Why 43% of Women With Children Leave Their Jobs, and How to Get Them Back

Parents could take on freelance, deadline-driven projects for companies.

I read Lean In expecting a manifesto for my generation. Instead, I found myself in a statistic on the bottom of page 98. "43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time." This is me. I am the 43 percent. For those of us who left the traditional workforce to raise their kids with full intention of returning to the workplace, Sheryl Sandberg provides no advice or strategies for re-entry.

I have a similar background to Sandberg. With a BA from Columbia, a Masters from Harvard and an MBA from Wharton, I also spent time as a management consultant, working long hours. My OB still jokes about my phone call when I was seven months pregnant to ask if I could go with work to visit an oil rig in Jakarta (the answer was no). I negotiated the first maternity leave ever for a consultant in my office. There had never been a woman at my level who had gotten pregnant before. I was back at work after 10 weeks as I always thought I would, leaving my baby with my supportive husband and a nanny.

I was missing out on key moments in my daughter's life and I was an exhausted, nervous wreck. It would be an easy story to say that my consulting firm pushed me out—but it was the opposite. They tried hard to keep me. They let me work from home often and take time off for appointments. "Just get the job done," they said. That was the problem, though—getting the job done was all about giving everything to the job, and that wasn't sustainable for me once I had a child. I don't fault my firm at all. They are a scrappy service business that needs to consistently deliver high value to their clients by working better and harder. I was good at my job, which was why they were willing to accommodate me—but it was also why, after having my second child, I had to leave.

Leaving the workforce was not easy for me. I spent many a mommygroup crying in the bathroom after other moms declared that being a stay at home mom fulfilled everything they had ever hoped for in life—the best job ever! I mourned my career, and the role where people listened to me, where there were right answers. That couldn't have been the farther from the truth as a mom. Turns out that you can graph milk intake in many different ways, but it still doesn't mean your five-month-old will sleep through the night.

Today, I am the mother of four kids. People often react to that information with "Wow, you must have your hands full". I often say back with a laugh, "I am very competitive," and it's only partly a joke. I always wanted four kids, having had such a great childhood growing up in a family of six. I wasn't willing to compromise on the life that I wanted, though I knew that it would delay my re-entry into the workforce even longer and solidify my role as "mom" for the long haul.

As a stay-at-home mom, I have struggled with guilt, boredom, and feeling overwhelmed, coupled with moments of intense gratitude for being able to be there for my kids. I am aware that by moving from a profit center (making money) to a cost center (costing money), I have limited the choices that my husband has for his career. I know how lucky I am to have a partner who supports me in all ways, taking on more than his fair share of housework and parenting, sharing my philosophy, backing my ventures and listening to my struggles. It has not been easy, but we have tried our best to impart to our kids that what we do shows what we value- and we value our family above all else.

My "years off" have not been without accomplishment. I have been able to leverage my skillset to take on key volunteer roles and hopefully make a difference in my community. I created a neighborhood preschool and co-founded a synagogue. When a local charter school asked me to write their business plan, I got more involved, eventually chairing their board, reorganizing their org structure and expanding their schools. When people were having trouble finding great nannies, I started a nanny agency and ran it for a few years. Currently, I am working on a web startup called Momstamp that features trusted recommendations for service-providers and products.

When my fourth child enrolled in kindergarten, I realized the day had come: I was ready to lean in again. But how? As many of us lift our heads up after years of raising kids, the prospects of returning to the workforce are daunting, even though many of us would like to go back. Many of the structural issues that made work so difficult to sustain once I had kids seem even more insurmountable now.

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Paulette Light is a co-founder of MomStamp, a website for product and service-provider recommendations.

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