Recently a friend of mine plopped down on the couch next to me and asked the question I get asked more than any other these days: "How's it been since you've been back to work?"

Like always, I answered in two parts. First, from the part of me that spent eight years as an at-home mom, the part that has reemerged from under diapers and Sippy cups and found new life: "Good. It's been really good."

And second, from the part of me that has yet to figure out how to successfully manage my job, two elementary-age children, a full-time pastor husband who's also in graduate school, life-giving friendships, and a sanity-keeping exercise routine without having an emotional breakdown over the fact that we haven't had milk in two days or that no one has clean socks—the part that's exhausted and overwhelmed: "But hard. It's been really hard."

The balance between "good" and "hard" is difficult for any woman, and downright daunting for women who have chosen to set aside our careers for a season to focus on our children, but who are now reentering the workforce. We long for the "good"—to use our gifts outside the home in a meaningful way (while contributing financially to the household). But we're terrified of the "hard," wondering if going back to work means forsaking the same family we gladly gave up work for to begin with.

The Center for Work Life Policy estimates that 31 percent of highly qualified women "off ramp"—voluntarily quit their jobs for a period of time—on average for 2.7 years. The study, which resulted in Sylvia Ann Hewitt's bestselling book, Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, hasn't been without controversy. The term "highly qualified" is reserved for women with whom, statistically speaking, I wouldn't fall in the same academic or professional category, nor would many women I know.

Yet the term on its own ("highly qualified") characterizes most of the women I know: smart, college educated, capable, competent, gifted women who have chosen to push pause on their career, at least for a time, to meet the demands of raising a family. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Report, those who choose to fully step out of the workforce join the ranks of some 5.6 million at-home moms.

There does come a day, however, when many of these same women either want, or for financial reasons need, to reenter the workforce (usually when their last child enters school). But the obstacles posed by a traditional workplace, in conjunction with an admirable unwillingness among such "highly qualified women" to sacrifice their family's needs, can seem insurmountable. The traditional workplace—40 hours per week, nine to five, with limited vacation—was designed in the industrial age, when the vast majority of workers focused solely on their jobs while their wives managed the home front. With 71 percent of mothers with children under 18 already in the workforce, that's no longer the case. The limits of such an environment leave many capable women who want to go back to work afraid to even try.

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The predicament is fairly new for women in the 21st century.

In a recent Huffington Post article, columnist Lisa Belkin describes her reaction to learning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has the highest political office ever held by a woman, didn't attempt to reenter the workforce until her five children were almost out of the house. Belkin ascribes Pelosi's trajectory to a moment in history when women could raise their children, then delve into a career. She notes several influential women who, like Pelosi, "spent years on the slow career track or as a stay-at-home-mother, and came roaring back when their children were older."

Today, the "slow career track," while often the best decision for the entire family, is not without its disadvantages (however worth it) for the women who choose its path. In 2010, of the 31 percent of women who off-ramped, 73 percent who tried to return to the workforce reported it difficult to find a job. Those who did return lost 16 percent of their earning power, while 22 percent stepped down to a lower job title.

Some good news: Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) are becoming increasingly popular, giving women today a few more options than Pelosi's generation had. Studies show that employers who are willing to provide flexible schedules, including the amount of hours worked, the timeframe in which those hours are worked, as well as the place in which they're worked, enjoy lower overhead, higher retention rates and have happier and more productive employees.

Less than two years ago, Compassion International, for example, piloted a home-sourcing program for their customer service center. They initially made the decision to lower their overhead (which they did), but in the process found the program increased morale, in large part because of the enormous benefits to families, in particular moms. Call center director Rich Van Eaton said that without the program, "We would have lost some of our very best employees." The call center has plans to increase their home-based program while enthusiasm for flexibility seeps into other parts of the organization.

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More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus broke with social traditions and opened his ministry to the active contribution of women, in ways that both brought them life and advanced the kingdom.

Today, many gifted women—moms—are wrestling with the overwhelming desire to actively contribute, or have dire financial needs in an historic moment deemed the Great Recession, but also see the incalculable value of getting their kids off the bus and making the 3pm soccer game. It'd be nice if the workplace, especially those over which Christians have influence, could be their partner rather than their opposition.

Suanne Camfield is a freelance writer, blog manager for and founding member of the Redbud Writers Guild. She lives in the Chicago area and works 32 flexible hours per week for InterVarsity Press. Read her blog, friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @SuanneCamfield.