Why Moms Who Go Back to Work Often Switch to Lower-Paying Careers

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon: affluent, educated white women leaving demanding, high-powered jobs to become stay-at-home moms. 

But what happens when they’re ready to resume working? That’s the subject of a new book, Opting Back In: What Really Happens When Mothers Go Back to Work, by Professor Pamela Stone (Hunter College, The Graduate Center) and Meg Lovejoy. 

The good news, Stone said in an interview on The Brian Lehrer Show, is that “it’s fairly easy for these women to get jobs. But it’s hard for them to reinvent themselves. It takes a lot of time because they really feel they can’t go back to what they were doing.” 

One woman interviewed for Opting In was a senior editor in publishing before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She went back to work as a teacher. Another woman who’d been a trader at a big financial firm went back to work running the foundation where she volunteered while raising her kids. 

Regardless of “how successful these stories might appear,” and no matter how satisfied these women are with their new careers, Stone said, the onus ends up being on them to learn new skills and pivot. They also often end up in lower-paying fields. 

“These are really radical changes,” Stone told Lehrer, with women giving up what they had formerly done really completely, and oftentimes retooling extensively to become something else.” They also tend to move “away from male-dominated professions which had been so inhospitable to them.” 

Sometimes their skills are considered outdated because their field has changed. But many simply don’t want the 60-hour workweeks that remain the norm in high-powered professions. They want “to continue their careers, but aren’t able to because of inflexible workplaces,” Stone said. 

And even after returning to work, many women are still expected to be in charge of their upper middle class lifestyles, keeping an eye on teenage kids with little input from their career-focused husbands. 

“When you step back you have to ask yourself: Why are we asking women to tool up, train for one career, then basically cut them off at the knees to start over again?” she said. The root problem, she added, “is the extreme hours and the inflexibility of so many professional jobs.” 

Opting In is a follow-up to Stone’s 2007 book, Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.  

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Opting Back In: What Really Happens When Mothers Go Back to Work
University of California Press, 2019

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Pamela Stone (Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1