at home in her suburban Baltimore neighborhood. It surfaces at sports practices, when Davis has to drop off her son late because she works, or when she gets turned down for volunteer work at school because she can't make the 10 a.m. meetings. "It creates a big divide," Davis says. "It's a mind game, and you just get it subliminally."

Although Davis says her time at home makes her feel more confident than ever about her decision to work, many mothers who haven't had the chance to switch back and forth say they continue to feel caught. So, too, do many men who are taking on more family responsibilities but getting no slack at work. Williams argues that the only way this pressure will let up is by redesigning work--creating part-time jobs that offer proportional pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. As it stands now, part-time work rarely offers half the pay of full-time positions and often doesn't include benefits. Human-resource heads argue that their companies are addressing work-family conflicts with an arsenal of programs, including part-time or flexible work arrangements and telecommuting.

But unless you work for one of the big consulting firms, such as Ernst & Young or Deloitte & Touche, or a handful of other enlightened companies that have made a big push to promote part-timers, you can forget about advancement. Surveys show that most work-family programs have appallingly low rates of success in keeping women at work. In fact, many workers report that they feel they need "air cover"--in the form of a high-ranking male supervisor--before they can take advantage of the policies. Using the programs, they say, is often tantamount to holding up a sign asking not to be promoted.

UNFAIR CHOICE. This is one of the reasons women choose to drop out, resulting in a work world that presents itself as egalitarian but in which 95% of upper management in Corporate America is still composed of men. No wonder, then, that women intent on reaching the top, more often than other women, forgo having children altogether. A recent study by women's research organization Catalyst found that of the successful women with MBAs who have risen to within three levels of the CEO position in their corporations, only 67% are married, compared with 84% of men with the same work success. And when it comes to children, the gap widens even further. Nearly three-quarters of the men have kids, while only 49% of the women do.

Catalyst didn't ask these women why they didn't marry or have kids, but American University's Williams says it's still too often the case that women have to choose between success at work and success at home. "That's the shame," she says, "because it's the ideals that are really at odds with each other--not us." Realizing that, Williams and other experts say, will help women redirect their slings at the real target: employers. In the tightest labor market in decades, women can finally afford to start demanding jobs that make more sense.