Features

Sequencing moms

National | Women find ways to build income opportunities around their children, instead of the other way around

Issue: "CCM: Salt or sugar?," May 13, 2000

For 6-and-a-half years, Joanne Brundage felt she had it all. She was happily married to Richard, an Elmhurst, Ill., mailman. She loved her own job as a full-time letter carrier. And the child-care arrangements for her daughter Kerry-staying with loving grandparents each day while Mom and Dad delivered the mail-seemed ideal.

Then baby Zach was born and the strained peas hit the fan.

First, Zach turned out to be Kerry's polar opposite: colicky and difficult, fraying his parents' nerves by never sleeping more than a couple of hours at a whack. Second, the children's grandparents were older by the time Zach came along, and no longer able to provide daily care for an infant. But the Brundages didn't cotton to day-care centers in the area, and their careful search for an in-home nanny was a bust.

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"I'd had no plans to leave work," said Mrs. Brundage. "It was very important for me to contribute 50 percent of the family income. It was a big self-esteem issue for me, plus I really enjoyed my job."

But with no other child-care options, the Brundages decided that Joanne would quit the post office and mother Zach and Kerry at home. The decision made, Joanne began to look forward to her new future, and envisioned a misty-edged, dream-sequence version of motherhood: "I imagined sunshine and baby kisses, an immaculate house, and cooking fabulous dinners every night."

It didn't turn out that way.

Instead, Mrs. Brundage was blindsided by emotional upheaval. She was overwhelmed by the new, 24/7 nature of her parenting experience. She grieved the loss of the job she'd enjoyed. And, since she was living the life many working mothers dream of, she felt guilty for grieving. It was her own search for support and encouragement that led to the founding 14 years ago of FEMALE, Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge. Mrs. Brundage founded FEMALE as a support organization for women who had left the paid workplace-in full or in part-in order to care for their children at home.

"When I quit working, I started hanging at the at-home-mom hangouts-libraries, parks, pools-looking for women to connect with," Mrs. Brundage remembered. "But the women I ran into didn't sort of bounce my issues back at me. They either said, 'Why would anyone want to work?' or 'Yeah, sometimes it's difficult, but it's so much better than what those horrible working mothers do to their children.' I had been one of those 'horrible mothers' for 6-and-a-half years. Neither sentiment made me feel any better."

Mrs. Brundage jokes that she ruled out psychotherapy, especially in light of the family's recent economic downsizing. Instead, she said, "I chose the cheaper option-I started a group."

That was 1986. Since then FEMALE has mushroomed to more than 160 chapters nationally, with international chapters in Canada and Great Britain. FEMALE's core mission is "to serve women's personal needs and interests during their active parenting years, to help them reestablish their self-esteem and identity, and to assist them in building local 'communities' of like-minded women."

In her 1986 book Sequencing, now in its fifth printing, author and researcher Arlene Cardoza dubbed those like-minded women "sequencing mothers." According to Ms. Cardoza, sequencing mothers are those who move in and out of paid employment in order to balance successfully work and family. Increasingly, says Ms. Cardoza, such women are falling outside the simple dichotomy of "working mother" or "at-home mother." Instead, enabled by technology, family-friendly employer policies like telecommuting and flex-schedules, and home-based business opportunities, more women are finding creative ways to build income opportunities around their children's needs, instead of the other way around.

"During the early '80s, more than 90 percent of women with children continued trying to work after their children were born, or cut back their hours, but tried to keep their jobs," said Ms. Cardoza. "There has been this huge about-face. Now even young women are planning their careers based on lifestyle. Before they make career decisions, they're asking, 'What about family? Am I going to be able to do this part-time or from home?'"

FEMALE serves this growing population, as well as moms who leave paid employment entirely for the space of one or several childhoods. The group's mission has expanded to include a bimonthly newsletter as well as advocacy work, such as lobbying employers and legislators to develop family-friendly policies that enable moms who need the income to both work and be available for their kids.

Mrs. Brundage said FEMALE's twice-monthly local chapter meetings provide women "with a chance to get away from it all, finish a sentence, and talk with other grownups." Meeting agendas focus on three main topics-womanhood and personal issues, parenting, and workplace and future aspirations-but still leave time for what Mrs. Brundage calls "open discussion." Much of that discussion, she says, centers on women's feelings of isolation.

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