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Work-Life Gurus, Part-Time Opportunities Help Mothers Get Back on the Job

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008; Page E15

Suzanne Cole knew something had to give. She had been able to work full time with two children, but with the arrival of her third, she said, she found life becoming "a little unwieldy." She was staying up until 1:30 a.m. to pay bills and do laundry.

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Cole, an accountant for a federal agency, wanted to work fewer hours, but between homework, soccer, volunteering at her daughter's preschool and house chores, she needed prodding to do anything about it. That's where Christine Fruehwirth came in.

Cole heard the career and life coach from Potomac talk about "finding the 'me' in mommy" and thought it made sense. "I needed to do something . . . rather than putting it at the bottom of the list."

Over five sessions, Fruehwirth worked with Cole on a proposal for her bosses detailing how she would get her work done in a 3 1/2 -day week. Cole gave it to her supervisors in January, and to her surprise, they not only approved it but asked if they could use it as a model for other employees.

The total cost of the sessions was $500.

"Best money I ever spent," Cole said.

While parents everywhere struggle to meet the competing demands of work and family, for mothers who are highly educated and established in their careers, there is a growing cottage industry of workshops, recruiting firms, job boards, coaches and consultants. Many of these firms also work with men and older employees -- Fruehwirth has a client who is a stay-at-home dad planning to go back to work soon -- but the greatest demand has been from working mothers.

These work-life gurus pitch themselves as the business solution to the "opt-out revolution" of stay-at-home mothers and promote the view that the choice between working and staying home is neither stark nor a once-in-a-lifetime decision.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that more than a third of professional women take a brief hiatus from the workforce -- an average of two years. Another third take what she calls "the scenic route," some combination of flex time and reduced hours, while their children are small.

More women would work part time if they could. A 2007 Pew Research Center report found that 60 percent of working mothers across all income and education levels said they would be happiest working part time, a jump of 12 percentage points since 1997. However, only 24 percent actually had part-time hours.

For professional women, many of whom have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their training and established careers before starting a family, part of the problem rests with the nature of most part-time work.

"About half of part-time jobs pay very low wages and have no benefits," said Eileen Appelbaum, a labor economist and director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. "There are not that many professional and managerial positions available on a part-time basis."


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