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First comes baby

Reversing a 25-year trend, the percentage of working women with babies younger than 1 decreases.

By MONIQUE FIELDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2001


Reversing a 25-year trend, the percentage of working women with babies younger than 1 decreases.

CLEARWATER -- At first, Nadine Jackwin thought she would stay home with her newborn for six months. Then six months turned into a year. Now it may be two years before she returns as an executive assistant or pursues a graduate degree.

For Jackwin, 24, it was about peace of mind.

If she put her daughter in day care, "I knew I would be stressed out about what's going on during the day with her."

She would wonder whether her daughter got one-on-one attention, whether anyone soothed her tears, whether Jasmine, now nearly 7 months old, would think her parents abandoned her.

At least at age 2, Jasmine will be talking. Jackwin figures the toddler will be able to tell her and her husband, Greg, if something goes wrong at school.

Jackwin is part of a swing in the working-mother pendulum. For the first time since 1976, the percentage of women in the work force with children under age 1 decreased significantly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The change doesn't surprise Dr. Bruce Epstein, who launched his pediatrics practice in St. Petersburg 25 years ago. Back then, most mothers of his patients weren't working. Over the years, women went to work in droves. But when he retired two years ago, he noticed that more and more well-educated women were abandoning lucrative jobs for the sake of their newborns.

"Workplaces are more flexible, yet mothers are realizing that they are in a unique position to have the baby and want to be home with the child and consequently don't want to miss out," Epstein said.

Years ago, typical maternity leaves lasted six weeks. Then the Family and Medical Leave Act made it possible for women to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for their newborns. Statistics now show that for many women, three months isn't enough.

"It's very difficult for them to give up bonding," said Dr. George Harris, a family practice physician at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. "Now they have a new goal they want to meet and a new fulfillment."

Mothers want more time because it takes six weeks after birth just to feel like themselves and for babies to come into their own, said Dr. Catherine Lynch, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Tampa General Hospital and an associate professor and director of the division of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida.

Then the benefits of breast-feeding -- touted for everything from reducing ear infections to raising IQ scores -- also kept moms home longer. Mothers say it is difficult to pump their milk several times a day and work, Lynch said.

Not everyone is clamoring to stay at home. Of the 3.9-million women age 15 to 44 who gave birth between July 1999 and June 2000, about 55 percent returned to work or sought jobs within a year of giving birth, census figures show.

Still, that figure is a drop from a record high of 59 percent in 1998, the last time mothers were surveyed.

An author of the census report suggested that economic issues were behind some of the change. Martin O'Connell said more women are having children at a later age, giving them more time to build savings that allow them to stay home longer. And the booming economy of the late '90s may have given more women confidence they could find a job when they wanted to return to work.

Women who earned a graduate or professional degree were three times more likely to work full-time jobs than part-time jobs, the census bureau found. The report suggests that women with more time invested in their education are more likely to return to full-time employment than mothers who have less education.

Lynch, for one, returned to work after 12 weeks. She breast-fed Grace, now 6 months old, for five months.

"I felt to give her the best of me I also needed to be fulfilled at work," said Lynch, who spent eight years of her life preparing to become a physician. "I absolutely love being a mother, but I also enjoy my work."

For now, though, fewer mothers of infants are heading right back to the workplace, according to census data.

Janelle Norris, 32, of St. Petersburg is a registered nurse who couldn't fight the urge to stay home with her son, Nathan, now 13 months old.

She returned to Bayfront Medical Center after three months of materity leave. She lasted two weeks before resigning. At first, she wanted to stay at home until Nathan was a year old. She plans to return full time in January.

It was hard to leave Nathan at day care. All she could do was think about him while at work, and she felt guilty because she couldn't be with him.

"I was miserable," she said.

She finally decided that Nathan simply was more important and told her husband, Frank, that she wanted to stay home.

"You can make money down the road, but you're not going to get this time back with your child," Norris said.

She is working part-time in the evenings and on weekends at Bayfront. The medical profession constantly changes, and Norris feared that if she stepped away for two long, she would have lost precious on-the-job training time.

In the beginning, Nadine Jackwin felt guilty as she watched her husband get dressed for work every morning. Staying at home with Jasmine even made her hesitant to buy herself something at the mall: She didn't feel like she was contributing to the household.

But that changed with time.

"You know what? I'm working just as hard as he is because this is a full-time job," she said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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