Parental Leaves

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If you spend every workday worrying about your baby, you've probably considered quitting your job. But what if you're peaking professionally--and your baby is 15 years old? Should you really make the sacrifice to be with a child who's old enough not to want to be with you?

That's what Terri Bonoff did last year, surprising even herself in the process. Bonoff, a hard-charging marketing executive, was convinced that her son Joey needed her more than ever--and his younger brother and two younger step-siblings were right behind him. Over Joey's objections, she resigned.

Taking a "teen leave" is an unusual solution to a work-family dilemma, but it could become more popular as the late '80s baby boomlet hits the teenage years--and shell-shocked parents hit a wall. Says a New York mom who's taking time off from her job as a lawyer to get her adolescent son back on track: "It was a rude awakening to discover that you can't have a high-powered career and expect to play a significant role in an older kid's life. At least I can't."

Oddly enough, slowing a stellar career to finish raising a family has never looked better. According to America's Research Group, a market-research firm, 32% of married couples with children think one parent should spend more time with the kids, up from 18% just five years ago. In this dotcom economy, lots of two-income families have accumulated enough money and workplace stress to act on that impulse. Throw in a few headlines about the dangers facing today's teenagers, and taking time off--or at least cutting back--seems imperative.

But is it wise? The pros and cons may surprise you.

On the plus side, parents who have taken the plunge say it's given them precious moments of intimacy, often at bedtime or in the car. In a 10-year study of top professional women who switched from full-time to part-time work with the birth of a child, Catalyst, a research group dedicated to advancing women in business, found that all these years later half are still working part time. Why? As a participant put it, "a 15-year-old does not show up during your hour of quality time and say, 'Here are the things that have been bothering me.'"

Not so fast, says Joseph Di Prisco, co-author of the smart, sensitive new book Field Guide to the American Teenager. Unless your teen is in serious trouble, he says, it's better to let her get on with the business of adolescence--establishing her independence--without a hovering parent. Even if you're home more, he warns, your busy teenager will be elsewhere.

Di Prisco speaks from experience. Several years ago, he took a leave from teaching to finish a book and spend more time with his son Mario, then a junior in high school. But Mario, now 23, barely recalls the hiatus, and he certainly doesn't remember ever wishing for more time with his dad.

A teen's druthers, of course, are only part of the equation. Bonoff and her husband, for instance, have three other children besides Joey to think of. And while Joey was skeptical at first, his friends soon started hanging out at his house because his mother was there to feed them.

So how does Joey feel now? "Well," Bonoff says, laughing, "he doesn't ask me when I'm going back to work anymore."

For more on juggling work and family, visit workfamily.com. You can e-mail Eugenie at eugenie_allen@yahoo.com.