(WOMENSENEWS)--Twenty years ago, "sequencing" sounded like a refreshing philosophy for women tired of trying to embrace children and careers at the same time.
Providing that women had husbands to support them, Arlene Rossen Cardozo, now a retired professor of mass communications at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, proposed in a 1986 book called "Sequencing" that women just relax and pace themselves.
They could work full time, then take time off to mother full time while their husbands paid the way, then go back to work after the kids started school.
To this day, Cardozo argues that women who have been able to sequence enjoy careers and families to their fullest over the course of a lifetime. And the concept, she says, answered a social need at the time.
"Women wanted something that said it was OK to leave," Cardozo tells Women's eNews, referring to leaving the workplace. "I do think it is a very good answer to the superwoman myths." In her book, Cardozo described a "superwoman" as a "120-hour-a-week dual-lifer" working full time while trying to raise children nights and weekends.
'Nobody at the Playground'
Cardozo sequenced, though she didn't call it that at the time. She went to college, got married, worked for four years, and then stayed home for six while she raised three daughters. By the time her third daughter was born, neighborhood women were seeking careers. She felt the social shift most acutely, she said, when suddenly "there was nobody at the playground."
"Middle-class women were not going to work because of money, but for self-fulfillment," says Cardozo, who didn't think the move benefited the next generation.
Fueled by these ideas, Cardozo philosophized about the social benefits of full-time motherhood in her 1970s book "Woman at Home," which garnered national publicity for opposing the cultural tides then pulling more women into the full-time paid work force. In the early 1980s, she was working toward her doctorate and writing "Sequencing."
But in the years since she coined the term and popularized the idea, many women have put sequencing into practice and researchers have had time to study its effects.
Transitions in and out of the work force, many studies find, can be more trying than anyone expected.
Sociologists Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy interviewed 43 white, married women from seven major metropolitan areas who were not working for pay and had at least one child under 18 at home. All had previously been in professional or managerial positions and ranged in age from 33 to 56. Instead of finding respondents who were satisfied with their traditional roles, the co-authors described the group's profound ambivalence about leaving the workplace in the November 2004 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Stone, whose book "Both Sides Now: Why Career Women are Quitting Jobs and Heading Home" is due out next fall from the University of California Press, challenges the notion that younger, well-educated, married women are gladly joining an "opt-out revolution" of eschewing careers for full-time motherhood, as prominent articles published by The New York Times and Time within the past several years have suggested.
'Intensive Mothering' Ideology
Instead, Stone, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, found an "ideology of intensive mothering" weighing on the interviewees. This echoes Sharon Hays' argument in her 1996 book "The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood," which describes mainstream U.S. mores that cue women to raise their children in an expensive, labor-intensive, self-sacrificing way.
Women who sequence, meanwhile, face long-term financial costs, even if they only take a few years off, says Erin L. Kelly, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.
Women not only forego wages while childrearing, Kelly says, they earn less once they return to work and these wage penalties continue for years afterward. As a result, women often have fewer assets to support their retirement and are working longer. The number of women over 65 who are still working has increased 38 percent since 1980, according to the U.S. Labor Department. "In today's economy, it is a risky strategy for women's long-term economic security."
"If you stay home, there is no benefit," agrees Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at University of California-Berkeley. "The economic value of day care is only recognized if you have someone else doing it."
In 2004, the Center for Work Life Policy, a not-for-profit organization in New York, sponsored a survey of 2,443 highly-qualified professional women at three major consulting firms. It found that 93 percent of women who "off-ramp" want to work again, yet only 74 percent succeeded in obtaining jobs during the study and, among these women, only 40 percent return to full-time professional jobs. The rest are either self-employed or part-timers.
Terry Hekker, the housewife author in Nyack, N.Y., who defended her own choice to stay home and care for her children in her 1979 book "Ever Since Adam and Eve" has since issued a warning to women about the danger of divorce. After the demise of her marriage after 40 years, Hecker has recently written about the insecurities of a homemaking career.
Rigid Career Tracks Not for Moms
Meanwhile, Kelly, the sociology professor, points to a discrepancy between organizational expectations and mothers' work patterns that partially explains why women--and particularly women with children--are still relatively scarce in upper-management and high-status professions. She says many companies operate on a rigid career-track system that calls on employees to work continuously, overtime as needed, and in some professions, with total accountability. Within this, Kelly argues, women face a stark choice between stay-at-home mothering and financial security.
Some of Kelly's conclusions echo those of Cardozo decades earlier. In "Sequencing" she also noted that inflexible employment structures are unattractive to women with children.
"My original proposal was that women be out for a few years and then go back," Cardozo says. But after she began her mass interviews for "Sequencing," Cardozo says she discovered that many women wanted more autonomy over their time and didn't really want to return to their former jobs. And those women who did return, sought "flexi-place" options--the so-called mommy track--where they could work hours that better suited their needs.
Such work arrangements, however, are not abundant and are often difficult to sustain, says Stone. She says "stay" policies--such as part-time work arrangements--are unstable, ad-hoc and non-institutionalized. Many women, she says, feel they are being given favors.
Cardozo has always acknowledged that sequencing doesn't work for every woman since the approach is predicated on a two-parent family in which a spouse can compensate for the lack of a second income.
Today, she says that instead of giving up paid work altogether, women are generally better off staying engaged with their former jobs in part-time capacities or carving out their own professional niches.
Jeanine Plant is a freelance writer based in New York.
For more information:
Center for Work Life Policy:
Mothers and More, the Network for Sequencing Women: