Balancing Work and Motherhood: What Will You Tell Your Daughter?

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 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?

© 2010 Mary Rice Hasson

This blog originally appeared at Phases of Womanhood

One thought on “Balancing Work and Motherhood: What Will You Tell Your Daughter?

  1. Mary,

    I think you have asked a question that is absolutely pivotal to our faith lives as committed Catholic moms, namely; what do we teach our daughters about the tension that exists between giving ourselves the gift of being full time moms and our children the personal advantage of having a fulltime mother and pursuing as adults the development and use of those unique gifts and talents of ours that do not fall within the realm of marriage and family. I have to add here, that this tension is ratcheted up a notch or twelve for women like you and me, who have been blessed to have large families. Because I have six children spread over 18 years, some of my perspective may simply not apply to a woman who has, for whatever reason, only one or two children spaced over a year or two. This is due to the simple fact that such a woman will be more likely to live many years of her adult life without the need to care for children at home, freeing her to focus at home during one season and then on the work place during another, instead of trying to work out some overlapping or dovetailing of the two.

    Having given that caveat, what I have taught and am teaching my three daughters (and three sons) is the following: First, I teach both daughters and sons that they are unique individuals with an incredible array of gifts and talents to use responsibly for the glory of God. Second, I encourage them to develop these gifts and talents independent of any particular use or money they can make with them up until around the beginning of high school. At some point during high school, we begin to talk about the difference between men and women, their biology, the responsibilities within family life that will fall to them most naturally that will not fall to their spouse, and how to bring together in a career and a lifestyle, 1) who they are as individuals and 2) how they might like to live to the glory of God. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are always encouraged and prayed for at this point, and until a child indicates a clear desire for marriage and family, a religious vocation is encouraged as a real possibility.

    As they head to college, and their lives become their own, we talk with both our sons and daughters about the finances of getting a college degree and what is a responsible amount of money to borrow in order to get what kind of degree. We do not have the means to pay for their college, only to help, so this helps them step up to adult life way of thinking about their own life in their mid-teens. My motto is that when college is over they will need to be able to afford the life of their choice. For example, if one child wants to be a Catholic school teacher, we would encourage them to take as few loans as humanly possible, because they will not have the earning potential to pay the loans back without severely compromising other possible desires to marry, to have children and to choose to have one parent at home. If a child is interested in medicine, then we feel they can risk taking out higher loans, as their earning potential will be higher in the end and not compromise their choices are severely after their degree(s) are earned.

    This overarching philosophy supports their individual gifts and desires, encourages them to seek excellence and to go where God is calling them, but is far, far from the out-of-touch-with-reality “you can be anything you want to be’ philosophy plastered on sophomoric t-shirts and high school bulletin boards. Anyone can be anything, except you can’t be an astronaut if you a too short, my kids love to remind me), but only if they have been made aware and are ready to pay the price (along with a potential spouse and children) of achieving that anything. As I see it, my job is to be sure my young adults have seen the price tag of the life they want, and have agreed to it long before they are struggling under mortgage debt or struggling to feed a large family.

    So that is what we tell all our children. To the specifics of our daughters, I say they will need to do something to keep themselves alive and energized when they are adults, whether or not they have children or do or don’t stay home with them, so why not start off figuring out how to make that “something” also helps them pay for their life? Hobbies are expensive. Volunteer work sometimes demands more hours than a part time job. I know very few mothers who is “just” at home even if they do not have wage-earning jobs, so why not set as a goal for a young person to have a means of earning income that they also enjoy?

    So many “careers” can be worked in so many ways. If one is interested in fashion there is everything from being a clothing designer to retailing to sewing custom wedding dresses. Which would allow a woman to work fulltime sometimes, then part-time, and then also take time off if she so chose? Do that one! The same thing applies to having an interest in music, finance, and art, even in education. The slogan, “work smart, not hard,” seems to apply. If you will be doing something outside of raising a family anyway, and most women do and should for their own personal health, then why not at least set as the goal that that thing would also help to bring in income to support the family?

    Does this mean a woman shouldn’t be attorney’s as the article you, Mary, first mentioned and I’m sure this question is not merely academic for you! Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. It depends on so many factors: Where one lives geographically? Is there a family practice one can work for part time? Can one teach rather than practice law if the hours of a practice are too demanding? And the list goes on for any specific line of employment. I ask my daughters to look closely at their desires and their circumstances when choosing which of their gifts and talents to turn into a means of income. I wish someone had pulled my head out of the sand when I was in college and said, “You’re not seeing the life span of the degree your paying for here, wake up, and smell the roses!” But no one did, and God has gotten our family through anyway.

    To summarize what we tell our daughters about the tension between raising a family and having a wage-earning career. We grow them up to know that they have God-given capabilities which they are responsible to use for the glory of God just as we grow up our sons. We help our daughters develop those capabilities, just as we do our sons, but then we show our daughters how to take a distinctly feminine tact as they navigate the waters of college and career. We pray with them about their life’s vocation. We show them to choose smartly which actual jobs to take so that they remain most in control of the ongoing ability to earn a living wage with the time they invest outside of raising a family should they either desire to or have to earn money with that investment of time and talent. We let them know that “nothing is impossible with God,” but that most possibilities begin with the two good hands and the head God has already put on the ends of their arms and on their shoulders.

    I want to mention lastly that our actions and how we have managed the tension between family life and career in our own lives will be a bigger witness to our children than any words of advice, but especially to our daughters. We need, therefore, to seek to live what we would like to advise before, during, and after we start giving advice and we need to be in vocal prayer, always, as we move through the different seasons of family life so that we can provide a living example to our children of trusting in God for not just ease in this tension, but in all things related to living an authentically Catholic life.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Mary! I hope the thread continues and causes much good conversation both online and among families in person. Your sister in Christ, Heidi

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