Mommy Is Really Home from Work

More female high achievers are stopping out to raise kids--and avoiding Corporate America when they return

The Gang of Nine is a group of female friends, overachievers all, who went to Harvard Business School together in the late 1980s. After graduation, they took some of the most lusted-after jobs in New York City--at Morgan Stanley, American Express, Salomon Smith Barney, and other A-list employers. It was during this heady period in the early 1990s that they vowed to meet at least once a month to form a kind of workingwomen's salon. Ever the managers, they organized their soirees by theme: the principles of feng shui, ace moves in poker, maximizing one's potential. Once, they hauled in a sex therapist--their most riotous evening on record. But as they began having children and leaving the city in the mid-'90s, their monthly rendezvous tapered off to the occasional e-mail or phone call.

Then, last April, one Gang of Niner managed to organize a reunion of seven of the original pack at Sarabeth's Kitchen on Manhattan's Upper East Side. As the group gathered for brunch, a marked difference became clear: All but one had left Corporate America. Member Melissa James was on maternity leave, agonizing over whether to return to her job as a managing director at Morgan Stanley. (She did, but on a reduced schedule.) The rest, at least for a time, had put "former" in front of their once-triumphant titles so they could make their kids their first priority. Says Gang of Niner Cynthia Russell: "These are women you never thought would stop working."

They are hardly the only ones. A recent study by Harvard B-school professor Myra Hart found that of the women graduates from the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991, only 38% were still working full time. The B-school's alumni bulletin summed it up with an illustration of a briefcase-toting executive rushing out of her office. The sign on the door read: "Back in Five Minutes," with "Minutes" crossed out and replaced with "Years?"

Something similar is happening at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where MBA program director Sharon Hoffman says the ranks of the stay-at-homes have swollen so much that she invented a term for them: stopouts. "Women are realizing it's impossible for a human being to have it all," says Hoffman. "You can have it sequentially but not concurrently."

Forty years ago, when Betty Friedan decried the subjugation of the suburban housewife, women were fighting to get out of the house. Now, some of the women who benefitted most from those earlier struggles are deciding that's where they want to be. Caught between their executive and maternal instincts, these high-achieving boomer and Gen X moms are going workforce AWOL by taking career sabbaticals that last at least a year. "I thought life could be long, and if it was, I'd have many options to return to my career," says Gang of Nine member Janet Nezhad Band, a Harvard University BA, JD, and MBA who quit her job as a senior counsel at MTV Networks in 1997 to raise her two kids. "But if life is short, I want to spend it with them."

The growth of the stay-at-home-for-now phenomenon is showing up in the latest Census Bureau figures. After rising steadily for a quarter-century, the number of women with children under age 1 in the workforce dropped from a record high of 59% in 1998 to 55% in 2000. Although small, it's a significant change. But experts point out that the slide could be short-lived, especially given the economic downturn and legions of layoffs.

What is clear is that the new wave of stopping out appears to be concentrated most among the best-educated and highest-achieving women--those in their 30s and 40s who have college degrees and, often, wealthy husbands. The '90s stock option bonanza allowed many of these dual-earner families to live well on a single income. Federal Reserve data show that nearly half of households earning $250,000 to $499,999 now have just one breadwinner, up from 38% in the early 1990s. Moreover, now that 1 in 3 women are outearning their husbands and younger generations are rejecting the values of the money-and-work-obsessed 1980s and '90s, more men are dropping out, too; the number of children living with stay-at-home dads has soared 70% since 1990, to 1.7 million, according to 2000 Census figures.

Gen X men and women consider the balancing of home and work their biggest challenge, and they also see it as their first priority--far more important than earning a mega-income or an impressive title, according to research by Catalyst. In a departure from the breakthrough generation, many of the successor women are finding a new comfort level with taking time off. Corporate layoffs are fast destigmatizing unemployment since so many managers are now often between jobs. Experts say the stay-at-home inclination also stems from watching older women frantically try to "have it all," achieving positions of success by age 40 only to find that their fertility had been sacrificed along the way.

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By Michelle Conlin, with Jennifer Merritt, in New York and Linda Himelstein in San Mateo, Calif.

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