There is a common misconception that most mothers make a free choice to leave the workforce for stay-at-home motherhood. Many people believe that a woman's maternal desire made possible by her partner's ability to financially support the family is what leads a mother to leave her career.
I conducted my doctoral research on mothers' experiences of career exit, stay-at-home motherhood and career re-entry. My research indicated that for the 10 women I studied, the maternal instinct was not always the only or main reason that these women left their careers for stay-at-home motherhood. In fact, the women I studied expressed at least three or more contributing factors that led to their decision to leave the careers. This suggests that a woman's decision to leave her career for stay-at-home motherhood is actually multifaceted and quite complex.
8 Reasons Why Mothers Left Their Careers for Stay-At-Home Motherhood:
1) The stress of managing work and family demands. Several women expressed that they left their careers due to the stress of managing motherhood and career. For example one woman I interviewed reflected on when she decided to leave her career:
The weight of the world was taken--oh my God--thank you--it was so stressful to be trying to--raise the kids, and my husband felt the stress as well. It wasn't just me.
2) The maternal instinct. There is no doubt that for the women I studied, the maternal instinct was a contributing factor to their decision. For example one woman said the following:
I remember exactly where I was. I was on a couch and I was actually breastfeeding my son and I remember just crying because there was just no way I could leave him.
Another woman I interviewed explained:
It really had to do with this instinct I had that I want to be more available to my kids. I mean, when I made the decision to stay home, it really, well, it was almost a biological instinct that I needed to create a safer, more predictable environment for my young children.
3) Feeling "pushed-out" of a job. Four of the women I studied experienced a push-out due to job circumstances that made continuing to work challenging or impossible. One woman I studied explained:
They wanted me to move to DC. I could not do that because my husband was a straight commission sales rep and all his clients were in the NYC area. He would have to start from zero--that was not going to happen. So then I left. I had to leave that company because I didn't take that move and then I worked part-time and it just--I got pregnant with my third, we moved into a new house and it was just--it just felt like that was a good time.
4) Financial Stability. All of the women I studied were married at the time they left their careers and had some level of financial stability that made it possible to be stay-at-home mothers. For example, one woman I studied who was a teacher and whose husband was a physician said:
Well, I think it was pretty clear that I would leave my career since he was the breadwinner--and he would--he had the potential to make a lot more income. And he loves his career.
5) Save a Marriage
For one woman, exasperation due to marital strife was the deciding factor for her decision to leave her career. Her husband did not want to take an active part in household and childcare duties, which led to constant fights between them. She explained:
So it was kind of like one of those moments I said, 'I'm just so tired of the fighting.' And I just looked at him [referring to her husband] and I said, 'Okay, well, we can just get this commission deal in and let me just get my options for investing . . . And I said, when this time frame comes around and I can cash in, I'm out [quitting job].'
6) Expectation was to be a stay-at-home mother. All the woman I studied had mothers who were primarily stay-at-home mothers, which suggests how the influence of their upbringing affected the decision. For example:
I was in a very traditional marriage. I was Mormon at the time. Once you get married you usually don't work. I did work because we needed the money, but as soon as I had children I stopped working. And I was very happy . . . being a mother. I planned to be a mother my whole life. Did not plan to reenter the workforce at all.
Another woman explained a conversation with her husband:
It was sort of the...it wasn't an intense discussion. It was kind of like, 'Well you're really good at what you do and keep doing it, but don't let it, you know, interfere with being there for our daughter.
7) Needed flexibility. Many of the women I studied felt that they needed a flexible schedule in order to adequately take care of family responsibilities. For example, one women I interviewed said:
And that's what I think is so important [referring to flexibility]...I'm seeing more and more dads choosing to stay home which--I think in my opinion--one family member needs to be flexible. And I don't mean one family member needs to be the stay-at-home parent, but one family member needs to be able to . . . when the kid gets sick or you need to run over to the school. And my husband cannot do that. He cannot leave in the middle of the day because of how structured his work day is. You know, if there's a crisis it's--it's--like such a huge stress if he were to have to leave.
8) Uncertainty of Life Expectancy. In the early years of one woman's marriage, she was diagnosed with a rare medical condition, making her life expectancy uncertain. Her husband encouraged her to leave her career. She explained, "My husband was like--we don't know what the future is. So, you stay home and I'll be the provider."
This represents 10 women's experiences and does not assume that all women who leave their careers for stay-at-home motherhood share the same decision-making experiences. However, my research indicates that a woman's decision to leave her career for stay-at-home motherhood can be unique and complex. As women, we often judge each other's family and career decisions harshly, so be careful next time you find yourself starting to pass judgement on a woman based on her decision to manage career and children, be a stay-at-home mother, or to not have children at all.You don't know her story.
Note: Some identifying details have been changed to protect the identities of the women I studied.