Every time I see another women vs. work vs. motherhood post, I get a little twitchy.
Too many people – men and women – who write about this complicated and multi-layered topic wring their hands and turn condescending. Poor women. We can’t seem to get it together. Why can’t we have everything we want? Why do we have to make choices?
ICYMI, a recent story in the New York Times revisited women who “opted out” of the workforce 10 years ago to raise their children, and now want back in.
No one can have it all. Life is about making choices, and we make the best ones we can at any given time. I’m guilty of reading dozens of those “how working moms make life work” articles and blog posts. What I finally decided about choice-making is that nothing has to be permanent. You create a schedule that works for you right now. It’ll have to change at some point, and that’s OK. You’ll never arrive at one system that is perfect, makes your entire family happy 100 percent of the time, and never needs altering.
There are many, many layers to this topic: access to quality childcare, better maternity leave programs, family-friendly employers, practical gender equality in the workplace, unrealistic pressure on mothers to be super-moms, the lack of options across the board for low-income families.
I don’t have answers, and it would take a hundred blog posts to even scratch the surface. But I can share my story, and what I have found is there are two things that make a big difference to me and my family. They’ve made us happier, and make me feel more fulfilled as a mom and as a professional: an employer that offers a flexible work schedule and a husband who isn’t (like most of the husbands in the NY Times article) a self-entitled idiot.
We have two young boys, ages 1 and 3 – I’m deep in The Blur right now – and I work full time. My husband works full time. We are incredibly fortunate (believe me, I know) to live near family and have moms who come take care of our boys on alternating weekdays (for free).
Most women don’t have this kind of support. Most of my working mom friends sure don’t. While I love having family to care for my boys, and the opportunity to send them to a mother’s morning out program a few days a week, it all comes down to the same thing: I’m away from them a large chunk of the day.
I feel guilt over that, particularly since I choose to work (how many men say “I choose to work”?). And I choose to work because I know deep down that I probably would not enjoy being a stay-at-home mom, even though I love my boys fiercely. I’m happy having an outside-the-home job I love.
Since last October, my employer has allowed employees a flexible work schedule. I can’t even adequately explain how life-changing this is. Previously, I worked a strict 8 a.m.-5 p.m. under a (childless) supervisor who was understanding during emergencies – my preemie son had to see a specialist what seemed like every week during his first year of life – but there was still that expectation that I needed to be there during the prescribed work hours.
When our company went to the flexible work schedule, it was like…angels singing, light coming down from heaven, the works. I am happier now, and I feel even more productive than I was before. I can drop off my sons at their MMO classes (which means I get to see their teachers on a regular basis, and actually know the names of the kids in their classes) before I go in to work. If I want to take Will to his mid-morning gymnastics class on Thursdays, I can – I just do some work in the evenings after the boys are in bed.
My husband’s job is also fairly flexible. We’ve got our schedule – for now – worked out to where the boys only spend about 4-6 hours every weekday without one of us. Would they be fine if they were in a quality daycare eight hours a day without seeing us? Of course.
But while we’ve cobbled together this schedule for their benefit, let’s face it – it’s also about me. I feel like a successful mom when I’m an active part of their lives. And how a person feels in her personal life bleeds into her professional life.
My family will (and should) always come first. But it’s also important to me that I am good at my job. When I’m at work now, I can concentrate fully on my work, without worrying or feeling guilty that I’m missing the Mommy Breakfast at my son’s school.
So that part is institutional. More employers need to join the 21st century (like mine has) and help their employees – the vast majority of whom are part of families – move toward greater work/life balance. In a recent Rex Huppke work advice column (which is here, but you need a digital subscription to the Chicago Tribune to read it) Huppke noted:
Rather than be content to simply have a job in a bad economy, these young people (millennials) are demanding a sense of purpose in their work and the ability to strike a reasonable work-life balance.
I don’t know if, at 30, I qualify as a millennial but I absolutely agree with the sentiment. Huppke goes on to quote a couple of field experts, who say millennials look for jobs that offer “flexible schedules and work-from-home options that ensure a work/life balance” among other things. Yes and yes.
And one more telling quote from that article:
Jim John, chief operating officer at beyond.com, said it’s a mistake for companies to view millennials as disloyal. They take charge of their own careers – for their own good, the good of their families and, given the generation’s heightened social consciousness, the good of the world around them.
“This generation has a real objective or sense that ‘I have to manage my career,'” John said. “‘I have to take control of it and be responsible. Employers are pressed, and they hire and lay off indiscriminately. So I have to be responsible to me, and to my family.'”
Not everyone has the luxury of choosing a job with these kind of benefits – but they should.
The other thing that has made a difference for me is being married to someone who sees me as a an equal partner – not a nanny/chef/housekeeper. I’m not saying our 8-year marriage is perfect, or that we don’t argue about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher. We have our faults like everyone does. But our professional goals are on an equal level of importance, and we both want to do what’s best for our family. My husband didn’t “let” me choose to work. We make the best decisions we can together, and if one of us ever needed to stay home with the boys, that would be a joint decision, too. Marriage is a partnership and it is work.
The upside of all the hand-wringing and benevolent condescension is at least the problems are being talked about. Twitchy or not, I’ll probably keep reading those stories and writing a few of my own, in the hopes that a national dialogue accomplishes much by the time my kids are parents.