- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. After interrupting a career in corporate finance when the first of her two children was born, Marilyn Sanger was finally ready to jump back into the work force. Her youngest child had just entered first grade, and Mrs. Sanger was itching to get back into the grown-up world.

She quickly landed a job as an accountant and bookkeeper with the Littleton School District. But after three years of working 40-hour weeks, Mrs. Sanger did a funny thing last month: She quit not to search for a better position or to go back to school, but to stay home with her children, 11-year-old David and 8-year-old Christina.

Instead of rushing off to work and day care, she and her children are spending the summer swimming at the neighborhood pool and playing Yahtzee.

"The other day, my husband [Tom] asked me, 'How was your day?' and I said, 'Great we spent three hours at Chuck E. Cheese.' And I wasn't being sarcastic," she says with a laugh.

The 39-year-old mother acknowledges she's defying the conventional working-mother wisdom, the part that says professional women should take time off when their children are young and return to the career track once they're anywhere from 6 months to 6 years old. What Mrs. Sanger found is her children still needed her at home even after they were spending most of their days at school.

"I really thought, 'Now I've got two kids in full-time school, it's time to go back to work,' " she says. "I thought they'd be busy enough and independent enough that they wouldn't need me as much.

"But my big issue was that I had kids who wanted to be involved in things David wanted to get back into soccer, Christina wanted to do dance and piano and I really wanted them to have those things, too," she said. "I wanted to make memories with my kids, and I didn't want them to be, 'Yeah, my mom was always working.' "

It may not yet qualify as a full-blown trend, but parents who juggle family and career are finding more and more reasons to stay home even after their children are old enough to stay home by themselves. According to mothers who have been there, keeping up with an adolescent's homework, sports and music schedules, not to mention physical and emotional development, can be every bit as time-consuming as staying on top of an infant's feeding and changing schedule.

"The general thinking is that it's really critical to be there when the kids are newborn to age 3," said Susan DeRitis, spokeswoman for Mothers at Home, an advocacy and support group for stay-at-home parents based in Vienna, Va. "But being there for your children doesn't stop when they go to preschool, it doesn't stop when they go to elementary school, or even high school. When your children are older, they don't stop needing you they just need you in different ways."

For Andrea Stutheit, 45, the decision to quit her job as a lawyer came after her son Drew entered second grade and she realized she and her husband were no longer the main influences in his life. "We just didn't know what was going on [at school]. I tried to volunteer, but it was tough," she says. "It was this feeling that somebody knows our kids better than we do."

That was 10 years ago. Mrs. Stutheit hasn't worked outside her Littleton home since, and she says she has no regrets.

"When your kids get older, it doesn't mean they need you less," she says. "As they get older and other influences come into play, that's when they really need you in their lives, when they need to know someone's home, waiting for them."

Now that her two sons are teen-agers, Mrs. Stutheit said, the importance of being plugged into their school and friends has only intensified. Drugs, alcohol and sex are suddenly real concerns: She no longer allows her boys to visit friends' houses after school when their parents are gone because "there have been a number of times when Drew has gone to someone's house and they've gotten the liquor out because nobody's home."

She recalled another incident at a local high school in which a teen-age boy was renting out his house at lunchtime for "nooners," or sex. With both of his parents at work during the day, his scheme worked until neighbors noticed the rush of activity every day at noon and notified his mother.

"I think the perceived wisdom is that once a kid is in middle school, he can make decisions for himself, but that's when the peer pressure really kicks in," said Mrs. Stutheit. "Kids today grow up way too fast, and part of the reason is that parents throw them out there and say, 'OK, you're on your own now.' "

Not all two-career couples can afford to lose one income, but the robust economy has made it more possible than ever for mothers to exit the work force without the dramatic lifestyle cutbacks. Seven months ago, Marla Criner, 37, left her lucrative career as a product manager at Lucent Technologies to stay home with her school-age children after her husband Mike's software company hit pay dirt with a successful IPO offering.

"We've been lucky. We didn't have to give up anything," she says.

The economic boom made her decision less difficult, but Mrs. Criner says she already had been saving to stay home when her children, Lauren, 8, and Zachary, 5, hit middle school. "When they're toddlers, they have a fixed schedule, and you can plan around it," she said. "The older they got, the more they needed me to be involved at their school, and with their karate, their soccer, their T-ball, my schedule made it difficult to do that."

Her biggest fear that she would yearn for the satisfaction of a successful career hasn't materialized. "I really thought that I would miss it, but I haven't looked back," Mrs. Criner says. "I was actually surprised at how easy it was. I look back now and I don't know how I had the time to work."

Leaving the office wasn't quite as smooth for Darlene Giorgi. After quitting her job as a senior account executive for Motorola Cellular Services last year to stay home with her three children, she and her husband, Mike, decided to make some sacrifices. They sold their spacious Highlands Ranch home and bought a smaller house in Lone Tree, using the profits from the sale to pay off some bills.

Their new house is a tighter fit, but Mrs. Giorgi, 38, says she wouldn't change a thing. "My worry was, am I going to be challenged? But it's new challenges," she says. "And with everything going on in today's world, staying home definitely does make a difference. It means you can put them [your children] first as opposed to putting work and money first."

Ironically, it's the children who may not appreciate their parents' sacrifices, at least not at first. Drew Stutheit, 17, said he "absolutely" likes having his mother there when he comes home from school, but there was a time when he wished she would resume her high-paying legal career.

"My friends' moms all worked, and I'd say, 'We'd have more money if you worked,' " said Drew, a senior at Denver Christian High School. "But now I'm glad she's home. Being able to come home and talk to her really makes your day."

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