Didn’t We Almost Have It All…Not Quite: The Plight of the Working Mom in America

iStock_000014255993XSmallBy Michelle Clark (New York City)

It’s not a new debate, and to many, it isn’t even a debate at all. The discussion of whether or not women can have it all – a successful career while playing the traditional role of primary caregiver within the family unit – has increased in volume as high profile female executives have stepped up to the mic to encourage the average working woman to simultaneously embrace her career and her family. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and working mom, recently released her timely book entitled “Lean In,” which urges women to take more ownership for their professional trajectory. Yahoo CEO and new mother, Melissa Mayer, went on record declaring she does feel like she can have it all – run a major corporation and raise her child.

In a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, 66% of women said that they feel like they are able to strike a manageable work/life balance without sacrificing too much at home. This number, which is down from 78% in 1997, is encouraging on the surface, but when you delve deeper into the issue of working women having it all, it appears that attitudes have not changed as much as technological advancements have alleviated the burden of taking time off from work to tend to family matters. This is supported by the fact that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 4 out of 10 women feel like they have been a victim of workplace gender discrimination, and a staggering 84% of women feel like their male counterparts are compensated more for doing the same work.

More and more companies are adopting flexible scheduling and work from home policies that include connectivity perks like telecommuting, conference calling, and access to work email on personal phones and PCs, among other things. However, these policies are designed to benefit all employees, not just women. And sometimes, this constant connectivity can act more like an impediment than a solution to the problem.

In a recent New York Times article, former Lehman Brothers chief financial officer Erin Callan says, “I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life.”

Callan continues, “I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life. Not without sacrifice — I don’t think I could have ‘had it all’ — but with somewhat more harmony.” Hearing a powerful, smart, and successful woman like Erin Callan reflect on her journey to the top makes you wonder if this notion of having it all is really worth it in the end.

Having It All?

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the notion that women can have it all first entered society’s collective consciousness, but one can argue that this idea originated during World War II with the U.S. Government’s fictional mascot for the emerging class of working women, Rosie the Riveter.

Although Rosie the Riveter was part of a successful propaganda campaign asking women to support the war effort by going to work, the government still made a concession for women raising young children. At the beginning of this campaign, women with children under the age of 14 were encouraged to stay at home to raise their children, out of a fear that an absent mother would result in an increase in youthful deviance. Even in the earliest days of women heading off to work, there was a strong feeling that women could not, in fact, also raise their family effectively.

In the modern era, Hollywood has also played a big role in perpetuating the idea that women cannot have it all, or at least not at the same time anyway. Throughout the years, film, television, and media have depicted successful working women as alone and somewhat miserable in their personal life outside of the office. Female protagonists are continually faced with the dilemma of choosing work or choosing family.

In fact, some representations of the plight of the working woman on the silver screen make a mockery of the situation by playing up the extent of the inherent struggle of working a 9 to 5 and raising a child. Take the main character in the movie, “One Fine Day,” for example. We watch as she spends one day toting her school aged son around from the office to important business meetings, all while trying desperately to get him to his soccer game in the afternoon. At the end of the day, we watch the frazzled professional woman prematurely leave a meeting that could potentially make or break her career just so that she can be present to watch her son play soccer.

The message being sent is loud and clear – women must choose work or family. There is no middle ground. Yet, we know that there are plenty of working mothers who are making it work, and therefore, we know this message is flawed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 70.6 percent of mothers were employed in the US in 2011.

Erin Callan offers some advice to other women climbing the ranks of corporate America by saying, “I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone.”

Perhaps this all boils down to the fact that the onus should not rest solely on the shoulders of working moms to change the system. If women are asked to lean in, then corporate America should be expected to lean in as well and facilitate a reasonable work life balance that better reflects today’s working moms and dads.