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.
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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.

I definitely can't go back to the 100-hour workweeks, so that type of job is out. Because I leaned in so much in my 20s, I created a no-win situation for myself in my 40s. I trained for a high-power management role, one where you can't really pickup where you left off after being absent for over ten years. By leaving the workforce, I lost all of my accumulated experience and expertise—exactly what made my company want to negotiate family-friendly parameters with me before I left.

So where does that leave the people who may even want to switch paths and have lost time and value while others have been accumulating it? Do we start again? Will the salary of starting again even pay for the childcare we need? Is it worth it? Sandberg writes that women who take time out of the workforce pay a big career penalty. "Only 74% of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and 40% will return to full time jobs." I am surprised the numbers are that high.

I searched the top 2012 Working Mother family-friendly companies—and was somewhat surprised to see that the top ones include Bank of America, Deloitte, and Ernst and Young. When I delved deeper into what landed them on the list, I was disheartened because only one of the family friendly criteria (telecommuting) was of interest to me. Of course, I applaud companies for offering smoking cessation programs, lactation rooms, health screenings, and adoption assistance. While I have no doubt that I could use the onsite nap room that 23 percent of the best family friendly companies provide, those perks don't meet my key family needs and I doubt they will bring the 43 percent back in.

I also searched a few sites that have flextime or family-friendly jobs available, but the job titles are vague at best and most don't report compensation. It was very difficult to truly measure whether any specific position was worth applying for. On top of which, most of these positions (nurse, software developer, speech pathologist, online tax advisor) require new training or skillsets above and beyond what's currently in my toolbelt despite my various Ivy League (albeit dusty) diplomas.

I decided the only way for me to lean in was to make it happen on my own terms: to start a business. I have some momentum with Momstamp, I know it meets a key need and hopefully I'll succeed. If not, I'm not sure there is a seat at corporate America's conference table any time soon.

At least not the way corporate America looks right now. To be clear, I feel no entitlement to have a business accommodate me just because I am a "high achieving" mom. After all, this is business. The role of business is to generate value for their shareholders. Full stop. Only when moms can show that there is true value to the work they can provide when they come back to the workforce will businesses reach out to us. I am not arguing that I am owed anything for past performance, only that I could potentially be a valuable player if work could be structured differently.

I do believe there is a solution: closed-end projects where a business gives clear deliverables and milestones. If you want high-achieving mothers back in the workforce, don't give us an office and a work week filled with facetime, give us something to get done and tell us when you need it by. This is where Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues are in a real position to make a tangible difference to us 43 percent. Post clear project needs in a place parents know about (onramp.me? backtowork.me?) and watch how many of us apply. Consider the management, negotiation, budgeting skills we gained in our years out of the workforce and the skills that many of us never lost. Highly qualified parents could do strategic analysis, build financial models, write legal briefs or PR pieces, generate blog posts or plan corporate conferences.

Project-based work provides many benefits to both businesses and those re-entering. Freelancers don't hit the bottom line as hard as because they aren't paid benefits. With clear project descriptions, deadlines, and compensation, more moms who may be overqualified for a position might decide that they are willing to help out with a project because it meets their needs in the short term. I am sure that many moms will even step up to do a project even at the cost of their family because the timing is only temporary. As the business and the mom work together more, maybe a full-time job will come of it when all parties understand the value.

Bring back the 43 percent into the workforce. Help us add value—you just have to structure the job so that we can.

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

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