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.
"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.
Arlene Cardoza, who has studied work/life trends among mothers since the feminist movement began shooing women off the hearth in the early 1970s, says isolation can be the single biggest challenge to sequencing moms. "As in many life transitions, there's an initial tough year," explained Ms. Cardoza, whose research in the 1970s and 1980s on balancing motherhood with career flew in the face of what she calls "the feminist mythology" that women could successfully mother full-time while working full-time outside the home. Moms transitioning from career to home, she said, experience "a myriad of emotions, even in a single day, that range from exhilaration-as in 'Thank God I quit!'-to spending two hours crying in frustration. It's important for them to establish new support systems that are no longer tied in with their work identity."
A support system was what Connie Faircloth needed. In 1992, six months after her daughter Jordan was born, Mrs. Faircloth returned to work in the human resources department at a Georgia finance firm. It was only partly for economic reasons.
"I was lonely," she said. "I was only 23 and all my friends were working. I got so depressed, I ended up going back to work just to be with adults." But when her second daughter Carson was born in 1996, she again quit working to be home with the girls. By then, the family had moved to Florida. "One day I read an article about FEMALE, went to a meeting, and knew right away that this was what I needed. I needed support, a group of friends doing the same thing I was. I didn't need to go back to work to feel validated." FEMALE proved so effective a remedy for Mrs. Faircloth's transition struggles that she wound up starting a local chapter near Powder Springs, Ga., when her husband's career took them back there in 1998.
Though FEMALE focuses more than other mom's organizations on acknowledging the role of career in women's lives, the group isn't the only one providing support for sequencing moms. Jeanette Lisefski, a Fairfield, Iowa, mother of twin boys, 17, and a daughter, 8, brought her part-time accounting work home in the mid-1980s, before working from home was cool. Three years ago on Mother's Day, she and her husband Donald launched the National Association of At-Home Mothers, a group that's since grown to more than 6,000 members. Mrs. Lisefski also founded AtHomeMothers.com, an online information resource and meeting place that provides information on topics like making the career-to-home switch, what to discuss with a spouse before making the transition, and calculating the costs of working versus staying at home.
The nation's oldest and largest mothers' support group, Mothers At Home now publishes for 26,000 readers in 30 countries a monthly journal, Welcome Home, that addresses transition problems, such as navigating the initial dip in family income. Linda Burton, Janet Dittmer, and Cheri Loveless founded Mothers At Home in 1984 and in 1986 wrote What's a Smart Woman Like You Doing at Home? The words parallel Arlene Cardoza's skeptical, 1970s view of "feminist mythology" and presage the early 21st-century views of mothers' support groups like FEMALE:
"We who are rearing children today have been told that combining motherhood and full-time employment is the wave of the future. But we are not convinced. After seeking fulfillment in the workplace, too many of us are feeling much like the miller's daughter in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Giving up our children in order to live up to the promise that we could spin straw into gold sounded fine before our sons and daughters were born. But once children have come into our lives-to enrich us and entreat us and reveal to us new depths and dimensions-we cannot bear to give away to anyone else the rewards of the mothering years."