04.18.144:02 AM ET

Career vs. Family: Why Choose?

One D.C. psychologist explains two solutions to prevent women from choosing between their children and their careers.

Four decades ago my hippie parents took to the streets to ensure that I could have career opportunities equal to men. For most of my life, I felt that I did. Yet the moment I became a mother, stark inequalities between me and the majority in my office suddenly became clear.

“Equal Pay Day,” observed last week, serves as a reminder that women still earn less than men. The reasons for this are complex and many. But data from the Pew Research Center released last week highlight one underreported cause of the pay gap. Agrowing number of women leave the workforce to care for children. Many never come back. I know. I was nearly one of them.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Two reasonable solutions that would have helped me and countless other mothers to remain in the workforce are access to high-quality daycare and flexible work schedules during the critical first year of infant development.

Prior to the birth of our first son, I reaped the rewards of the feminist movement. I received a doctorate in clinical psychology with significant training in early childhood development and worked my way fairly high up the military mental health community pyramid. In my work as a psychological health expert serving the Department of Defense, I helped advise on military-wide initiatives to better address the mental health needs of service members and their families. As part of my work I participated in meetings where work-flex policies were discussed as a way to help protect the health of families and reduce the outbreak of stress related disorders.

Shortly following my first son's birth on New Year's Eve 2012, those meetings took on special significance for me. I found myself at the center of a tug-of-war between work and child rearing concerns. I returned to work with added handicaps, like a lack of sleep, round-the-clock breastfeeding and pumping, and the growing pains associated with learning my child’s needs. On top of this, my family was struggling to find acceptable childcare. Unfortunately, my situation was far from unique.

The transition to parenthood is tough—and for mothers, especially so. During the first year of an infant’s life roughly 36% of mothers quit their jobs, according to a 2011 study. Many never return to the workforce.

Many women new to parenting feel forced to choose between their child’s welfare and their careers in the transition back to work. And for mothers without high quality substitute care, this choice may not be just in their heads. Child Development Expert Jeann Brooks-Gunn and colleagues from Columbia University conducted the largest scale research to date on the impact of working mothers on infant development. In a study published in 2002, they concluded that the majority of infants were at higher risk of cognitive retardation if their mothers worked full time. There was no added risk to infants whose mothers worked only part-time (less than 30 hours per week) nor for mothers who began working full-time after their infant’s first year. Better news in a follow-up study by the same authors published in 2010 indicated that along with high quality parenting, these risks might be neutralized for infants receiving high quality substitute care.

Experts will tell you that ninety percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of five. Most of this growth occurs in an infant’s first year. Therefore, the quality of care in the first twelve months likely matters more than at any other time in a child’s life. As important as these early stages are, quality childcare options are in short supply.

In the midst of these transitions, my agency made the decision to uniformly ban flexible work schedules, including telework. Lobbying by my supervisors to keep me on a part-time schedule was denied by senior management. I followed-up to speak directly with the acting director to explain my childcare concerns, the importance of the flexible work schedules DoD had been promoting, and to understand his reasoning. I never received a reply. The end impact was that a feeling that situations such as mine were not taken as important to consider. Technically, I suppose I was treated equal to every other employee. But I was now juggling two jobs.

Soon, I had to make a tough decision.

I chose my child’s welfare over my existing career. Less than a month earlier, I earned the highest ratings possible on my performance evaluation. But now, it was one or the other.

We need a new model.

Despite the growing reduction of women in the workforce, the majority of mothers are now working mothers. If we are going to embrace a new model of motherhood in which the majority of women work full time, we need a new system that supports this reality rather than our current one, which seems to largely ignore it.

Granting full consideration to flexible work arrangements during an infant’s first critical year and expanding access to high quality and affordable daycare are two fundamentals that would prevent millions of women from having to chose between the welfare of their children and their careers.

Overall, my experiences have made me realize that the work of my parents’ generation is far from complete. The women’s movement has helped open doors for millions of young women. Now we must face the challenge of helping keep those doors open for mothers who care for their families.

Dr. Monique Moore is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a recovering (but proud) child of hippie parents.