Career Choice: Motherhood Now or Later

Maybe it's just me, but sometimes it feels as if researchers are popping out press releases on motherhood and careers faster than women are actually birthing babies.

In July, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, told us that Harvard grads who went on to get their MBAs became stay-at-home moms at a higher rate than grads who went on to become doctors or lawyers.

Earlier this month, Cornell University let us know that mothers were 90 percent more likely to ditch their careers if their husbands worked at least 60 hours a week but that, if the roles were reversed, the husbands would likely keep on working.

And just last week, Cambridge University informed us that in the U.S., the percentage of people in favor of moms working full time dropped to 38 percent in 2002, down from 51 percent in 1994. In other words, if you believe that "family life would not suffer" if a mom has a career, you're in the minority.

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As with newborns, some of the resulting headlines are so cute and cuddly that you can't resist showing them off to all your friends. Take, for example, the 2004 USA Today ditty, "Moms Find It Easier to Pop Back into Workforce."

Others -- like "Why It's Best to Marry in Your Twenties" and "Parents: Tell Your Adult Children, 'Don't Delay Childbearing!'" -- are so hideous that you just want to throw a baby blanket over their heads.

It's hardly a news flash that, on average, women who choose to have kids do so later in life than their own mothers did. Nor is it news that more often than not, today's moms are balancing a career in the process.

So rather than judge the breeding and breadwinning decisions of others -- or dwell on the fact that no one's scrutinizing every move men make with anywhere near the intensity -- let's look at the factors real-life moms consider when they weigh how and when to blend motherhood with their careers.

What's Work Got to do With It?

For starters, women without kids make 90 cents to a man's dollar, while married moms make 73 cents to a man's dollar and single moms make about 60 cents to a man's dollar, according to Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising.org, a grassroots organization that champions paid family leave, flexible work options and other family-friendly policies.

Then there are the sobering statistics on the so-called motherhood penalty.

In 2005, sociologists at Cornell University found that when applying for a job, women without kids would be offered roughly $11,000 more than mothers with the same qualifications. What's more, participants of the study admitted they were far more likely to hire a woman without kids than their diaper-changing counterparts.

Moral of the story: If you think becoming a mom isn't going to impact your career, it's time to wake up and smell the discrimination.

Yet many women regard the "Will having kids hurt my career?" question as taboo, said Nataly Kogan, CEO and co-founder of Work It, Mom!, a Web community for working mothers.

"It's OK to have your career as a consideration of when to have children," said Kogan, 32. "It's OK to talk about it. It doesn't make you a bad person."

A relatively young mom herself, Kogan credits her age (read: energy level) as the reason she's able to keep up the "crazy pace" of balancing a 60-hour-a-week Web startup with being married and caring for a preschooler.

"I'm not sure I could do this when I was 45," she said. "I'm not sure I could handle a company and a 4-year-old."

Show Me the Money

But for one 33-year-old IT professional I know (let's call her Jasmine), money's the biggest concern. She's been putting off trying to conceive until she finds a new job because she suspects she'll be more likely to get hired before she becomes a parent than after.

"My current contract ends this month," Jasmine told me. "We would really like to have children, but my husband and I can't raise a kid on one income alone, even though he makes a decent one."

For many would-be mommies, though, it's not just about the money. It's about playing the "Who am I?" game first.

Take Christine Traxler, who was an Air Force officer and political campaign coordinator before becoming a high school English teacher at age 35 -- the profession she calls the "right fit" for her. Only then was she ready to have a child, which she did at 38.

"I had the time to figure out what I wanted to do for a living," the 42-year-old Snohomish, Wash., resident said. "If I got married and had kids young, I may not have become a teacher."

The Flexibility Question

Another big perk of putting 5, 10 or 15 years of mileage on your career before taking the motherhood plunge is being able to call in your chits with your employer and nab some of that highly coveted flexibility once junior arrives (teleworking, job sharing and the like).

"You can build a lot of faith and goodwill at the beginning, establish your reputation, and then you can slack a bit and take time off when the wee one comes along," said one 43-year-old project manager from New York (let's call her Melanie).

"Even if you go back to work right away," said Melanie, who had her son when she was 38, "your work will suffer because you are profoundly sleep-deprived and hormonal."

Then again, there's always the concern that you could jeopardize your job or fall behind in your career development by taking too long a leave, said Robin Gorman Newman, founder of MotherhoodLater.com, a Web community for moms over 35.

And even if do you pay your dues, your job still may not jibe with your newfound status as a family woman.

"I made the decision to quit my job as a senior database analyst for an advertising firm when my employer said I'd need to increase my time commitment to 50 to 70 hours a week shortly after I got married," said Sarah Nassif, who hoped to start a family right after getting hitched.

"I didn't see how working more and more hours would mesh with that, even if I took maternity leave," said the 35-year-old Minneapolis resident.

So instead she started a home-based design business, becoming a mom at 33.

On the flip side, Jill Ward, who had her first child at 22 and her second at 27, says working through her kids' early years (she and her husband couldn't afford otherwise) is finally starting to pay off. Not only does the 32-year-old communications professional have a flexible work schedule and high salary with the furniture manufacturer she works for, she loves the job.

"Now my kids are older, a little more independent, and I don't have to deal with sleepless nights and mountains of baby paraphernalia in my living room like a lot of my peers," says the Grand Rapids, Mich., resident. "I'm able to put a lot more focus on my career right now, where they are currently putting their careers on hold to raise babies and toddlers. Everything is a trade-off."

This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.

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