Balancing Act: For These Harried Career Moms, Balance is in the Eye of the Beholder

“For working mothers, there’s a blurry place where intention meets reality. Journalist Lisa Belkin describes this strange land in Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom, a collection of newspaper columns she wrote as she learned to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of juggling a writing career with caring for her two young children. “I’ll freelance from home!” she assured herself, after leaving her dream job at The New York Times. “I’ll nurse my newborn with one hand and type an article with the other hand, all while a nutritious family dinner simmers on the stove.

“I certainly used both my hands,” she recalls. “The problem was, I needed four or five more.”

More American women than ever are struggling with the question of how to maneuver in the busy intersection of fulfilling work and childrearing. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey says that 66 percent of women with children under 17 work part-time or full-time jobs. But although public acceptance of mothers in the workforce has climbed steeply in the past half century, a Pew Research Center study finds that many people, including working mothers themselves, still feel a certain ambivalence about moms spending the work week apart from very young children.

Around 40 percent of Americans believe that it’s best for families if mothers of preschoolers don’t work outside of the home. Only 12 percent say that kids are well-served by a mom with a full-time job, and 44 percent feel that a mom working part time is ideal for young children.

Unfortunately, financial realities for many families make employment options far more complicated than a simple “what’s best for Junior” judgment call. And for mothers who love their life’s work, that decision runs deeper than economics. That’s why some employers offer working moms an alternative to the all-or-nothing choice to work or stay home.

After giving birth to her first son, 31-year-old Brandyn took a spring semester off from her teaching job at Fall-Hamilton Elementary. By the next school year, she missed her work and her co-workers. For her, the choice between teaching and staying home with her son felt too absolute. “If you’re passionate about education,” she says, “then you never wanted to let it go in the first place.”

She found a compromise: a job share program offered by Metro schools that allows two teachers to divvy up the workweek. Now a mother of two young boys, Brandyn sees her part-time arrangement as the best of both worlds. She works a 50-50 share — Mondays, Tuesdays, and every other Wednesday — leaving her a long stretch of days to spend with her sons. “We get to go to the zoo on the weekday if we want to,” she says. And in addition to earning half her usual salary, Brandyn provides health insurance to her family through her job.

Kay Stafford, Executive Director of grades K-4 in Metro, says a lot of principals — who can opt in or out of the program — embrace job sharing. “The pros are having teachers at the top of their game,” Stafford says. “The cons are that students have to adjust to two different teachers who have different personalities and teaching styles.”

Of course, some workplace cultures are more conducive to flexible scheduling than others. Kate, a 33-year-old mother of two, works as an actuary at a large insurance company and manages about 15 employees. She puts in 50- to 60-hour workweeks and is a step away from rising to VP level at her firm. Although she sometimes wishes she could spend more time with her kids, she loves her job and can’t see giving it up or going part-time.

Kate feels that offering flex time or job sharing to working moms isn’t feasible at her firm and could appear unfair to employees who aren’t mothers. “I think the company would owe it to their employees to offer that type of benefit to people other than just moms,” she says. This could include employees who need to care for an elderly parent or a convalescing spouse, or to dads as well as moms.

Kate defines herself as a mother first and as a driven professional woman second, and she agrees that family should come first. But she contends that asking for special scheduling accommodations “reminds your employer that your job is number two … and I can see that sending a message that maybe I’m not as dedicated to my job.”

She adds that making choices like asking for flexible work hours can have negative repercussions on an employee’s future within the company. “I feel conflicted saying that,” she says. But in the real-world workplace, Kate points out, “Companies are doing business. And part of companies being successful is having dedicated workers.” She cites one example in her office — a working mom who scaled back to a 34-hour week, and who won’t budge on extra hours. “I have other employees who are willing to work overtime, and I see them as more valuable. They have more advancement opportunities than she does because of the extra things they’re willing to do that she is not.

“I think you’re giving up some of those opportunities for your career if you’re making the choices to work part time or do a job share or whatever,” she says.

Kate’s company does offer one benefit for new mothers that she finds essential: a lactation room. (They’re legally required to do so.) “I have an intense life,” she admits. “I’m very hands-on at work, very hands-on at home.” She says the time she’s spent nursing her son and now her 11-month-old daughter has kept her sane: “It’s quiet downtime, one-on-one with the child. That’s my recharge time.

“If I wasn’t able to do that … I don’t think I’d be OK with working at that point,” she says. “That would be a huge problem for me.” Kate quietly retreats to a private stall twice during the workday to pump. She’s grateful that her company allows her that 45 minutes at work. “But I’m usually checking email and responding to email while I’m doing that,” she says. “I don’t highlight it. I don’t let it get in the way of my meetings. I think it could be seen as a lack of dedication, a reminder that, ‘Oh, she’s not working right now.’”

For Kate, the idea of balance means negotiating an ever-changing series of compromises: accommodation versus commitment. If an employee is going to ask for special treatment, she should offer something in return, says Kate, like a willingness to be available for calls and emails during off hours, or to work extra hours during push times.

Jude, an attorney and mom who has spent nearly seven years as a nonprofit executive, agrees that employees shouldn’t make demands that undermine an organization’s productivity. “Sensitivity and responsibility have to come from both sides,” she says. “And I think an employer is more comfortable granting some flexibility when the employee is showing a commitment.”

But Jude believes that offering flexible scheduling options to all workers — from moms and dads to employees who want to further their education — can help a workplace keep valuable people. To her, good leadership means seeing employees as individuals with changing needs. Many U.S. companies seem to share that philosophy: the American Society of Human Resource Managers reports that the number of companies offering employees flexible scheduling, part-time work, and the option to work from home has climbed steadily over the past few decades. (That is, until the economic downturn, when that figure dropped by five percent.)

Still, according to Lisa Belkin, some companies are starting to prioritize offering employees flexible work schedules. For example, at Best Buy, as long as the work’s getting done, “Eighty percent of the corporate staff gets to go and come as they please,” writes Belkin, in her New York Times blog, “Motherlode.”

Jude, who has spent years serving at-risk families, points out that many of the women who need these benefits most — single moms doing hourly, low-wage jobs — have the least access to them. “There’s just no cushion for them,” she says. “A week’s missed salary can lead to eviction and homelessness.” She hopes the business community can come to recognize “those kind of life-threatening realities for so many working moms.”

For her part, Jude says that crafting a balance between work and home isn’t one-size-fits-all. Each company — and each worker — has to “follow their own hearts,” she says. She laughs and shakes her head when I ask her whether balance for working moms really exists at all, and whether it’s possible to be a Supermom careerist: “If you think of balance as a still place?” she muses. “Like, you get balance and there you are, you’re just balanced?

“But if you think of balance as a constant process of adjustment — adjustment of your expectations, adjustment of the strategies you use to meet the demands on you — then to me that captures the reality. Perfection is impossible to find in anything,” she says. “You want to set reachable and realistic goals, otherwise you’re going to constantly feel like you’re failing. And that’s not a happy place.”


denny's picture

I keep reading about this problems women have when decide to have a baby and keep a career... We should just learn to prioritize, it's that simple, we are not super-humans and we shouldn't try to be. I set the main lines in my life already, I am on my way to become professional and when it's time to have children I'll just make a choice then.

its_me's picture

For working mothers managing career and family is simply a difficult job. You need to focus on your kids, make sure they are eating right, studying properly without developing any poor study rituals, and at the same time you have to ensure your performance is up to the mark in your workplace. It is really tough.

It is really tough for women to balance both family and job responsibilities. Both the responsibilities demand full dedication from you. So you have to learn how to handle pressure. Thankfully there are workplaces that understands the pressure working moms have to endure, but sometimes when you change your workplace and go to a different office you experience a different culture which might not be so great, so when you experience culture shock, you have to learn to fit in without sacrificing your needs.

its_me's picture

Family life and career are two different world and both are absolutely different the only similarity between them is that both are very demanding. When you are at your work you miss your family and when you are at home you are stressing about your job. You are always moving about with rushed feeling. But this stress could be bad for you so try to relax so that you could perform well in both positions.

Thanks for sharing.

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