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"Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work"

The NYTimes published an article today: "Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work."  Betsy brought it to our attention and wrote:

The article covers a debate among sociologists for reasons women seem to be entering the workforce in shrinking numbers for the past five years. It does briefly offer some compelling explanations (can you say recession?), but the examples it gives don't really match the explanations.

I am so tired of journalists using a single example of an extremely privileged white-collar (and white) woman staying home as an emblem of this trend. I want to tell the woman in the picture, "Gee, it must be tough to give up your tech exec career and be supported by your patent lawyer husband because you can't balance work and family. How much did your standard of living drop because of that choice?  And boy, it's too bad that you didn't 'get' equality at home.  Ever think that might have something to do with who you married and how he was raised?"

I've been thinking for a long time that the conversation about work/family balance needs to shift off the shoulders of women and expand to include their husbands and partners - and sons.  For every woman like the one in the article who leaves behind a high-powered career, there is a husband who agrees to be the sole breadwinner--at least for a while.  And however they balance that, that's their choice, not just hers.  Why do no pundits realize this?  I'd like to see what the woman's husband thinks about her choice and the impact it has on their family.

The article gives a brief nod to how single moms are still rising in the workforce, but doesn't delve  very deeply into the economics of dual, lower-income families, rather it mentions one married woman who has to work but wishes she didn't have to, with no explanation of the circumstances behind her choice (student loan debt? ill child or parent? insane mortgage for a McMansion, or a shoebox in Manhattan? luxury car-leases? gambling problem?).

Neither real-life example in the story resembles that of most of the people I know.  I know people who make severely limiting choices about lifestyle and standard of living in order to finance a spouse staying home, and I know a lot of women (like me) who like working, choose to do it, and have husbands who are equal partners in the family sphere - as well as comparatively modest lifestyles, that make it possible.

But I know this is not the case for every working family.  The article actually says women might have to "give up" household duties in order to keep advancing in the economy.  As if we're clinging desperately to the toilet brush as an emblem of our femininity.  Or more to the point, as if many of us (particularly the lower-income-earning ones among us) have decent choices for childcare, even if we wanted to 'give that up'. How about suggesting that men 'pick up' those duties?  What if we raised our sons -and our daughters- to demand an economy that allows both parents to better balance work and family?  I just can't fathom why this conversation is still so focused on the woman's burden.

So how 'bout it, urbanmamas? What's your deal, and how did you strike it?  Do you work at a traditional gig?  Stay at home?  Both?  Support a family on your own?  Read the article and tell me if it rings true, or whether I'm just a lucky woman with an axe to grind.


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Oh, man! What is with the NYT? Not yet ANOTHER article making huge generalizations about "mothers" based on a tiny fraction of elite women. Someone there has a real fixation with it.

First it was the infamous "opt out" revolution piece; then a few 18-year-old Ivy Leaguers proclaiming that they planned to stay home was cause for declaring an nation-wide trend.

When are they going to give this up and start writing about the rest of us? (Ok, glutton for punishment that I am, I'm off to read the article).

Having read the above post and related article, I wanted to chip in with my two cents worth.

I gave birth to my first child 9 months ago after 20 years of schooling and 8 years of postgraduate training. I delayed gratification so long that, personally, I am thrilled to be able to stay at home with my daugher parttime. I have truly felt the benefit of such delayed gratification as I am fortunate enough to work 2 days a week, afford childcare, and live comfortably. My job fulfills my need for professional satisfaction and intellectual exercise, but I also get to be the primary one taking care of my daughter.

What frustrates me about the issue of work/family balance in the US is less about the equal roles of males and females...rather it is our acceptance of a society that truly lacks family values (although the majority of Americans, those seeing "red", seem to think otherwise....) We should be clamoring for more maternity/paternity leave with job security (no one should have to place their 6 week old in daycare!) and equal access to affordable childcare (you should not have to get on waiting list of a childcare institution the moment your pregnancy test strip turns blue!)

The article briefly mentions Scandinavia, but no details are given. My husband lived there for 10 years....women get up to 1 year paid maternity leave and men get 6 months...furthermore, it can be taken in increments up until the child is like 6 years old. Childcare is subsidized and therefore affordable, with children of all social walks of life (of course in Sweden the gap is not that wide...) together in the same institution. The article implies (and very rightly correctly..) these practices are related to higher rates of women in the workforce in those countries.

I know that I am a better mom because I work outside the home (at least part of the time) and I know that I am one of the fortunate few who can "have it all"...but I should be one of the "all"...and I think that we should be demanding it.

Has anyone read the book Flux by Peggy Orenstein? I read the book before I was a mom and remember being infuriated with some of what she was saying about motherhood and work. I feel like it is something I should read again, now that my perspective has been forever changed.
For me, going back to school has been great. I get a break from Jackson, intellectual exercise, and the opportunity to do something for the better good of our family. Yes, I do sometimes feel stretched to the limit with work and school; but, I feel like I'm a better parent because I am doing something for me and for our family.

I believe that the definition of having it all varies from person to person. While one woman might truly define her optimal situation by staying at home indefinetly, one may wish to strike the balance that Rebecca has realized.
I would contend that most women know what their ideal situation is - the hard part is making it happen.
The current climate of our country is such that I have no faith in our leaders to legislate family friendly life/work balance options. Our leaders are too busy legislating our bodies and our children's education to fund war. This leads me to want to second Rebecca's final thought - we should be loud and vocal in demanding job sharing opportunities, flexible work schedules, etc. If you feel strongly about this you should voice your concern to Oregon's Senator Wyden. http://wyden.senate.gov/

My husband is Norwegian, so we've had this conversation countless times with family and friends over the years... I think my mother in law is secretly horrified that I am choosing to be home with our babies while they are very young because she believes so strongly that women need to be part of the workforce. On the other hand, she also cannot even imagine a scenario in which a woman or man would have to be home from work for any period of time without pay. (I was offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave when I had our baby and I seriously dont think that my inlaws believed us when we told them that was our situation!)

I fall into the very lucky category of full time, stay at home mom by choice and while some days I wish I was sitting at a desk in a quiet office somewhere, I dont regret for a minute my decision to stay home full time, even though it meant a significant cut in pay for our family. I fully intend to go back to work full time when my children are older, and it's always a possibility that I would go back to work part or full time in the meantime if the right opportunity presented itself.

I find it frustrating that companies still dont seem to get it that they are missing out on great employees because of their "all or nothing" attitudes when it comes to working moms. Job sharing, subsidized childcare, telecommuting, etc. are still relatively new concepts to many organizations. My old company begged me to come back to work after I had my son but they were not willing to do a thing to help me find a balance between being primary breadwinner and new mama so I chose to walk away and focus on doing one thing well for the time being. It seems that very few companies are truly supportive of work/life balance issues that we ALL face. My husband and I feel incredibly blessed to be in a situation in which I can make a choice to stay home, but it is a sacrifice, and I absolutely have picked up all the duties of being CEO of the household...for now.

I was also struck by the last minute mention of parental leave policies in other countries. Thanks for bringing that up, Rebecca. Here's some more detail(courtesy of the Centre for Excellence of Early Childhood Development - http://www.excellence-earlychildhood.ca/theme.asp?id=4&lang=EN):

"...in 2000, Sweden was providing 12 weeks of maternity leave (100% of wages replaced) and 18 months of parental leave (80% of earnings for 1 year); Norway was providing from 42 to 52 weeks of parental leave (100% of earnings for 42 weeks, 80% for 52 weeks); Italy, 21 weeks of maternal leave (at 80% of earnings) and 10 months of parental leave (30% of earnings); Denmark was allowing 18 weeks of maternity leave (100% of earnings) and 10 weeks for each parent as parental leave (paid full-time). In Canada, 12 months of partially paid maternity and parental leaves were available; in the U.S., 12 weeks of unpaid leave were offered to those who were eligible (firms with 50 or more workers)3."

I think it's great that women decide to leave their careers to raise children. But, I think some ultimately have to choose between children or career because perhaps employers don't turn out to be as flexible or understanding about having children. I wonder how many mamas quit their jobs shortly after returning from leave? Or, how many mamas have encountered work situations where managers are predominately male with wives who stay at home (not at all a diss on SAHMs!) and don't truly understand the pressures and stress that working moms undertake?

In my situation, I have always been the primary breadwinner. When I had my first son, Joe just had finished a stint with Americorps and was between jobs. Even when he did find a job, it was still clear that if someone were to stay at home, should we make that decision, it would be him for financial reasons. I'm still struggling with the career-life balance but I think I'm closer to achieving it. For me, independence and self-sufficiency are extremely important thus a maintaining a career is important. Should anything ever happen in my relationship, I know that I can adequately provide for my little ones.

After starting to comment three times and realizing that I just can't respond to this without writing a very lengthy, highly opinionated novel, I'll just say this: Amen, sisters!

I agree in America there is a lack of "family values", as Rebecca puts it. I know of families who have placed their babies in daycare from 4 weeks old. Such a shame, right? IMO the most important issues ie. childcare, education, healthcare, environment, the aged, are what politicians have been neglecting for so long now.

As for my situation, I'm a stay-at-home mom and we're leaving California (like everyone else) for the very reason that we can't live on one income here, even though our expenses, I would say, are modest. Even if I worked part-time, I figure the cost of childcare is such it wouldn't be worth it for us.

I got so lucky when I had my son (and moved!), but in other ways, what I consider 'luck' is ridiculous compared to what my friends in Europe have gotten. And you're right, there will come a point when it will be in the best interest of the economy to make this balance easier, and that won't be deniable anymore. That will be an interesting day, when the red-state forces focused on keeping women in 'traditional' (which is false - the notion that women working outside the home is new only for a select few classes) roles have to start changing their position on that.

One of the thoughts I had is that 'of course it's tough to balance tech exec and family - that's a really demanding job!' - but what if everyone opted out of careers in engineering, law, and medicine because they don't enable that balance? There was a piece on NPR the other day about how we're experiencing a dearth of students pursuing careers as bench researchers already. Should those people resign themselves to one or the other? Is that fair? Of course not.

I work for a non-profit, and my husband is a teacher. We couldn't balance our lives otherwise, I don't think. I came back to work after 8 weeks (6 of them at 60% pay) working from 5am-9am while baby slept and my husband was home, then 1:30 to 4:30 after my husband got home from teaching. Once the baby was old enough and the new morning daycare term started (at 5 months or so) I started working a 'straight' day again. I was incredibly lucky to have such a great boss to understand that. I hope she's as understanding when child # 2 comes this fall!

It's frustrating that it comes of that "mothers are stretched, women are stalling", etc, when it is really the institution that is rigid and family-unfriendly and it is societal norm that is sexist.

I work full-time outside the home and I sometimes wonder if I have to. For now though, I am making it work and I am happy. It seems like there is an all-or-nothing perspective in the working world. You're either a career person or you're a parent. I love hearing our stories of how we're all doing both.

Family Leave Act give us, if our employers have more than 50 employees among other conditions, 12 weeks of UNPAID leave. It sucks that it's unpaid. I dream of moving to lands faraway where family leave is paid. Still, we are so far from that. We are of the mindset that only the birthing mother should be the one to take the leave, as little of it as possible. The leave is unpaid so workers are given incentive to rush right back to work. When pregnant women announce their leave, I have observed an atmosphere where supervisors behave like *they* are the ones bending over backwards being accommodating of the staff upping and leaving for 12 WHOLE weeks, as if it's not a legally protected right.

When a father puts in time for paternity leave, people praise him endlessly, as if he's the world's best father for even considering to put his career on mini-hold to spend time with the family. Sure, I'm exaggerating, but there really is a difference in the way mothers and fathers are treated when it comes time to take family leave, even if mothers and fathers are entitled to the same amount of leave.

I consider myself lucky. I feel like our family is balanced; my relationship with my partner is balance. We each have our respective careers and are attempting to slowly to bigger and better things with our professional lives. There is give and take. But, it's a challenge. I am timid about sharing my family life in my workplace. I often feel like it is seen as a deterant to my performance, as a distraction, or some other negative quality. Other times, I feel pretty empowered by all my deftly juggling in the work/family challenge. I share about my family and want people to know that I can be successful in the workplace and have a thriving, happy family.

I flop back and forth though... and it's sad that I don't feel completely open about family in the workplace because I am in the minority as a full-time working mom.

This is too long of a comment. I'm sorry.

OK, I can't just leave my comment as is. First, Betsy - congratulations on baby #2 on the way!!

We can lament the fact that this country is well behind in terms of maternity/paternity leaves, or we can do something about it. Monica is right: we can write to Wyden (very nice, very tall man) and Smith (I sense he long ago sold his soul but he's in power nonetheless), but we can also lobby in our own professions and demand what we deserve. Change starts with one individual, and there are many women and men who agree that things must change in America before our economy goes kaput completely.

When I had Ethan, I received 12 weeks of paid leave because I had been with the corporation for several years. My husband took three weeks of unpaid paternity leave. I still worked remotely from home during my leave. Before my leave, I drafted a schedule for my return that would include the option for me to work from home two days a week. They accepted, but don't think that when I returned it was fine and dandy. Working a flex schedule with a job that is not as flexible as you once thought for a boss and coworkers that are not as flexible and understanding as they would like to think they are presents many workplace issues I didn't foresee. So even though I think I had a great deal (in US terms) for maternity leave, I still paid the piper in the end.

For me, the flex schedule didn't work. I was a maniac all the time, trying to balance work and home, trying to do national conference calls at home with my son crying and the dog barking, always having to have my game face on at work while worrying about my son's reflux 20 minutes away. I loved my job, but I started to hate my job.

In the end, I chose to create my own path, and I think it is hands down the best decision I have ever made in my entire life, for me and for my family. We all get the best of both worlds now. Even though my hours are more insane than before, they are MY hours, and I don't have to hide the fact that I have a family: all of my clients know my story and most have young families of their own. If my dog barks or my son cries, I can simply call people back and they won't think anything of it.

Articles like the NY Times one just infuriate me, because really, we all have the power to control our own lives. We make our own choices. No one else should question these very personal choices we make, and the media should stop pitting women against women. I think we are doing a diservice to each other when we make statements about putting kids into childcare at an early age; for so many mothers it is what they have to do, and as innocent as a statement may be, it can still make a mom feel bad, and isn't there enough guilt out there to deal with already without moms placing guilt on other moms? My own mother had to go back to work ONE WEEK after giving birth to me. What about the women who CHOOSE to go back to work in a month and put their kids in childare are four weeks of age? We should be supporting each other, not questioning our contributions to society or to our families or comparing our situations to those of other women.

I say tonight we give a big toast to all moms and celebrate the choices we have made and our beautiful children. Then tomorrow we can go back to fighting the good fight for better family leave :). (VERY long comment....sorry!!!)

That article is also a slap in the face to the legions of women who work in blue collar industries that don't offer the benefits and flexibility of white collar companies and who have no choice but to work. Don't they count?

My son is 6 months old; I work full time and have been the sole breadwinner for the past three years.

Sitting here reading all these comments while eating lunch at my desk (which I do practically every day so I can leave early to see my sweet little boy before he falls asleep), I can't help but reflect on the perpetual emergency mode I'm living in and wonder if I've unconsciously accepted this as my norm, my new life. It's not sustainable. What am I going to do? Wait until I've missed out on too many "firsts"? Wait until I become completely undone and am need of years of therapy?

Though I planned to take 12 weeks off, there were such drastic changes at work I had little choice from a survival standpoint but to return to work on a 4-day schedule when he was 7 weeks old. Which meant that the company still got me back full-time, just in a compressed work week.

I've been back 5-days a week for a few months and I'm lucky to have a strong staff and the authority to set my schedule and leave when I want to. We have a great childcare situation utilizing family members and a part-time nanny. I know I'm blessed in so many ways.

Yet I'm torn. On the surface everything is being "handled" but only I know how truly ugly and painful the process is, emotionally and physically, to accomplish what appears balanced.

We need more companies to invest in letting new parents who want to continue working in some capacity to step into a holding pattern -- enabling us to keep contributing and growing but at a pace compatible with parenting during the early years. Too often we are hesitant to ask for it because of the potential repercussions. Employers too easily turn a blind eye because there are plenty of fresh recruits in the wings, ready to take your seat and work 80 hours... until they have their babies and the cycle starts all over again.

As deeply in love as I am with my baby boy, it's been surprisingly hard to turn off my ambition. All your contributions to this conversation are exactly the wake-up call I need right now.

Have fun tonight -- sorry I'll miss the opportunity to meet you.

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