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Taking an Intermission: Why more women are staying at home and how they’re setting the stage for a return to work

One month from delivering her third child, Jennifer Jackson Buckner boarded the elevator of her New York high rise holding the hands of her two young boys. Partway down from the twenty-ninth floor, a professionally dressed woman joined them. After watching the family for a few moments, the woman said as she exited the elevator with a smile, “Easier to start a company.”

Buckner says she gets a lot of interesting responses to her decision to stay home and raise four boys in New York City. “It’s an unusual thing here,” she notes. “I get the impression people wonder if I’d rather be doing something else.” Yet, Buckner, a 1996 Marriott School MOB graduate, says no other decision has brought her more satisfaction. “I’m confident about what I’m doing and where I want to be at this time in my life,” she says. “I have a lifetime to live, but only a short time to be home with my children.”

Buckner’s choice to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom is part of a growing national trend among college-educated women. Overturning a thirty-year pattern, the percentage of married mothers in the workforce with a child younger than one-year-old dropped to 55 percent in 2002 from 59 percent in 1998, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another study conducted by Catalyst, an organization aimed at advancing women in business, shows that 30 percent of women with MBAs are not working full time. Naturally, not all women are in a financial situation that allows them to quit work, but among those who are, more are opting out.

What’s triggering these highly qualified women to leave the full-time workforce? A recent TIME magazine article explains, “Today’s women execs are less willing to play the juggler’s game especially in its current high-speed mode and more willing to sacrifice paychecks and prestige for time with their family.”1

After years of burnout, women are realizing it’s tough to “have it all,” or to at least have it all at once. As a result, many aren’t permanently closing the curtains on their careers, just taking an intermission. They view their exit as temporary and plan to eventually return to the full-time work scene when their children are older. Many also recognize unexpected financial pressures may require them to work in the future.

Buckner contemplates a future re-audition of her skills when her boys are past the critical teenage years. She knows she’ll have to play career catch up but is doing as much as she can to stay connected. Like Buckner, most women need to think ahead. Preparing for a career intermission—including life offstage and an eventual return—will ease anxiety and add fulfillment to transitions between professional and family roles.

life offstage

Preparing to be a full-time mother requires more than buying baby layettes and attending office farewell parties. It’s a major change that brings countless rewards but also physical, financial, and emotional adjustments. Compared to her eleven years working as a CPA in San Francisco, Bonnie Ebert Beames’ daily routine has changed dramatically. “Wake up, feed, play, sleep, wake up, feed, play, sleep,” is how she summarizes a typical day with her one-year-old twins and two-and-a-half-year-old son. “The change was quite a shock for me,” she notes.

Beames, a 1987 BYU accountancy graduate, planned to work in some capacity after her first child was born but didn’t predict having a baby with colic. “What I thought I would do, I couldn’t physically do. I was literally a zombie for a year after he was born,” she explains. “Life throws you through loops. You think you’re going to do one thing, and then your kids come along and just kind of laugh in your face.”

Unpredictability and a demanding schedule seem part of many stay-at-home productions. Melinda Giles Higbee, a 1997 Marriott School accountancy graduate living in New York, says it was a surprise to find out a day at home with her three young children is much more hectic than her former accounting career at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “There’s less flexibility at home,” she explains. “If things don’t go a certain way, somebody ends up screaming—and that just didn’t happen at work.”

Less flexibility also describes many stay-at-home moms’ financial situations, especially if mom leaves an established career with a steady salary. Giving up a significant portion of the family’s income certainly requires some alterations, but as Beames found out, the decrease in funds doesn’t have to take the enjoyment out of family activities. “Before having children, I was accustomed to a lifestyle that included going out to eat, international trips, weekend getaways, and operas,” she says. “I still love those kinds of activities, but have found cheaper ways to incorporate fun into our family, like camping, museums, university performances, etc.” Beames admits giving up the second income wasn’t easy and says when finances get low she’s tempted to resume the accounting career she spent eleven years building. “I’m constantly debating whether I should use my skills and return to work to improve our financial situation,” she explains. “I have to remind myself that motherhood is more important to me than the money, even though it often feels less glamorous.”

Besides adjusting to new schedules and budgets, many stay-at-home moms have to emotionally adapt to a new social scene. “At first, being a new full-time mother is very socially isolating,” says Kristen Schulthess Gustafson, a 1986 BYU communications graduate living in Connecticut. “You can’t have playdates with an infant.” Although they live across the country from each other, Beames and Gustafson maintain a strong friendship and say having good friends really helps with the occasional feeling of loneliness. “Before I had kids, I didn’t realize how important it is to reach out to full-time moms,” Beames says. “Now I know how meaningful a phone call can be just to say, ‘How are things going?’”

Despite the hectic routines, long hours, lower incomes, and occasional cravings for an adult conversation, these women forge ahead at home, even though most of them say that returning to work on many days seems the easier option. “At work, they actually give you kudos for your knowledge and hard work,” says Gustafson, who earned her MBA from National University in California. “I get zero recognition from my children because, of course, they don’t know, and why would they?”

Though their work at home isn’t always followed by applause, mothers say it’s a different kind of fulfillment that drives them. “The love and attachment I feel with my children is so much more gratifying than what I gained in the workplace,” Beames says. Although it doesn’t always happen on a daily basis, Higbee agrees the satisfaction of motherhood is infinitely greater than what she got from her career. “There’s nothing like having a four-year-old out of the blue, no prodding from anyone, say, ‘Mommy, I love you so much,’” she says. “I never got fulfillment like that at work.”

In addition to witnessing those special moments with their children, many moms stay home because they feel uneasy about the alternative. Robin Zenger Baker, a 1984 Marriott School MOB graduate who went on to earn her PhD from UCLA, is a mother of four teenagers and lives in Boston. She says it was tough to put in all the work for her doctorate degree and then immediately stay home. “The hardest part was feeling that I was letting down the people who helped me get through the program,” she says. Yet, when it came down to it, Baker was more worried about letting her children down. “I know there are no guarantees that staying home will make your children turn out better,” she says. “But I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and think, ‘You’ve really missed the boat here.’”

Beames says she isn’t willing to take any chances either. “It’s important for me to build a strong bond at home with my children and to see that they are confident and happy,” she says. “The alternative was just not a risk I wanted to take.” Gustafson describes her decision to stay home as emotional but knew it was right for her. “I felt strongly there were many qualified marketing directors to take my position; however, only one person could be my son’s mother.”

As moms and moms-to-be contemplate leaving their careers, they can rest assured there is no set script to follow. The gratification, challenges, and decision to stay home or go back to work vary for each mother, as does the timing.

reopening the curtain

Although there is no intermission bell calling mothers back to their office seats, the majority of stay-at-home moms eventually plan to return to work. A recent survey of nearly five hundred educated women who left their jobs mainly for family reasons found 66 percent planned to return to work, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York nonprofit.2

As many baby boomers are finding out, trying to edge back into the workforce, especially in a slack economy, can be discouraging. Out-of-date resumes, skills, and industry knowledge seem like gigantic obstacles, but they can be minimized with some thoughtful planning. Several strategies can help stay-at-home moms keep their skills sharp while setting the stage for a successful career revival.


Widely recognized as one of the most effective job-searching tools, networking is just as vital for stay-at-home moms as it is for full-time professionals. To begin, mothers should keep in contact with previous work and school associates. Not only can these people provide support for mothers at home, but they can also be great contacts during the job search. Gustafson, the mother of three in Connecticut, has landed many consulting jobs during the past several years because of her networking contacts. “The key is finding a mentor,” she advises. “I’ve had a mentor who has taken me to four jobs since I’ve lived in Connecticut. And when I moved here I didn’t know a soul.”

Baker agrees that networking is essential, but she learned the hard way. After staying home for more than ten years, she needed to help supplement her family’s income. Although she has a master’s and PhD in organizational behavior, she was looking at temp jobs such as telemarketing and transcribing. To her surprise, no one would hire her. “I was shocked that I couldn’t get a job,” she explains.

Finally, a friend urged her to network with the academics she knew from church. Although reluctant, she contacted a professor at Harvard Business School. Through him she landed a job taking notes on student participation during Harvard organizational behavior classes. “The job brought me back up to speed on OB issues and how to teach OB classes,” she says. “It was the perfect reentry funnel for me.” Baker has since been hired to teach courses part time at Boston University, a job that still allows her to be home much of the time with her children. “I had such a naïve viewpoint about networking,” she says. “Once I got the nerve up to contact people I knew, it made all the difference.”

Having a strong network often requires years of building. But, for women who weren’t in the workforce very long, have relocated, or simply neglected to keep in touch, it’s not too late. There are many ways stay-at-home moms can branch out and meet people through community and professional organizations. Women can start in familiar territory by attending their university alumni chapter gatherings. For example, the Marriott School sponsors more than sixty Management Society chapters for business professionals around the world.

Beyond alumni gatherings, Gustafson recommends visiting the local library and looking at the pamphlets and bulletin boards for news about organizations and clubs. “If your circle of associates doesn’t include working professionals, these are great places to meet an incredible network of both women and men,” she says. “And it really doesn’t take a lot of time to participate.”


Leading the PTA or a community activity may not be in vain when it comes to updating a resume. Lora Gray, a senior compensation consultant for Longaberger Company in Ohio, says many employers value the skills that come from volunteer work. “You can highlight those skills and abilities in a ‘personal profile’ section of the resume, or you could list the specific volunteer associations, tasks performed, and time periods involved,” she explains.

Even though Gustafson’s resume is up-to-date with her part-time consulting, she still includes some of her volunteer work. She’s been an event planner for golf tournaments and awards dinners, worked with the Junior League of Hartford, and helped oversee several fundraising auctions. She says her negotiation, management, and sales skills have been enhanced through her volunteer work.

work part-time

Working part time is a great way to keep a foot in the door of the career world. Some women are fortunate to work for companies with a lot of flexibility and great plans for women interested in working part time or from home. After Higbee had her first child, she returned to work part time for PricewaterhouseCoopers while her husband, Scott, finished his MBA at the Marriott School. She wasn’t sure she wanted to return to work, so she says she was pretty demanding about her conditions. To her surprise, the company agreed to all her requests and went out of their way to accommodate her needs as a new mother. “Don’t be afraid to say what you want,” she advises. “If you don’t want to travel, and you don’t want to spend more than four hours in the office each day, say that. But don’t be unrealistic.”

Higbee was lucky to work for an accommodating company, a luxury not all women have. Before motherhood, Gustafson worked as a marketing administrator for an upscale shopping center in Connecticut. She was working seventy-hour weeks and knew there was no way she wanted to continue with that schedule after having her baby. They offered her a forty-hour workweek, but said she couldn’t job share. “They said job sharing hadn’t worked in the past for them and pretty much shut the door on me there,” she explains.

However, another door opened six months later when her former boss left the shopping center and recruited Gustafson for part-time consulting work. Since then, she has started her own consulting business and consults part time from her home office. “I’m glad to be a part of both worlds,” she says. “Jumping on the trampoline one minute, then on a conference call the next. I make my own schedule and seem to even fit in volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class.”

When planning ahead for part-time options, it’s important to make sure you’re at the top of your game while still working full time. Gray advises women to show top performance and initiative with projects and to make a few key contacts to stay in touch with. She also says to “part on good

terms because you never know when the company may be interested in employing you in the future.”

read about your industry

Although downtime at home may be slim, it’s important to use it wisely. Instead of picking up People magazine or a catalog, why not read a professional journal or business section of the newspaper? Being able to talk about industry trends is key to a good job interview and to effective networking.

As Buckner learned, reading doesn’t have to feel like homework, it can be a fun activity that involves the entire family. Last summer her family started a summer reading challenge tradition. As a family, the Buckners read five thousand pages over the summer with rewards at different levels. At one thousand pages, everyone got ice cream; at three thousand pages it was dinner at their favorite restaurant; and at five thousand pages, they bought tickets to see a Broadway show. “The reading challenge is a great way to meet the needs of the children as well as my need to read and continue learning,” she says.

become entrepreneurial

Businesses owned by women are one of the most rapidly expanding sectors of the economy. In the past five years, the number of women-owned businesses has risen 14 percent, twice the growth rate for all businesses.3 The flexibility of setting their own hours and being their own boss appeals to women looking for a saner work-life balance than what’s being offered in many corporate jobs.

As more moms start their own ventures from home, they’re realizing they can still use their education and talents and not feel guilty about shortchanging their children. For Gustafson, becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t necessarily on her agenda. But when Pfizer approached her and said, “We want to hire you as a consultant, but you need to have your own company,” she immediately started the paperwork for her own consulting business. “I usually have just one client at a time, which gives me five to thirty hours a week,” she says. “And that’s about all I can handle and still meet my children’s needs.”

Other moms are finding that ingenuity and creativity come in handy when looking for ways to make money from home. A recent Business Week article uses the term “mompreneurs” to describe the latest trend of stay-at-home moms breaking into the eBay market.4 “eBay is becoming a hot new career for managerial-class moms,” the article explains.

In addition to using their business skills to start their own small ventures, some women have been able to contribute to family members’ start-ups. Equipped with degrees in organizational behavior, both Baker and Buckner have been instrumental in helping grow their husbands’ entrepreneurial businesses. “Because I have a business base to draw from, my husband and I bounce ideas off each other a lot,” Buckner explains. Baker says she’s enjoyed doing behind the scenes consulting work for her husband’s company. “It keeps me challenged and fits into the cracks of my life with my kids really well.”

go back to school

For women concerned about resume gaps and outdated skills, taking a few classes or earning an advanced degree can enhance expertise. Higbee thinks about returning to her accounting career, but she knows that in her absence the laws have changed a great deal. “I realize I’d have a pretty good- sized learning curve to get back to the level I was at while working full time,” she notes. As a result, she’s contemplated going back to school, even just taking a few classes or earning a master’s in accountancy.

Even if working full time isn’t on the immediate horizon, increasing education can enhance life, Buckner says. She describes her master’s in organizational behavior degree as an education that prepared her not only for a business career but also for a lifetime of working with people. “I can apply what I learned about people and relationships to any organization, from a business to a family to the PTA to a community board,” she notes. “What I learned will serve me well no matter what I decide to do.”

In addition to these strategies for reentry, there are many career skills women hone at home often without realizing it. Higbee says her parenting endeavors have helped her manage people better and to be more organized and time efficient. “After having children, you approach work differently, probably better. You’re a lot more understanding of people and their time,” she explains. “Because you do more at home than you ever did at work, you learn to be more time efficient and to cut things out that don’t really matter.”

Cutting out things that don’t really matter is one point most mothers can agree on. Because when it comes right down to it, the audience that matters most is right in their own family rooms. And although they play many roles throughout their lives, the role of a mother, despite its challenges, usually takes the limelight.

As long as Buckner is in the limelight, she says she’ll take advantage of every opportunity to educate her four boys. “I’m teaching them about love, and life, and work, and being happy,” she says. “If I ever have a bad day, I just have to step back and look at each of them and say it’s not just them and the future of their lives, but it’s for all their posterity.”



  1. “The Case for Staying Home,” TIME, (22 March 2004): 50.
  2. Anne Marie Chaker and Hilary Stout, “After Years Off,” The Wall Street Journal, (6 May 2004): A1.
  3. Sue Shellenbarger, “The Secrets of Sequencing,” The Wall Street Journal, (24 July 2003): D1.
  4. Michelle Conlin, “The Rise of Mompreneurs,” Business Week, (7 June 2004): 70.

By J. Melody Murdock, editor
Illustration by Jessica Allen

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