Working Women Have No Good Role Models

I was reading a Wall Street Journal blog, aptly called The Juggle, which is centered around topics pertaining to modern parenthood. A recent post asked readers to share stories about their parenting role models, which got me to thinking about the working parents (and more specifically, working women) I had met in the course of my career.

Two female co-workers of mine both had their first babies right around the same time. They were roughly the same age and held roughly the same level of responsibility in their respective departments. One woman chose not to return to work after her maternity leave and became a stay-at-home mother (one of the most noble reasons to leave our company according to the male CEO, when asked about the high level of employee turnover).

The second woman returned to work after a few months with an abbreviated schedule (3 days in office, 2 days at home). Her husband worked from home and provided childcare during the day while she was at work. I once observed this co-worker storing bottles of breast milk in the fridge. I was curious as to how she managed to pump milk while at the office since we were working in very cramped quarters with barely enough space to hold a meeting let alone find a quiet place to yourself, so I asked her about it. Turns out she was shutting herself in a utility closet in the hallway and sitting on storage box for support. A few months later, she was promoted to a managerial position and reverted back to coming in full time to the office.

Another friend of mine chose to leave her job and work as a freelancer while caring for her infant, which coincided with a move to a rural area to be closer to her husband’s job. After her freelancing business failed to get off the ground, she eventually took part-time work at a major corporation 50 miles and a ferry ride away from home. Each Sunday she would make the 2-hour trip, spending half the week at her parents home where they watched her child during the day and drove back each Thursday night to spend the weekend with her husband while still putting in a full day of work on Fridays.

What I realized, was that none of these women’s experiences were ones I would want to emulate. What I’ve seen is that unless you are willing to endure serious sacrifice in both your personal and professional life, an equal balance between career and motherhood is rarely possible.

In my opinion, there are several reasons for this, all illustrated in the above stories:

  • The standard employment model is structured around the single income family
  • There is a negative stigma attached to stay-at-home parents
  • For-profit child care is expensive and quality care is hard to find
  • There has been a de-centralizing of extended families, with relatives living hundreds of miles apart
  • The art of parenting has shifted from the primary and secondary caregiver model, to a more shared or “co-parenting” one

Not yet having had children of my own, I do not know what solution to this inequity I would propose. Women in my family have always relied on help from grandparents or other relatives. But what if the grandparents live far away or have no desire to raise any more children?

Perhaps the answer is better access to quality and affordable child care. But who should provide that? Employers? Government?

Maybe the answer is to restructure employment models to allow for more flexible schedules, part time work and job sharing. But is this in the best interest of employers? Is it even feasible considering the nature of certain work or current benefit models that rely on full-time employment?

I would be interested in hearing how other parents have survived “the juggle” and possible solutions for better integrating parenthood and careers.

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11 responses »

  1. Pingback: Caregivers Guide News » Blog Archive » Working Women Have No Good Role Models

  2. I don’t think it is possible to “have it all,” as they say, like the fabled supermoms. Something has to give. I share the load of parenting with my spouse and have made compromises with my career. I have been allowed to reduce my work hours to 30 per week. I have been on this schedule since the birth of my first child 3 years ago. My husband has a flexible work schedule and cares for the kids while I’m in the office. I feel fortunate to have my husband– not all men would be willing to care for an infant. He spends 7 hours caring for the kids each weekday, then heads in to work. There is a mother’s room at work, so I can pump breastmilk for my 4-month-old. With my older son, I stopped pumping at 1 year but continued to breastfeed. Having the flexiblity to reduce my hours and occasionally telecommute make a huge difference. I am happy to go to work each day, but I also don’t feel like I’m being cheated out of time with my kids. I’m home by 2:30 and get the afternoons, evenings & weekends with them. We co-sleep, so I also snuggle them at night.

  3. I am not sure that I would reccommend my lifestyle/parenting style to anyone as each person must find what works for them, but that being said…my life is a little crazy but it works for my family. I am married with three children, 11,4 and 1. My husband is a freelance cameraman and editor so he works a pretty flexible schedule and has thus saved us a ton on childcare by being home most of the time during the day. I work full time for the GA Dept. of Natural Resources as a public affairs officer in addition to being a grad student so I am pretty busy. When we do have a conflict in schedules we often struggle, trying to find childcare – my parents are 2 hours away and really not “into” small children and his mom has cancer so she can’t help us much anymore. His sister helps every now and then but has 3 of her own. We are fortunate that we have great neighbor – a stay-at-home mother of two- who lends a hand in a pinch. however, my employer is pretty good about being flexible with me. I work 40 hours in the office and about 10-15 more at home. (most salaried employees at the DNR work 50-60 hours a week)I never have a problem though if I need to leave a little early or come in a little late for my kids. I never miss a baseball game or a doctor appt. I really think that the key to balancing is finding the right employer – which encompasses so much more than just a job. When I interviewed, the panel was very upfront that they were a family friendly employer. Pretty much everyone in the office haas children or grandchildren and so they “get” it. I was able to pump at work for my daughter for six months with no problem. I t is also impportant to be allowed options. We are offered the chance to work at homeone day a week although I do not regularly telecommute. – (it does not work for everyone), Even if I don’t take advantage now it is nice to know I could if I needed to.
    I do make sure to schedule my hours to accomodate my kids and my husband as needed and as long as my work gets done, my job is ok with it. I am fortunate and I know it. Not everyone has that luxury.
    Hopefully when/if you make the decision to have a family you will do the research to find what best works for your lifestyle. There is no such thing as a supermom – just women who are working hard to make their situations work for them and not against them. I could never do what I do if I didn’t have a supportive group of collegues and a great hubby.

    good luck.

  4. Wow. This is a great topic for discussion. I agree with Tina, and as you, Newb, so aptly point out, the current structure of our work/culture does not allow for a perfect solution for anyone. The bottom line is that infants and small children require constant care and attention. If you are a mother and you have a job, you can’t do both at the same time. Did you know in Sweden that for each child you have, you get 3 years off of work, paid for? Mother and Father both (someone correct me if I am wrong, I got these details from someone who lives there.)They recognize that yes, in fact, someone must raise children, and who better than their parents! In our capitalist society, there is obviously no room for this, but there should be. I have two children, 6 and 4 and went back to work at 3 months with each of them. Our solution has been to have an au pair, who lives with us and cares for our children. I also have worked either part-time or full-time from home (I’ve always worked full-time, but only part of that time I went to an office.) That meant that I was able to oversee the care of and actually see my children during the day. It’s been the best compromise for our family. But, the older they get, the more I wonder if we’ve done what I really wanted to do, because while I have been around, and have been overseeing, other people have raised my children. Is that what I really wanted? Why have them if you can’t take care of them?? Those are ideas that I wrestle with and I’m sure every mother has her own point of view. What really needs to happen is social reform, change the laws in favor of parenting and families. How can we make that happen???

  5. Newb, your analysis of the underlying problems and your conclusions are right on. The basic ideas are not new, but I’m really impressed at the depth of your thinking on this subject–when I started in the professional world I wasn’t nearly as aware of the issues as you are now. If you want to read more, try Halving It All (Francine Deutsch), Peer Marriage (Pepper Schwartz), The Price of Motherhood (Ann Crittenden), The Second Shift (Arlie Hochschild), or many others on this subject of the wrenching career/family divide women face.

    A previous commenter stated that work isn’t structured perfectly for anyone, but it is: It is structured for the career-minded man who wants backstage support and child-rearing from a stay-at-home wife. Fewer and fewer men fit that model, as more men discover the rewards of family life and time at home, but this is still the direction in which market and family forces currently pull all employees and employers.

    To answer one of your questions–yes, it is in the best interest of employers to provide flex schedules, shared jobs, etc. What an employer–a company–principally looks for is fiscal value. Recent studies have demonstrated that companies that (1) provide these options to employees effectively (i.e., don’t subtly discourage the use of these options or punish people for using them), and (2) intentionally work to retain and promote talented women, have measurably, significantly better bottom lines and higher returns than companies that don’t.

    In my busy day-to-day life, I find that the best sources for information about the latest studies in this subject area are “Working Mother” and similar magazines. I belong to NAFE, and its publications are top-notch for keeping up with this subject area.

    I wish you all the best! There won’t be an effective solution in my professional lifetime, but I work for it for my sons and daughters. (Right now, only two little sons, ages 1 and 4, the light of my life and the joy of my heart.)

    For perspective, I started a business a couple years out of college and ran it for about eight years. Then I had the first kid and scaled back since I couldn’t raise children (a full-time job) and work full-time (another full-time job) at the same time. Today I still have that scaled-back schedule, but I plan to go back to work within a couple of years.

    My husband and I agreed when we got married that our kids would be home with a parent, and he said it didn’t matter which one. This turned out to be completely untrue and I didn’t want my kids to pay for it, so I got shafted in that he didn’t make any career compromises and I made all the compromises. I think this is really, really typical. I meet so many women who thought they married an egalitarian man, but when the kids come, they suddenly find out they’re the only ones on duty. It’s provoking, and sad, but it’s gradually changing as fathers are brought more into the parenting life. My kids do so much better after some time with their dad each day.

    Good luck, good work, good parenting to you. Thanks for writing.

  6. I would not want to emulate my working model either. My department is completely inflexible. And I have been penalized on the few occasions where emergencies have required me to miss work.

    A few months ago, I missed work because my daughter was stung by an insect. I had to rush her to the pediatrician. Two days later, my grandmother fell in the shower (requiring several stitches and a catscan), was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where I needed to attend to her care and pick her up. An office friends husband who had died unexpectedly – the funeral was the Monday of the next week. I kid you not.

    I am still being nagged whenever a deadline approaches to make certain I won’t miss it. I missed one deadline in a year, due to genuine emergencies. And we’re still talking about it. (I could understand if it were a frequent problem.)

    The company policy states that flexible work schedules and telecommuting should be allowed whenever possible. My department is the only one that allows neither. The VP needs “to see all his people working.”

    I would be so pleased to work 30 hours per week, or even just telecommute one day where I would not have to sit in traffic.

    Sorry, don’t mean to hijack your article with a whine. My point is that these sorts of office environments still exist. And it is terrible that parents are often forced to compromise their careers by seeking lesser employment or quitting altogether, to care for their families.

  7. I was a single mother of a 2 year old and was working at a Riverboat casino pulling down really good money but working horrible hours. I was fortunate to have found a nanny to come to my home and stay several days a week and I would come straggling home at 3 am to crash on the couch. It was tough and something had to give.

    I went back to school and became a full time Realtor. I enrolled my son at a wonderful day care center (where my nanny worked by the way) and I had a flexable schedule so if I wanted to keep him home with me I could OR I could take him to the center when I had appointments. Often I showed property after hours and my clients loved it! In fact, it helped more than hindered! They knew I was a single mom and was hustling so they really stuck with me and knew I was working hard to find them a home. Occationally clients would bring their own children and seeing them all playing in the yard of a particular home was just enough for them to say “yes, this is the place”.

    Now not everyone can do something like this. I had many years of sales background so it was easy for me to just go sell some thing big. But working as an independent contractor has given me much flexability where my family is concerned. In fact, when I remarried and received a daughter 4 years older than my son in the bargain, her daddy joined me in the business as well! So now we have our home office, our kids are 14 and 10 now and help out with door hangers and stuffing envelopes and it’s really become a family affair!

    I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for people who have to go the traditional 9-5 route and still try and juggle the family. I know how BLESSED I am to have a wonderful husband who gives 100% to the child rearing and education duties and household chores. I really feel for folks, especially women, who are so torn between career and family. I just can’t see how someone can “have it all” with a traditional job.

  8. I have recently read an article in Raw Magazine by Rachel Elnaugh where she talks about the difficulties of running a business and dealing with a failure of a business.

    She has recently written a book called “Business Nightmares” where she chronicles how she lost one of her businesses and the toll it took on her and her young family.

    Attitude towards bankruptcy in the UK is very different to that of the US and it is still frowned upon. Rachel has fought her way back from losing “Red Letter Days” which she ran for 16 years up until 1995 and was a panelist on “Dragon’s Den”.

    I can only take my hat off to anyone who has to juggle looking after their children with a busy career. Working from home is obviously the answer in some cases and I think it should be encouraged if possible.


  9. Very cool topic. I am a working mom at this point in my life. Most of my life I have worked, however, I had to manage to take care of kids at the same time. IT is very difficult and I am not sure I would reccomend to my children the kind of life Ihave lived. My kids are now older and in highschool but that in no way lessons the time that they or I need to spend with them. There is much more shuttling here and there, school activities etc that goes on in highschool. So, the work has not decreased as a parent. Most of the time I am worn out…but my kids and family are really most important to me! WE have a new business, my hubby and I, so he ends up spending the bulk of his time dealing with that. ANd while I do work a lot of hours, I also am responsible for the home side of things. It is a tough juggling act.

  10. I have trouble holding down a full time job. We have no clue how people can afford children. We have no television, no car, and no cable. We see people who have all of these who have three plus children. Where the money comes from is a complete mystery to us seeing as we are still in deb

    My wife find it quite difficult to feed ourselves. Even dressing ourselves in the morning on time is quite a hassle. I couldn’t see how I would have time to get three more people dressed and fed each day. Let alone showering which I don’t have time to do daily.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want to voluntarily take on more responsibility. If they do, then great for them. I realize that it’s a lot, and I have a lot of respect for them. It’s just that having children is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone unless they are independently wealthy. It’s just too hard. So I suggest don’t even bother getting married unless you have paid off all your loans, saved for retirement, have a house, have an emergency fund, and have the money for children in the bank.

  11. Pingback: Co-parenting Nightmare. |

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