"Opting Out"? Or Running Out Of Options?

Kelly Wallace is a CBS News Correspondent based in New York.
I remember tearing through the New York Times Magazine cover story back in 2003 about a group of highly educated women who turned their backs on corporate America to become full-time mothers. My thoughts went something like this: why would they make such a decision? Aren't they giving up so much, in terms of education and career, to be home with their kids?

Let's just say I see the world a whole lot differently now as a mother of a 13-month-old. I respect more than ever before every mother's choice and understand there are no blacks and whites here, no rights and wrongs, but lots of difficult decisions and plenty of grey areas.

Which brings me back to that New York Times story which coined the term "opting out" for these career women who were choosing to be home with their families. Since that story, "opting out" has been seen as the latest trend in mothering – a kind of social revolution. But is it really happening and if it is, why are these women giving it up to be with their kids? Are they opting out or did they run out of options?

Those are the questions we tried to answer in tonight's story – "Eye on the American Family" -- on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric."

We met Nicole Knox, a 33-year-old Northwestern Law School graduate who decided to leave her high-powered law firm job after her son Jackson was born 3 ½ years ago. Nicole describes half her decision as opting out to be home full-time with her new, beautiful son but says the other half was based on the intensity of her job and the hours required at a top Manhattan firm.

"I went back and forth and then finally decided that I couldn't do the level, I couldn't be at the level I needed to be at the job I was doing and also do what I wanted to do with Jackson," she said, adding that she never planned to stay home. She always imagined making work "work" once she had kids.

There isn't much research on this phenomenon, if it is one. The numbers tell part of the story. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1997 and 2005, the number of working married women with college degrees and children under one dropped by almost 8 percent, from 70.6 percent to 62.9 percent.

So there is a slight decrease. The question is why?

Sociologist Pam Stone, author of the just released book, "Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit and Head Home," interviewed more than 50 professional women across the country to try and get some answers.

"They're not opting out, they're being shut out," said Stone. The women she interviewed, she said, talked about how the conditions of their jobs "were really forcing them out, forcing them into making a decision."

"I think the message is women aren't going home again, that we are not seeing a return to the 50's," she added. "Nine out of ten women I spoke with never thought they would be at home, full-time at home mom, they always wanted to combine the careers they love with the families they love. So I think we need to understand there is a true unmet demand out there for flexible work, that's what women want."

Of course, not everyone agrees. Philosopher Linda Hirshman is author of the book "Get to Work," which angered so many stay-at-home moms she jokingly wrote an opinion piece titled, "Everybody Hates Linda." She strongly believes these women are choosing not to stick it out and are walking away from jobs, hurting themselves and other women in the workplace.

"Now this dropping out behavior is kind of giving the employers kind of an excuse to say to themselves, it's not that I don't want to hire women, it's that I don't want to hire employees who don't say," she said.

Interestingly, we learned some parts of Corporate America might be less worried about women leaving, than about trying to lure women back.

Harry Weiner, one of the founders of a new search firm called On-Ramps, says many companies are concerned about the number of women in mid to senior level positions who are leaving, in part, because of the difficulties of balancing their demanding jobs with raising a family.

"Upper to senior level management in companies nowadays is still pretty homogenous and companies realize that is not a good thing," Weiner said. "So to increase the diversity… they are really seeing flexibility as a key tool to, for allowing people to come in and join their forces."

I couldn't help thinking – Couldn't companies across the board do more to make "work work" for working mothers? If they don't, won't they face the possibility of losing women at every level and wouldn't that be a bad thing for the companies and for other women working their way up the corporate ladder?

Nicole put it this way – "You're missing out on this great bunch of people who could do great work and interesting work."

Because here's the thing. If these mothers don't feel they can make it work at their jobs, and they still very much want to work, they are going to find other places to take their skills.

Just think of Nicole, now a mother of two. She started a law firm from home a year after her son was born. Business – and her family – she says are thriving.

She's not opting out, she's "opting different." That's how one working mother described it to me. Maybe that term says it best.