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Balancing work and motherhood

Mary Hasson

The Washington Post story caught my eye: “The Return: A stay-at-home mom attempts to go back to work after nearly two decades. Can she revive her career?”

Maybe it was the choice of verbs (“attempts,” “revive”), but the headline sounded discouraging from the outset. The story followed the tears and travails of Amy, a former lawyer, as she pounded the pavement trying to break back into her profession after seventeen years as a stay-at-home mom.

Her story resonated with me, in many respects.  As a young lawyer, Amy’s resolve to stay home with her children crystallized when she interviewed a nanny candidate for her first-born. The nanny asked what her duties would be. Amy’s reply, “To love my baby,” unleashed her own tears and a surging determination to stay home with her new baby.  I understand. As a young lawyer, I worked for a progressive law firm, one of the few back then to offer paid maternity leave and a short-term, part-time option. But “part-time” after a six-week maternity leave meant a forty-hour week-- definitely better than a lawyer’s more typical 70 hours, but not compatible with my vision of motherhood. Telecommuting, back in the pre-Internet world, was not an option.

Like Amy, I’ve never regretted my years at home. In fact, I’ve cherished the chance to spend so much time with my kids, shaping their hearts and minds. But, like Amy, many of us know that “stay-at-home” is not a forever decision. Life happens.  And life as a mom changes as well.

Amy felt the pinch first of her husband’s unemployment and later of impending college tuitions. In my circles, the back to work trend is unmistakable, but the reasons are as varied as the women themselves. For some, the unwelcome impetus comes from a marriage ended or a spouse’s disability or death. For others, the youngest child’s first day of school begins a new chapter of life, promising time for career opportunities. For a few, restlessness sets in, prompting 40-somethings to “retire” from full-time motherhood after 20 years. And for many families, the catalyst is spelled T-U-I-T-I-O-N, as in college. Especially in larger families, older teens head off to universities as a long line of younger siblings (and tuition bills) queue up behind. 

So how hard is it to get back in the saddle? For Amy, ten years of sporadic resume-sending yielded only temp positions: low-wage, legal drudgery. When her youngest turned eleven, Amy searched strategically: an iRelaunch seminar, personal coaching from a re-entry counselor, and networking with a vengeance landed her a full-time job as an attorney—after nine long months.

While ultimately successful, Amy’s experience proved far more difficult than anticipated. (Indeed, comments on the Post’s online chat revealed general skepticism that someone with a 17-year employment gap would be likely to find a full-time job as an attorney.) At fifty-two, competing for jobs with people half her age but twice her experience, her confidence took a dive. Feeling “old and unemployable,” she perceived subtle age discrimination at work. "Since they can't say, 'nobody over 30,' they say 'fast-paced.'"

I appreciated that the article--and the author’s later online chat—respected Amy’s initial choice to be a full-time mom.  I was disappointed, however, that her re-entry served up a false dichotomy—full-time employment versus stay-at-home mom—a dramatic switch that does not seem to reflect the typical mom experience. The reality of modern family life is more fluid, as moms move in and out of the workforce according to their personal desires and family’s needs.

Their work patterns vary (part-time, work at home, weekends-only, telecommuting, part-time accelerating to full-time, or full-time decelerating to part-time or stay-at-home). Two-thirds of moms with children under 18 are employed at least part-time—but part-time is clearly their preferred option (62% prefer part-time, while 37% prefer full-time).

According to a Pew study, even those mothers who do work full-time favor part-time work (49%) over full-time work (29%) and staying at home (21%). And 80% of mothers who already work part-time believe their situation is ideal. While 48% of stay-at-home moms are happy to be home, another third would prefer to be employed part-time.
 
My own perception is that for moms returning to work, age discrimination is less of a factor than the limitations imposed by the reality of raising children: our school-age kids and teens still need us, so part-time, flexible, or variable hours are more appealing.  Working moms often prioritize flexibility and variable hours at the expense of a full-time career track or higher pay. While a few moms I know have husbands who work at home or who assume primary caregiving, this is neither the norm nor the likely future. In stark contrast to moms, dads express a clear preference for full-time (79%) over part-time (21%) work.

Moms may prefer part-time work, but only 26% of us are able to find it.  Employers have a different set of priorities. The work-world has simultaneously become more accommodating to moms (with telecommuting, flex-time, and job-sharing opportunities) and less so (24/7 availability, expectations of immediate responses, via Blackberry, relentless deadlines, and a fast-paced and heavy workload that preoccupies the mind around the clock.) A standard line in employment ads, in Washington, D.C. at least, typically includes something like this: “Demonstrated ability to cope in a high-stress, high-pressure, fast-paced environment and be able to multi-task and meet deadlines.”   They mean besides motherhood.

Among the women I know, the preference for greater control over hours—and flexibility to meet their children’s needs, often prompts change and creativity. Some have switched professions entirely, while others (teachers and nurses especially) had kept their credentials current and turned occasional work into full-time hours. A few entrepreneurial-types created home-based businesses, often with their children’s active participation. But frustrations and uncertainty still surround the issue of balancing work and motherhood.

Without a crystal ball (or revelation from God), it’s hard to predict what the economic situation and employment landscape will look like for our daughters.  But the needs of children—for love, attention, caring, and formation—remain the same.  I’ll share my own thoughts at a later date, but for now I want to pose the question to you: what advice will you give to your daughters as they survey their educational choices and their likely career options? What will you tell them about balancing motherhood and work?

Topics: Culture , Current Events , Motherhood , Workplace

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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