This is the third story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.

When we began interviewing our former classmates at Northwestern, we expected to encounter a few stay-at-home mothers. Even though no one in college had explicitly stated that they planned on stopping work to raise children, we understood that many women make this choice for a range of reasons. The Pew Research Center reports that 10 percent of highly educated mothers (those who earned a master’s degree or greater) stay home. We found that for the 37 women in our sorority’s 1993 graduating class, the percent was more than double: One-quarter are at home raising children—10 people, six of whom hold advanced degrees. These numbers surprised us, to put it mildly. We weren’t the only ones.

Each of the women in this group had been on a successful track after leaving Northwestern, and wanted and intended to have a career after having kids. They were a television writer, teacher, opera singer, public relations manager, lawyer, management consultant, fundraiser and financial adviser, among other professions. Many described their decision to stay home as something that came as a complete surprise.

That becoming a mother changes one’s worldview isn’t news. But while some women had their worlds rocked and then picked themselves up, put on their business casual, and went back to the office, others decided to upend their careers and refashion themselves as full-time mothers. What accounted for the vastly different reactions to the same life-changing event?

While one school of thought is that inadequate family-leave policies inhibit women’s professional advancements, we didn’t encounter a single interviewee who said something like “I didn’t have any maternity leave so I quit,” or, “My maternity leave was too short so I quit.” In fact, most of our interviewees were relatively happy with their maternity benefits. Rather, we observed a number of factors that collectively provide a good indication as to whether someone would keep advancing her career or opt out.

A small minority of our former classmates described a physical and emotional bond with their new children that they simply couldn’t reconcile with going back to work. This was the case among women who both contributed significantly to the family income and who felt stimulated and engaged by their work. A lawyer in a patent-law firm in Kansas City gave birth to her first child a few years after making partner. She had a nanny lined up and was ready to start work as soon as her maternity leave ended. During her leave, she went into the office once a week. A few weeks in she realized “something’s gotta give. I can’t give 100 percent to everything.” Even though she believes the firm would have allowed her to work part-time and still retain her partner status, she says she couldn’t imagine not being available to her clients around the clock; nor could she imagine letting anyone else take care of her child during the day. She walked into her supervisor’s office in tears, and delivered her resignation. “I was not thinking this was temporary,” she said. “I knew I was leaving something big.”

A teacher also felt a switch flip once she had kids: “I never [thought I would want] to stay home with my kids, ever. But then I went to a job interview after my first daughter was born and cried the whole way home. I called and told them I didn’t want the position. I was lucky, because my husband made enough money that I could stay home.”

But the remaining women engaged in a kind of childcare calculus where they factored in their salary, the cost of childcare, their long-term career prospects, and the degree to which their working would negatively affect their family. For those with jobs that were either low-paying or unfulfilling, many stated that “it just made sense” for them to stay home. One former classmate, a singer who worked in sales at UBS to make ends meet while she auditioned, and whose husband is an estate-planning lawyer, left her job toward the end of her first pregnancy. At that point she had abandoned her music career, and a random office job just for the sake of having a job seemed pointless. “The cost of childcare was more than my salary. If I was doing something I loved, I would’ve been more insistent [on staying in].”

A financial planner with a large Wall Street firm left her job while she was pregnant—the job was no longer exciting for her, and she knew there would be no flexibility for time with her new baby. A former lacrosse player at Northwestern, she enrolled in a master’s program in physical therapy at Columbia University, moving toward a career she thought would afford her a more flexible schedule. But even that proved too difficult.

“I was studying for an exam at the library, and making a grocery list at the same time,” she recounted. “I couldn’t handle it. I called my husband and said, ‘I’m dropping out.’” She now has three children, is a full-time stay-at-home mom, and would “love to go back to work,” but doesn’t see how her family would function logistically. With a husband who works long hours in finance and travels often, she’s been managing their home life for eight years. “Being a hands-on parent, and running the whole house, and doing everything, I don’t know how we would do it,” she told us.

In some cases, our former classmates tried to negotiate a part-time situation that would make the prospect of leaving their newborn more tenable. One woman who worked in public relations in North Carolina had carefully researched her daycare options and chose one close to her office. She took her new daughter there the week before she was due back at work to meet the staff and get familiar with the space. “The woman in charge was sitting on the floor with babies all around her. She didn’t even get up or look at my daughter. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.” The new mother canceled the daycare plan and made other arrangements. She returned to work torn, tried to negotiate flexible hours, and was turned down. A few months later she quit. She’s been a full-time mother for the last 14 years.

One commonality among our interviewees who chose to stay home is that they held jobs that, once their first child was born, no longer “worked” for the family: The job wasn’t sufficiently flexible for a new parent; it didn’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare; or it simply wasn’t so fulfilling as to warrant the disruption it would cause the family. So they left.

It’s worth noting here the wealth of research that points to the fact that women are not rewarded at work on par with their male colleagues. Women are promoted more slowly, they’re judged more harshly, and they aren’t compensated the same. A 2010 study by professors at MIT and Indiana University found that organizations whose cultures emphasize meritocracy when it comes to bonuses and promotions are biased towards men. Among the inequities the study unearthed: When women and men received the same level of performance reviews, the men were given bigger bonuses. In their book What Works For Women at Work, Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey identify four obstacles that nearly all women encounter at work, including the need to “prove-it again” and “the tightrope” women must walk between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. They note that men are often hired on the basis of their potential, while women are judged on past performance.

While few women we interviewed pointed to sexism as a factor in leaving the workforce, workplace sexism is often also oblique and subtle. We tended to hear stories about blatant sexism rather than the kind where you might not be sure where the fault lies. As Ann Friedman put it in New York Magazine, “In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.” An advertising agency copywriter who clocked 80 hours a week and was constantly praised for her work told us she’d been passed over for promotion to associate creative director when her boss chose to promote a man with less experience. At another company a couple years later, the same subject was poised for another promotion, only to have her boss question her readiness when he discovered she was pregnant. She fought for the promotion and was set to receive it, but then, near the end of her pregnancy and soured by the experience, she left the company to stay home with her newborn.  

We don’t know if many of our other Opt Out subjects weren’t moving up at the pace they should have been; we don’t know if they were tired of the dance they had to perform on a daily basis between aggression and sweetness, the constant adjusting of one’s personality to meet someone else’s needs. We only know that many felt dissatisfied at work. They used phrases like, “it wasn’t a fit for me” frequently. They said that a job didn’t work or wasn’t rewarding or deeply satisfying; they never stated outright that they thought they were being judged too harshly. But the odds are strong that they were, and then when the time came to choose between a career that wasn’t proceeding quite right for a range of reasons or their children, they chose their children.

Some of our former classmates’ children are now edging into their teen years, and many of these mothers are considering their future in the workplace. Having taken a pause in their careers to have and raise children, they’re struggling to reengage in the professional world. Five have returned to work part-time, or in flexible jobs, but only one has managed to accelerate her career beyond where it was when she left. Though these women were high achievers when they graduated, they lost much of their professional currency and earning power. For those with children nearing college age, economic privilege has shifted into economic need—the need to pay for their kids’ higher education. One woman who holds a J.D. but was in the process of getting credentialed as a teacher when her husband got a job in the foreign service hasn’t worked in the 15 years she and her family have lived overseas. She has wanted to go back to school to get her master’s in teaching, but admits, with not a little sadness, “We’re saving for our kids’ college, not mine.”  

We heard a mixture of pride and sadness in the voices of most of our stay-at-home moms. They love being involved in the details of their children’s lives, and feel pride in making a home that functions well for their kids and their spouse, but were also ambivalent about having left the workforce. The former financial planner feels that while she is fully present for her children, she may be doing them a disservice by not having a career.

“I fully intend to go back to work,” she said. “I feel I’m letting my girls down by not working.” But she isn’t sure the grass is greener for those moms who take the train into the city to their midtown office jobs every day, either. “I don’t feel like anybody’s thrilled with their choice. The women who work feel badly about it and are disconnected, and the women at home, all of them have fantasies about going back to work.”


Read the next piece in this series here.