For alumni who make the decision to leave careers and stay home with
their children, the rewards can be great but the transition isn’t always easy.
Story by RACHEL HATCH
|Beth Janicki Clark '85 with her twins. On her last day of work, colleagues told her,
"You know you're making the right decision, don't you?"
Beth Janicki Clark ’85 returned from the theatrical performance a little later than
expected. Clark, a former attorney for the village of Downers Grove near Chicago,
generally wasn’t the type to linger after a show. She and her husband, Peter, also
an attorney in a downtown Chicago firm, usually kept to a tight schedule. With Clark’s
new job, however, her keen interest in two of the actors meant other things could
“Why, that’s a lovely paper-clip chain, dear,” Clark said to one of her twin 5-year-old
sons arriving home at the conclusion of a school play in which both had singing roles.
After hearing her son suggest a possible use for his metal creation, Clark responded,
“No, dear, I don’t think it will fly over the railing.”
Clark’s new job requires all the patience and negotiating skills of her days as an
attorney, but now her coworkers are a bit younger. She joins many Illinois Wesleyan
alumni who have decided to take the sometimes scary leap off the career track to become
“It took a long time for my husband and me to get pregnant,” says Clark, who was 36
when the twins were born. “I was working long hours; my husband was working long hours.
Even after we had the kids, we were going at such a hectic pace. When the boys turned
4, I just had a feeling I was missing out on some pretty important years.”
Most parents face a crossroads in deciding how to balance their work and family lives.
As little as 30 years ago, there was very little question that mothers would stay
home with the children while the husband went off to work. The 1970s brought new freedom
for women to enter the workplace. With that freedom came a difficult choice, for families
who could afford to be supported by a single income, of whether or not one of the
parents would stay home with the kids. Now that more couples are choosing to wait
several years before having children, that choice is complicated by the fact that
staying at home will likely interrupt or halt one of the parents’ careers.
For parents with college degrees, the decision to leave their jobs often holds an
added layer of complexity. Some are haunted by the idea that they may be “wasting”
their educations by staying home. But that idea only applies if you think the purpose
of a college degree is just to get a better job, not to live a better life. Leslie
Powell-Skinner ’91 believes her Illinois Wesleyan education has enhanced her parenting
abilities. “I find I use a lot of my management and leadership skills when it comes
to my 2-year-old,” says Powell-Skinner, who lives in Elridge, Iowa, with her husband,
Kerry, and their two children. “Really, it’s the love of learning that is a tremendous
asset in raising a family. Wesleyan helped me to teach my children to think critically
and love learning.”
Because of her liberal arts background, Allecia Ranney Correll ’00 says, “I’ll be
able to teach my children how what we do fits into this world, and that there are
consequences to what we do.”
A former analyst with State Farm Insurance, Correll — who has two sons with husband
Zachary ’96 — takes her parenting role seriously. Yet she knows that others don’t
understand her choice. Instead, they assume “I stayed at home because I couldn’t
get the job I wanted, or I am uneducated. It’s difficult for them to believe I left
a wonderful career.”
Clark recalls that when she announced her decision to stay home, many friends and
family members were stunned by her decision. “My mother was supportive, but my father
asked why I got all that education if I was just going to stay at home.” She pauses.
“He’s still proud of me, though.” As her last day in the office drew near, many colleagues
began to offer their support. “I had people come into my office and say, ‘You know
you’re making the right decision, don’t you?’”
Alumni find rewards and challenges in their jobs as stay-at-home parents. Leslie
Powell-Skinner ’91 and her three children.
Even with such support, parents who trade work for home can face a potential loss
of identity and self-esteem. “There’s not a lot of thanks in being a stay-at home
mom,” says Powell-Skinner. “No one compliments you on a well-changed poopy diaper.
You have to know your own worth.”
“It’s a weird thing,” says Tina Kurecki Lewis ’96, a former full-time epidemiologist
who lives near Atlanta with her husband Christopher ’95 and their infant son. “I went
to a new doctor’s office and when they asked my occupation, I had a hard time writing
down ‘homemaker.’ It’s tough to acknowledge that I no longer have a job.” She pauses.
“Wait, I have a job, I just no longer get paid for it.”
Mother-of-two Amanda Lenk Xenos ’00 recounts similar reactions when accompanying husband
Eleftherios to various social events. “When I tell them I am a stay-at-home mother,
they have a look that says, ‘How boring.’ There’s an assumption that I’m letting my
mind go to waste,” she says.
Faced with similar social situations, Zarina Mullan Plath ’94 — who has two children
with her husband, IWU English Professor James Plath — has found it helpful to define
herself outside the home. “I wasn’t defensive when people asked what I did,” she says.
“I just found myself presenting myself differently, saying what else I was doing as
far as writing poetry or reviews, editing, or teaching classes.” (Plath is a part-time
adjunct professor at Illinois Wesleyan). “It was just easier to connect with people.”
Not everyone struggles with the idea of staying at home. For former teacher Lori Alhambra
Fowler ’96, being a full-time mom for her and husband Tim’s two children seems quite
natural. “Staying home is more of a norm in my social circle,” explains Fowler. When
the family moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, she was able to meet more stay-at-home
mothers. “Perhaps the only downfall is that you tend to forget you had a life before
your kids,” she says. “No one asks what you did before.”
Rhys Lovell ’87 with his son and daughter. Lovell has since returned to work, but
when resuming their careers, parents often find the change is emotionally difficult.
While many women fight the need to prove themselves as intellectual equals to working
mothers, Rhys Lovell ’87 faced a new kind of bias. He was part of a new trend: the
stay-at-home dad. It was a double stigma, and one he struggled with for a while during
his time at home with his and wife Devon’s daughter, Carys. “It was hard for me at
first,” says Lovell. “Men are so hard-wired to be the hunters. I would go to the park
in Evanston (Illinois) with Carys and be the only guy, the only parent, surrounded
As an older brother who once cared for his younger siblings, Lovell had no problems
with diapers and bottles. “The hardest thing was coming to terms with being the secondary
wage earner and trying to be comfortable with that. Maybe there are some stay-at-home
dads whose masculinity isn’t threatened by staying at home,” he says, adding with
a laugh, “I’d really like to meet them.”
Even as they hurdle challenges to their self-esteem, stay-at-home parents face other
difficulties as they make the transition from work to home. Clark admits, “I used
to have this image in my mind when I saw stay-at-home moms. I thought, ‘They have
it so easy.’ But now — oh, brother! — I didn’t know how much energy it took.”
When Clark and her husband both worked, a 21-year-old nanny had stayed with the twins.
“I didn’t require her to do housework, so she could play games with the kids all day.”
When she realized her new job included taking care of her two energetic boys and her
home, Clark was amazed at how full her days became. “It’s funny — now I get to bed
and there is still laundry in the dryer. Yes, things have changed.”
Clark’s friend Leisa Dede Johnston ’86 — who, with husband Ben, has two children —
recalls feeling a similar sense of shock when she transitioned from her former life
as a creative director. “My work was fast-paced,” says Johnston, “but this is constant.
It’s a 24-hour job.”
Entering the world of an at-home parent means losing a certain amount of entitlement.
There is no sick leave or earned vacation — and every lunch is a working lunch. The
loss of adult camaraderie in the office can also be a challenge, says Johnston. She
adds with a laugh, “Sometimes there’s only so much of Thomas the Tank Engine you can
Despite the occasional bouts of loneliness or tedium, Johnston says she has “no regrets”
about her decision to stay home at this time in her life. “That doesn’t mean there
aren’t days I yell to my husband, ‘I’m going back to work tomorrow!’” she adds with
The struggles involved with staying home are often tempered with the self-made promise
to return to work. Yet, as the years go on, many fear finding a job again. Each year,
colleges turn out a new batch of graduates, eager to work for entry-level pay. “I
think the biggest challenge for me is not being in the workforce for a while,” said
Laura Lutz Laird ’97, a former financial coordinator who stays at home with her and
husband William’s son and daughter. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back.”
Lovell returned to full-time work when his family moved to Bloomington. “I miss it,”
he says of his former life as a stay-home dad. His 2-year-old son,Will, watches with
disappointment when his father leaves in the morning for work. “I’m the kind of dad
who can’t not play with my kids. I try to make up for the time I miss with him, but
there are just not enough hours in the day.”
Tari Fitch Carpenter ’86, says she was determined to find a job that allowed her to
spend as much time as possible with her son, Ben. A former musical-theatre major who
performed year-round until Ben was born, Carpenter says, “My story is a bit different
than most.” Because Ben was born with spinal muscular atrophy, “nobody questioned
my decision to stay home, and it was worth every moment.”
When Ben entered first grade, Carpenter became an institutional technology contact
for a Florida school — a job that’s “so not me,” she says with a laugh. “They gave
me training … and now all of Ben’s friends call me, ‘The Computer Lady.’” But the
most important thing about her job is that it allows her to maintain the same schedule
as her son, including holidays and vacations.
Those kinds of trade-offs — a less-than-ideal job for a kid-friendly schedule— are
made by parents of all walks of life, every day. No solution will likely feel like
a perfect fit, nor does one solution fit all situations.
Tari Fitch Carpenter ’86 with her husband James and son Ben. Carpenter took time off
to care for Ben, who was born with spinal muscular atropy, but has returned to work.
Yet, in an era where women are encouraged to aspire to “have it all” — a fulfilling
career, children, and a successful marriage — many are finding a compromise in not
trying to have it all at once, but to have it at different times. “You know, I realized
I could be 100 percent mom, or 100 percent teacher,” but not both at once, says Kathy
Kanak Stein ’84, a stay-at-home mom and former full-time teacher who lives Birmingham,
Ala., with her husband Gregory ’84 and their three children.
Johnston lived the life of a successful working woman for 20 years before she married
and started a family. “I did the great single life in Chicago with a great career,”
she says. Within a four-year period, Johnston wed, had two children, and moved to
Morris, Ill. “It’s been crazy, but this is where I assumed I would be someday. I was
ready for this next step.”
Lisa Powell Williams ’88 decided to stay home the last year before her daughter, Katherine,
now 10, was in school full time in kindergarten. “My intent is to continue in my chosen
professional career path, rather than to be at home full time when she does enter
junior high school.
“There is no right or wrong answer to parenthood,” sums up Williams. “I guess the
key is trying to find a balance between work and home, whatever that may be. If anyone
has that figured out, can you have them call me?” she adds with a laugh.
For parents who do decide to trade careers for home, knowing they have made the best
decision often boils down to that old standby: it just feels right for them. For Clark,
“the important thing is that I feel I’m experiencing their childhood with them. …
Of course, right now they are pulling each other’s shirts off, so I’m not sure how
I’m supposed to be experiencing that,” she adds loudly for the benefit of her twins.
“I guess I’d better go,” she concludes.
Back to work.