Life is busy for newly married Amber Diaz Pearson, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics who just returned from a four-week research trip to Nepal. Specializing in international relations, public opinion and U.S. foreign policy, Diaz Pearson graduated last year from Duke with her Ph.D. in political science; a process that ultimately involved two universities, four degrees, and 11 years of advanced education.
Her training complete, Diaz Pearson is poised to become the next hot shot political science professor, but that's not what she wants. Diaz Pearson, like many women in America, wants children. And when they arrive, she plans to put the brakes on her career and pursue future advancement at 15 miles per hour.
Earlier this month, political pundit Hilary Rosen touched off a firestorm of condemnation when she criticized the wife of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being a stay-at-home mom. Despite having raised five sons, Rosen said Ann Romney "had never worked a day in her life."
Following an immediate and visceral backlash, Rosen retracted the statement. But her comments reveal an ongoing prejudice, particularly among feminists and the media, against educated women pausing or reallocating their educational capital to raise a family. For five decades, activists have insisted a woman's work at home has no value. Both research and the passionate response to Rosen's comment show most women disagree.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of the American public believe it's best for mothers of young children to work full time. Four-in-ten believe part-time work is best, while 42 percent say it's ideal for moms to stay home.
Like Diaz Pearson, many college-educated women choose to step away from their careers to raise their children, particularly when they are young. Unlike Rosen, they don't see their time at home as a waste of their potential or their education.
Northern Arizona University biochemistry major Erin Westphal will spend eight weeks this summer at Indiana State University, participating in an ROTC Russian language intensive. The Air Force needs Russian speakers, which is perfect for Westphal, who hopes to work in intelligence for the CIA. Despite her career aspirations, Westphal hopes one day to marry and have a family.
When she does, she plans to stay home full time, reallocating her education towards a new end. "I don't think daycare is an ideal model for a family. When kids are young, it's really important to be home," Westphal said. "At that stage, it's time for your kids to benefit from what you've learned. You get to use your skills in a completely different way. What you've learned isn't going to waste at all."
Suzanne Venker, an expert on women's issues and the author of "Seven Myths of Working Mothers" encourages women to consider the emotional needs of their children when making decisions about continuing to work after starting a family. Babies need to bond with someone, and that relationship should be established with their mothers, Venker said. Through their early relationships, humans begin to develop intangible traits like empathy, trust and love.
A mother of two, Venker knows first hand the rigors of parenting but urges young mothers to put it in perspective. "You will experience the pain and rewards of sacrifice. But it's a very small window of a woman's life, and you don't want to look back with any sort of regret," she said.
While many women agree with Venker and choose the path of full-time motherhood, some, like Rosen, still perceive mothering as an intellectually inferior option. Jennifer Shaw, who holds a degree in government from Patrick Henry College and works part time doing political law filings, thinks that's nonsense.
"Just because you choose to stay home doesn't mean you don't have a brain, aren't educated, read, and know what's going on the world," said Shaw, who lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and 1-year-old son. "People assume that because you stay at home [with your children], that's the only job available to you."
Suzanne Keleher of Kenmore, New York, pursued her professional advancement in reverse. First she raised six children, then she built a career. Though Keleher had dreamed of being a nurse since childhood, her real dream was getting married and having a family. When her youngest child was old enough to go to school, Keleher went back to school herself and got her Associates, Bachelors, and Masters degrees in Nursing Administration, while working part time at the local hospital.
She graduated at 59 with the most current degree of any of her co-workers. She worked full time in hospital administration, retiring at 66 as the director of Community Programming over five hospitals in upstate New York.
Looking back, Keleher said her mothering years were not a setback. The skills she learned during her parenting years-operating on a budget, working with varying personalities, and learning to be flexible-were extremely advantageous in her professional life. Compared to raising a family, work is easy, Keleher said: "I think the hardest job in the world is raising a family. I definitely don't think it wasted my abilities."
Unlike nursing or academia, careers like law or medicine are not as flexible, as Carol Shippy, of Tempe, Ariz., discovered. After graduating with her law degree from Arizona State University, Shippy worked for five years in the non-profit legal arena before her daughter was born in 1993.
Wanting to practice law part time, Shippy mapped out a job share plan with another attorney. When their boss rejected the idea, Carol knew it was going to be difficult to keep working. "The nature of how professions like law or medicine are practiced make part-time work very hard," she said.
Things like professional liability insurance, continuing education requirements, bar dues, and professional development costs remain the same regardless of case load, Shippy said. Court dockets also are unreliable and are set at the whim of the judge, which makes planning difficult.
The weighty matters she dealt with, which sometimes included life or death decisions, also concerned her."If lawyers make an error, it may mean that the client's life is forever changed. I had clients who were about to be deported to countries where they feared for their safety and mothers and children who were victims of abuse and needed help immediately. These are not the types of things you can leave for tomorrow," Shippy said.
Not wanting to live in two worlds, Shippy decided to step away from law to raise and homeschool her children. When she gave her notice at Catholic Charities of Arizona, her supervisor, Sister Sybil, sent her off with these words: "The law will always be there. Your kids won't. Go raise your kids."
Unlike Shippy, Amber Diaz Pearson doesn't anticipate the need to step away from her career completely when she and her husband have children in a few years. Though academia is demanding, it is more flexible than other jobs in regards to children, Diaz Pearson said. She anticipates working part time, or working from home.
While passionate about her field of research, Diaz Pearson knows her family commitment will determine her career advancement. "Realistically I won't be as high on the career ladder, but that doesn't necessarily mean I would be better off or have a better impact on my students or the field of research in my discipline," she said. "I think the important thing for me is to focus on my research and my teaching and be able to invest in my family at the same time."