Des Moines a Top Choice for Working Mothers

When Jennifer Lundberg was a physical therapist in Los Angeles, she found herself working 50 hours a week, with little time left over for her two babies at home.

Across the country in Washington, D.C., another working mom, Nora Everett, found her career as an attorney was draining all of her energy, and making her miss her children too.

Both women thought about quitting their careers. But they found a different solution -- moving to Des Moines.

Des Moines, with a population of 200,000, may sound like an odd destination for women who built careers in the fast-paced cities on the East and West coasts, but ABC News found dozens of women who had moved from bigger cities for a better quality of life.

"You still can have an exciting, sophisticated career. That's not just exclusive to the coast," explains Everett. "But you can also have a real time -- and quality time -- with your kids."

Both women had husbands with flexible careers who were able to follow them.

Not Just Corn and Pig Farms

Most Americans would not be surprised that Iowa is the nation's No. 1 producer of pork and corn. But they might not know that Des Moines, Iowa's capital, is the nation's No. 2 hub for insurance -- an industry that employs a large number of women.

It's the insurance industry -- and other industries like publishing and accounting that tend to employ large numbers of women -- that have helped make Des Moines an attractive place for working women.

Seventy percent of the managers in Des Moines are women -- the greatest percentage in the United States. That's compared with 57 percent in Los Angeles, 49 percent in New York, and 53 percent in Chicago, according to a study by Business Week magazine.

Companies in Des Moines go out of their way to attract women. Principal Financial Group, where Everett now works as an attorney, says it will do almost anything to recruit female employees and keep them. The company provides on-site bank tellers, fitness classes, even special rooms for lactating mothers to do their breast pumping.

Attracting professional women has helped Des Moines escape a broader brain drain that has seen qualified workers flee the Plains states for the coasts.

"The population in rural America is declining," explains R. Dean Wright, a sociology professor at Des Moines' Drake University, "and one of the only ways to stabilize and keep it going is to bring in people from the outside."

And keep them there. Ernst and Young found it was losing $10 million a year because of female employees leaving the work force to stay home with their babies. So it conducted an internal survey asking women what would get them to stay. The No. 1 answer? Flexibility. So the company let them design their own work schedules.

Shannon Shaw is one of the accounting giant's employees in Des Moines who took advantage of the offer.

"I work 30 hours a week. And those 30 hours I do three days in the office -- 9, 10-hour days -- and I maybe do a handful of hours from home," she says.

Small-City Life

Time management is crucial for working mothers, and a small city like Des Moines offers advantages. You can drive to almost every point in Des Moines in less than 10 minutes. The average mom in the rest of the country spends more than one hour on the road each day, taking more than five trips out of the driveway and covering a total of 30 miles or so, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

"We got two hours of our day back," says Everett, explaining that she and her husband had each commuted two hours a day when they lived in the Washington area. "And that was when traffic was good," she adds.

Housing in Des Moines is a lot cheaper than in bigger cities on the coasts, and the city has some of the best-rated schools in the country. One of its public schools, the Downtown School, was named one of the 10 best schools in the country by Working Mother magazine.

Teachers in Des Moines are willing to actually go to a parent's office for a child-teacher conference, to make it easier for the parent.

So why Des Moines? How did it become a mecca for working mothers? Some say the city's appeal for women comes from the work ethic associated with Iowa's family farms -- a long tradition of husband and wife toiling side by side. Some cite the fact that Des Moines was the first place in the country to train women for the Army: The very first Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was formed at Fort Des Moines during World War II.

Others claim it's just a matter of good ol' fashioned Midwestern values.

"You can run out, see your kids in a play or take them to the doctor's office; or if you get the call from school that they're sick, you can get out there and pick 'em up," says Everett.