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Moms 'opting in' to work find doors shut

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An article chronicled some women's choice to leave work for kids a decade ago
  • A recent piece revisited some of the women, who have found it hard to re-enter the workforce
  • Kelly Wallace remembers her disbelief at the women's choice to leave their careers
  • Wallace saw their viewpoint once she had children and reshaped her career for them

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- I remember exactly how taken aback I felt back in 2003 when I read the now infamous story called "The Opt-Out Revolution" in the "New York Times Magazine" by Lisa Belkin. The article profiled highly educated, professional women who were leaving their high-profile career positions to be home with their kids.

"What?" "How could they do that?" "Aren't they throwing their great educations and careers away?"

Those were just some of the questions I asked about a move I totally did not get.

Three years later, I had my first daughter and immediately realized not only that I had no business passing judgment on those "opt-out" women a few years earlier but that they were making a difficult choice (a choice we should note most women don't have the privilege of making, but still a tough one). They were choosing to focus on raising their kids because juggling their children and a hard-charging career just wasn't working.

As a new mom who at first couldn't imagine leaving my infant for an hour to get a haircut, let alone for 10 to 12 hours a day, I understood some of what might have been motivating their decisions.

Since then, as a working mom of two girls, the work-life balance conundrum has become a personal passion. I moved my career in a direction that allowed me to focus full-time on this issue and others affecting women and moms, and also have more time for my family.

Two of my biggest pet peeves continue to be why companies don't do more to help women and men, moms and dads, balance work and family, and why corporate America doesn't recognize the potential of moms looking to return to the workforce and make it easier for them to get back in.

Both issues were illuminated in last weekend's "New York Times Magazine," with an updated story, ten years after the first article set off a nationwide debate. The article titled "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In" profiled women who left their jobs and were now trying to return to the workforce.

Kuae Kelch Mattox, a former NBC News producer and one of the three women profiled in the first "New York Times" story, has been looking "in earnest" for a paying job for two to three years.

Since leaving the workforce in 2000, she raised three children, became president of the PTA and took on a non-paid position as president of Mocha Moms, a non-profit for moms of color who have chosen not to work full-time outside of the home to devote more time to raising their families. But when it comes to that experience, most people she's encountered in interviews "don't get it at all," she said.

"I think one of the hugest problems for stay-at-home moms, particularly those who volunteered for a period of time, is helping companies and corporations understand our value now," she said from her Montclair, New Jersey, home.

"I have not lost any brain cells. What I knew back then when I worked for these companies, I haven't lost," she added. "The only thing that has happened is I've gained additional experience and additional expertise and additional knowledge, which to me should be completely appealing to the employer, but unfortunately it's the reverse."

Mattox said her nonprofit recently conducted a survey of its members, asking the stay-at-home moms whether they were thinking about going back to work. 38.3% said they wanted to return but were having difficulty getting back in and an "overwhelming" 53.7% cited resistance to hiring because of their stay-at-home status, said Mattox.

"The stigma, it is still there," she said. "It is deeply and firmly entrenched, and it's got to go away."

No question the 2007 downturn, followed by a recession, high unemployment and declining consumer confidence made the challenge for moms who want to get back in much greater. They're now competing with women and men who are also out of work but who have more current experience.

I was curious what Lisa Belkin, now a senior columnist for The Huffington Post covering work and family, thought a decade after writing the article that she said she still gets asked about today. I invited her for coffee and learned she's encouraged by what she's seen over the past 10 years.

"There's been progress; there's been change," she said.

The women who opted out helped pave the way for much of the flexibility in the workforce that we see today, she told me at a Greenwich Village café. Belkin remembered a law partner who once told her his business invested $100,000 in training and time for every attorney employed by the firm, a losing investment when moms opt out. "That's $100,00 walking out the door," he told her. So businesses like his decided to figure out how to keep them through job flexibility and leave policies.

"It costs so much to train them. You want to retain them. That's true of any business, so that women were willing to leave meant that a lot of these places had to figure out how to keep them," said Belkin, a mom of two. "I think that's at the root of whatever flexibility we see today."

But it just feels like progress isn't coming fast enough, I said in response, especially when it comes to helping women like Mattox opt back in.

"The workplace isn't what it was," said Belkin. Women might have expected they could get back in based on their skill set or because they were so valuable in their professions, she said. "But so are an awful lot of people who have been laid off the past five years whose experience is more recent."

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the women who opted out and are having trouble getting back in is "not always having an eye" on their return, said Belkin.

"All of them saw it as a pause, not a stop, but if you want to come back, you have to plan for that when you leave," she said. "You can't just hope it's going to happen or you are certainly not going to be as successful if you just hope it's going to happen."

Mattox said, looking back, she probably should have done more to pave the way for her eventual return to the workforce.

"I would have been more aggressive, and I would have been more active," said the mom of three, whose kids are 10, 13 and 16. "I think I would have felt a greater sense of urgency to get back."

"Clearly it's taking longer than it used to," she added.

Dorothy Liu, one of my roommates in college and mom to a soon to be 10-year-old, founded a company, VELAtrio Consulting, more than 10 years ago with two other moms who also moved off the corporate track seeking better work-life balance.

A key focus of their business is mentoring women back into the workplace, which is why something Liu wrote on Facebook about moms trying to opt back in really got my attention.

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"These are former 'chiefs' who are (OK) being one of the rank and file, have a proven track record and are experienced enough to not fall prey to office politics and other nonsense," she wrote. "Unfortunately, no one seems to have cracked the code on tapping into this incredible resource."

Maybe someone will, and hopefully soon.

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