Keeping a foot in the office door can ease mother's anxiety
Published Nov. 18, 2013

In her practice as a divorce lawyer, Margy Klaw sees many highly educated, middle-aged women who wish they hadn't left full-time work after having children. Faced with the prospect of failed marriages, she said, they are terrified that they won't be able to support themselves.

Her advice? Don't "opt out" of work after you become a mother — at least not entirely. In a recent opinion article for the website, which offers career and financial advice for women, she advises professional women to continue working at least part time after they have children. That way, she said, they can keep their skills current, stay abreast of trends in their field and maintain contacts they can draw on when they are ready to return to full-time work.

Her article is the latest entry in the debate over the potential drawbacks of "opting out." The New York Times Magazine recently featured a cover story on women who had opted out of full-time work 10 years ago, and the hurdles they faced re-entering the job market.

Klaw argues that the benefits of working part time make it a smart move in the long term — even if you are just breaking even, or perhaps not quite breaking even, on child care costs in the short term. Quitting and relying entirely on a spouse's income, she said, "is shortsighted to me, in every way. It's so obvious that it's a good investment, to keep your skills up and your contacts."

(She added one caveat, which is that working part time at a net "loss" makes less sense for women who are hourly wage earners — say, retail cashiers — because their potential to earn more money after they return to work isn't as great.)

There are other reasons to stay connected to the working world, besides planning for a possible divorce. Leaving work contributes to the persistent wage gap between men and women. And stopping work reduces not only your current earnings, but also your overall long-term retirement and Social Security earnings.

The institute's research over 15 years shows that the longer women stay out of the workforce, the more their income drops when they return to work. For instance, if you take a year off, your income when you go back to work drops 20 percent from when you left; if you're out two or more years, the drop is 30 percent.