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Mommy, Me and an Advanced Degree

The pull of stay-at-home motherhood seems to be intensifying for some career women.

January 06, 2002|ANN MARSH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent evening at Lilly's French Cafe on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Andrea Stanford, 35, joins four other mothers at an outside table for a book club dinner. The evening's selection, "Midwives," is aptly titled, for the women are in the process of birthing new lives not only for their young children, but also for themselves.

You might say that Stanford and her book club friends are thoroughbreds of the U.S. economy. Each invested prodigious amounts of time and money to acquire an advanced degree in business or law from a top university. Each built an impressive work resume.

And, then, after bearing a child in her 30s, all but one in recent years decided to lay aside the prestige, adventure and income of her professional life to raise a family from home. The one working mother in the group has a part-time job. In Stanford's case, this meant reducing the number of household income streams from two to one, just after buying a house. She isn't alone in taking this course. At Stanford's other book club, seven of the eight members--all women with advanced degrees--are stay-at-home moth- ers who are postponing their career goals. Says Stanford, "We feel like we're doing something really important. I don't think there's a lot of regret. We all see this as our second career."

A similar phenomenon is at work on the other side of the country in Cambridge, Mass., among a slightly younger group of women in their late 20s to early 30s. In the second-year class of MBA candidates now at Harvard Business School, it appears that two to three times as many students as usual are pregnant. The increase is anecdotal; the university doesn't keep track of whether its female students are expecting. But students say a typical class will have one or two pregnant students. This year, there are at least five pregnancies or births, and a rumored sixth, among the 200-plus female students.

In addition, other women in the class say they hope to follow suit, opting out of the rush to interview with a dwindling number of recruiters on campus in this economic downturn. Says one woman who is trying to get pregnant, "I'm amazed by the number of pregnant bellies I see in class."

Is something afoot? Perhaps. A combination of forces, from the lagging economy to a shrinking number of flexible job positions to the psychological fallout from the World Trade Center disaster, is pushing some of the country's best-prepared career women toward stay-at-home motherhood. And that could magnify a trend detected by the U.S. Census Bureau and detailed in its "Fertility of American Women" report, released in October.

The report surveyed 30,000 women and found that between June 1998 and June 2000, the percentage of women in the workplace with infant children declined from 59% to 55%. It was the first such drop since the periodic survey began in 1976.

Vicky Lovell, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C., speculates that the drop may simply reflect the exit from the work force of a well-off group of women who joined it between 1994 and 1998, the time of the last Census Bureau report.

"We saw sort of a bubble," Lovell says. "My interpretation of it was that this was a group of women who were unusually privileged and who entered the labor force at a vigorous time in the economy. The opportunities may have been too good for them to give up."

Even at the peak of the boom, however, in the 1998 to 2000 period, many of more than two dozen women interviewed say they began trading economic opportunity for time at home with the children. In some cases, they did so because their husbands were making enough to offset the loss of their salaries. And many found the dot-com ethos of long hours and endless work weeks incompatible with effective child-rearing, no matter how tempting the financial reward.

Once the downturn started, in spring 2000, layoffs began and job opportunities dwindled. Some decided the time had come to make a change they'd been contemplating for months or even years. "From an economist's point of view, it's very rational," Lovell says. "They're guessing the recession will not last very long and thinking that the salary they're giving up now is probably less than what they will get later."

It is unclear whether this decline will continue as the economic doldrums force more fiscal austerity on U.S. families. "We won't know for a while where the trend will settle down," Lovell says. But for some with the means to opt out of the work force, the new realities of recession-era workplaces and a shift in the national mentality have put a brighter gloss on motherhood.

Back when the nation's crop of 2002 business school graduates sent in their applications for MBA programs, job opportunities were plentiful, with employers dangling enticements ranging from huge signing bonuses to plum assignments for recent grads.

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