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When Mothers Who Paused Their Careers Hit Play Again


I was raised to expect to work outside the home from a young age, so when motherhood came and I suddenly wanted to stay with my children, I didn’t know how to transition into motherhood. Now, facing the reverse of that process as my children mature, I’m learning to do the opposite. So are millions of American women. So let’s use a bit of my life story to understand ladies like me.

I came to America when I was nine. When I turned 14, I took a job testing electronic chips. At 15, with the help of an aunt, I was hired as a file clerk in a large dental office. Slowly I worked my way up: From file clerk to sterilization girl, a job in which I learned to sterilize dental tools and restock rooms.

This was a large dental clinic, so the sterilization room had to be efficient—the equipment needed to be sterile and ready for use, the rooms quickly disinfected between patients and restocked with gauze and other supplies. I was young and immature, but they gave me opportunities. Eventually I was asked to fill in for a dental assistant here and there. Working after school and Saturdays, I received on-the-job training. I also took some weekend seminars and workshops to subsidize my practical knowledge.

When I turned 18 I sat for the California board exams and passed, becoming a registered dental assistant with a coronal polish and X-ray license. After high school I worked full time in dentistry while putting myself through college.

Eventually I went to work for a small dental office where the office manager gave me yet more opportunities: she taught me how to bill insurance companies, run patient accounts each month, manage the scheduling book, and all the tasks which comprise running the front office. During my 10-year tenure in the dental field I also gained experience in different specialties: pedodontics, oral surgery, endodontics, and periodontics.

By the time I left dentistry at the age of 25, I had evolved through the gamut of jobs: from file clerk and sterilization girl to dental assistant, receptionist, insurance biller, and front office manager. Finally I quit, took out student loans, and finished my bachelor of science degree in physics. The plan was graduate school and an academic career in physics.

Life does not always go as planned. Watching the Clinton impeachment trial while on bed rest for pregnancy complications changed the course of my life. I experienced a heavy civic burden to right my country and to work for the common good. But that was not meant to last either. At 34, and a mother of two girls, I became a stay-at-home mom—a vocation antithetical to the norm with which I was raised. Yet it was the only option that united my religious, philosophical, and political convictions. It was the only option that didn’t make me feel like a hypocrite. If I wanted to save America, I had to save my family first.

What Are Opt-Out Moms?

The Pew Research Center defines “opt-out moms” as “mothers who have at least a Master’s degree, an annual family income of $75,000 or more; a working husband; and who state that they are out of the workforce in order to care for their family.” This definition may not precisely fit every opt-out mom and her family, but this particular demographic makes up only 4 percent of the entire population of stay-at-home mothers. Among all highly educated, ambitious, professional women, just one-in-ten decide to “opt out” of full-time work, this Pew Research report says.

More than a decade ago, Lisa Belkin, a senior columnist at the Huffington Post, at the time writing in New York Times Magazine, coined the phrase “Opt-Out revolution.” She traces the education (all from elite schools) and careers of women who eventually opted to give up professional, high-income jobs to be at-home mothers. Despite using some caricatures, reductionistic and facile observations such as “time was when a woman’s definition of success was said to be her apple-pie recipe. Or her husband’s promotion,” the piece did a fair job discussing the issue.

Belkin asks and answers: “Why don’t women run the world? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to?” But she misses what sagacious women have known from time immemorial: the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. Women, in fact have a great deal to do with ruling the world. It matters not that we often do so indirectly. If we lament today at the way millennials have turned out and are afraid about how they will rule, remember it is because their mothers went off to work and the hands that rocked their cradles did not mother wisely.

When Moms Opt Back In

Rejoining the work force may not be for everyone, but it is a valid choice for many. The reasons are as diverse as the women: financial, grown or almost grown children, better stewardship of time and talents, etc. But opting back in is a journey; a woman may need to “rethink, reimagine, and reemerge,” as Après, a company whose goal is to help professional opt-out moms re-enter the workforce, has it.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein conducted an interview for the Institute for Family Studies with the co-founder of Après. It’s a fine interview, and opt-out moms in particular would do well to read it and check out Après. The company launched only a few months ago and at the time of Braunstein’s interview already had 12,000 members.

When I left law school to be an at-home mom, I left it all behind. I went off and chose the Benedict Option back before it was cool. I was convinced that it was the only way I could properly raise my children. I was wrong, but the story of those years will have to wait for another time. As one of those women re-joining the work force, the lessons of those years are advantageous. Motherhood humanized me. Even today with only a few hours of quiet—the youngest is in half-day kindergarten—I wouldn’t trade his 11:45 a.m. pickup for the world.