By Andrea Newell (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
If you are a professional woman with children, you have faced the decision about whether to keep working or stay at home. No matter which route you chose to take, most likely the bulk of household responsibilities still fall on your shoulders, and you have begun the inevitable balancing act of work and family.
There are endless articles, books and discussion about work/life balance. But those of us who are currently trying to walk that tightrope know – there is no balance. Something has to give, and more often than not, the woman is the one who gives.
In their book Glass Ceilings & 100 Hour Couples – What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family, authors (and working mothers) Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy highlight the growing trend of highly educated women who walk away from their rising star careers in order to focus on family.
I admit that it sounds nice. On days when I am in my car, taking my kids to daycare before going to work, I see other mothers waiting for the bus with their children and pushing strollers around the neighborhood and I sigh, thinking the grass is greener in the neighbor’s lawn. But I also know the reality – I’ve stayed home with three small kids for 12 hours at a time, and it’s no picnic. Stay at home moms work hard, too. So, what, then, is the answer? Through numerous interviews, research, and surveys, Moe and Shandy paint a picture of the road not taken for women on both sides of this decision. One constant that remained through all conversations, data, and feedback, is the 100-hour couples – the norm rather than the exception in America today – are most poised to fall off the tightrope and report the highest levels of stress.
100-Hour Couples and the Maternal Wall
The cost, lack of availability, poor quality and sometimes inflexibility of childcare present a huge barrier for professional couples and often cause issues when one or the other parent has to travel for work (often with little notice) or work late, when most childcare options are unavailable. Have a nanny? Lucky you. What happens when she is sick? Who misses work then? Have someone to clean your house? Great. Who manages that person? Moe and Shandy’s research indicates that it is usually the woman who assumes these burdens on top of other household responsibilities and her job. Add in an aging parent to care for, and you really have a recipe for a complicated, high-stress life. Do some women manage it all? Certainly, and now you have even more reason have a lot of respect for them.
Late to work because you were dropping the kids off at daycare? Have to leave early because your son is sick? How understanding is your boss? Highly educated, highly motivated women who spent their early careers working toward promotion, putting in long hours and hard work expected to break through the glass ceiling. Their careers were on the rise and all was going according to plan. Then they started a family and were broadsided by the maternal wall, “where parents, and predominantly mothers, are the victims of workplace bias on the basis of family responsibilities.”
Many of the women Moe and Shandy interviewed reported stalls in their careers due to the maternal wall. They either stayed at the same level, moved laterally, or moved downward. For many, this was the push they needed to decide to stay home. Moe and Shandy do report a number of women who relish the role of motherhood and planned to stay at home once they had a family all along, but out of their research sampling, these were the minority.
Leaving It All Behind – For Now
For those who are fortunate enough to have a choice (many households rely on a dual income), whether the husband makes enough to support the household, or the family severely tightens their belts, Moe and Shandy show that opting out of the workforce altogether for an extended period of time can have far-reaching consequences on a woman’s career and sense of self-worth.
Ever been to a party where you are introduced to another woman and once you’ve exchanged your nice-to-meet-yous, the discussion turns, at some point, to “So, what do you do?”? And your new acquaintance says, “I stay at home.” Is there a screeching halt to the conversation? Many women who stay at home told Moe and Shandy that they became invisible at social functions once they assumed the title of Stay At Home Mom. Admit it, much of your identity, of everyone’s identity, is wrapped up in what you do. Sadly, society does not always give credit to the work involved in being a full-time parent, and women who formerly had a high-powered “identity” struggled with their new status.
Some women never intend to go back, but for those who do, the authors cite many obstacles. Technology and skills may have changed, employers question employment gaps, and many women are simply unable to find employment again. The authors cite a Work Life Center survey that reports that only 75% of women were able to reenter the workforce again in 2004, and at that time, the economy was growing. Only 40 percent returned to full-time work. A 2005 Wharton study indicated that 50 percent of women surveyed who returned to work after taking a break to raise children said that they were discouraged by employers regarding opportunities to return to full-time work. In addition, wages are severely impacted not only when the woman returns to work, but for many years afterward.
Which Road to Take?
Moe and Shandy do an even-handed job of portraying the pros and cons of each path. So what’s their answer, you ask? Their aim was to “chart a path through the complexity of it all, presenting the options, the trade-offs, the realities, and the ideals.”
What I believe their data (empirical and anecdotal) showed, was that America needs to do more to support families, from better childcare options to flexible work options in order to encourage women workers who want to stay in the workforce, or return to it after taking a break to raise children. With women making up nearly half of the American workforce, companies can’t afford to ignore the education, experience, skill and potential they represent.
You’ll notice that companies who appear on Fortune magazine’s yearly list of the best companies to work for have a few consistent things in common: family-friendly atmosphere (sometimes childcare), flexible work arrangements, and (reading between the lines) a gender-blind eye toward advancement, among other attractive traits. Moe and Shandy echo this, saying, “If the employer was able to bend to the needs of the employee at key points in the life cycle, the company retained dedicated and talented employees. If not, the woman either walked away—taking her education, her experience, and her potential to help the company grow with her—or, she settled into a position that underutilized her skills and potential, without a possibility of getting back on track.”
In response to this growing exodus of educated, talented women from the workforce, some companies are implementing new policies to try to retain their mommy talent. IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Deloitte & Touche all have programs that allow women to take personal leaves for extended amounts of time to raise families, after which they can return to work without penalty. The authors, too, cited examples of new career programs at schools like Harvard, Tuck and Stanford geared toward mothers trying to reenter the workplace. Some schools even have “mommy MBAs” – morning-only programs for mothers with children in school. Some respondents talked about keeping their toes in the working world while raising their families by doing consulting or working part-time. This solution, more than any other, seemed to be the smoothest transition from rising star, to stay-at-home mom/consultant, back to working woman.
Moe and Shandy remind us that there aren’t just two sides to this issue, but that many factors go into deciding the best course to take to “balance” family and work. Hopefully their research helps you either make an educated decision, or be more content with your chosen path.