It’s an “Everyone” Issue, Part II — How Recognizing This Fact Will Help Working Mothers More

For a long time, I’ve challenged the conventional wisdom that work+life is primarily a working mothers’ issue with the proven fact that it’s an “everyone” issue. But recent articles about working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers have convinced me that not only must we recognize once and for all that work+life “fit” isn’t just a working mothers’ issue, BUT that in doing so, we will actually help mothers more. I say this as a working mother with two small children who faces these challenges daily.

This realization hit me while reading the 3/2/06 New York Times article about the stall in the number of mothers returning to the workplace after having children. A former high-tech business development executive with three children was interviewed and talked about how “duped” she felt by her expectations about working after having children. I started thinking about other big work+life “fit” transitions women and men experience over the course of their life and career. And how their expectations related to these experiences are also often not aligned with reality, which leads to similar feelings of being “duped.”

Like the mother in the article, few of us are prepared to effectively manage work+life fit transitions, both big and small, in a way that meets our unique needs as well as the needs of our job. This is especially in true today’s 24/7 work reality where we all must play a more active and direct role in adjusting the boundaries around our work and life. But focusing primarily on the struggle of working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, misses the other individuals and transitions that, albeit different, are part of the same work+life fit conversation:

Fathers – becoming a father is a huge transition for men, especially fathers between the ages of 37 and 23 years old (Gen-X in 2002) and 18 – 22 years old (Gen-Y, or Millenials in 2002), who have measurably different expectations about their role as a parent, then their Baby boomer counterparts:
• The Gen-X and Gen-Y fathers are spending significantly more time with their children then baby boomer fathers (Generation and Gender, FWI)
• The women and men born since the early 80’s are “extraordinarily focused on work-life balance,” according to Barry Salzberg, the managing partner to the auditing and consulting firm of Deloitte and Touche, USA (WSJ, 2/14/06)
Men and Women Caring for an Aging Adult – Some studies estimate that as much as 35% of the workforce experiences significant eldercare responsibilities over the course of a year. And, men and women are equally as likely to provide some type of care, often while still caring for a child under the age of 18 years old. As the population ages (the number of men and women age 50 and over has increased from 44.6 million to 51.1 million in the past five years), more individuals will experience the transition from adult child to caregiver of an aging parent. I recently joined the ranks of those caring for a parent with my mother’s cancer diagnosis. It is a big transition.

Working in Retirement – Either because they want to or have to, more and more men and women are going to work a reduced schedule during retirement. (2/27/06 Time article , and 2/13/06 Blog posting) Yet, like Gen-X and Gen-Y fathers, there are no role models from the previous generation to show them how to manage the transition from full-time employee to working retiree.

Bottomline: Yes, transitioning from working woman to working mother is difficult and challenging (I’ve been there, done that twice), but it isn’t the only work+life “fit” transition a woman will face over the course of her life and career—she may not have young children, but her parents may get sick, or she may not be able to afford to retire fully. And, the same holds true for men.
We need to pull the camera back and look at work+life from a broader perspective. Seeing it as a conversation in which we all need to engage. We all need better tools and strategies suited for the demands of the 21st Century that help us manage work+life “fit” transitions, both large and small. And there are no standard answers. Each person is going to have a unique set of realities; therefore, a unique solution. But the overall work+life “fit” conversation is the same for everyone—how do I fit work into my life in a way that meets my needs as well as the needs of the business.

Some argue that the challenge of work and motherhood is so unique that it does require a primary focus. But, I would argue that including all individuals and transitions in the same broad conversation would actually help women more by:
Helping fathers which gives mothers more options: If fathers had more flexibility, mothers would be able to pursue more options. And, for many fathers, finding that “fit” doesn’t necessarily mean working less, just differently (e.g. telecommuting, or adjusting their schedule).

Eliminating the “mother penalty” by challenging the inaccurate assumption that everyone else is 24/7– . A study published by Cornell University found that mothers with children were less likely to be hired than men or women without children. The assumption being that everyone, except women with children, were able and willing to devote 24/7 to work. The truth is that having a child is only one of many big transitions that cause women and men to adjust their “fit.” The relentless focus on the challenge of mothers reinforces the inaccurate bias and ultimately, unnecessarily penalizes mothers.

Removing the assumption that all mothers don’t want to work full-time, which hurts those mothers that can and do: Contrary to conventional wisdom, I’ve met many women over the years who’ve said, “My realities are such that I can (or have to) work full-time. Yet, I am constantly facing the assumption that I don’t really want to advance, travel, take on more responsibility because I have kids.” Again, we have to be careful that in our well-intentioned efforts to be supportive, we don’t assume that every working mother wants to work less. This assumption then inadvertently hinders the sizeable number of working mothers who have realities that support effectively working full-time. It goes back to the fact that for as many mothers that exist, there will be an equal number of unique work+life “fit” solutions. For many mothers, that solution will mean working full-time.
Supporting the success of programs for “transitioning mothers” – One of the most interesting recent developments in the area of corporate work+life fit strategy are programs to help women transition back into the workforce after being home full-time. (See Sue Shellenbarger’s “Luring Mothers Back to the Workplace” ). Oftentimes the transition includes a job that allows the mother to work a reduced schedule for a period of time. While very helpful to the women involved, I can’t help but wonder how the other people in that organization will feel, especially if they are expected to grapple with their work+life fit transitions without a similar level of support. There has to be a consistency in the process for strategically addressing the work+life fit challenges of all employees, so that terrific programs like this will be supported and not resented. But that support won’t exist, I fear, unless everyone is part of that same conversation.

Ending the mythical and damaging “Mommy Wars”! This week’s issue of Business Week included a profile of the upcoming book of essays called, “Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home Moms, and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families.” Thankfully, the editor of the book admits that her most interesting finding was that, “Women don’t fall into these neat categories. Most women see it as a continuum.” In other words, THERE IS NO MOMMY WAR!!! To have a war, you have to have two sides. If they don’t exist, there is no war!

The truth is that there are very few women who are either solely a “stay-at-home mom”–who does nothing but care for her children–or a “career mom”–who does nothing but work. Most women fall somewhere along the continuum between “all or nothing” throughout their life and career. Furthermore, I believe this mythical war is damaging women. By keeping us artificially divided into “us versus them” camps, it makes us weaker. Don’t fall for the rhetoric anymore, because it hasn’t gotten us any closer to a solution. The goal isn’t war, but a mutually supportive conversation that honors the unique realities of ALL women and men facing different work+life fit transitions (motherhood being a very big one, of course).
Every individual who has faced, or is facing, a work+life fit transition—both big or small—is part of the same conversation: how do we strategically fit work into to our lives in a way that meets our needs as well as the needs of the organization. In the 24/7 global work reality of the 21st Century, all of us, including working mothers, must play a more active and direct role in finding our unique solutions throughout our life and career. The solution will be different, but the conversation the same—it’s an “everyone” issue.

Join me on Tuesday March 14th for the next Work+Life “Fit” Blog, when I will discuss:
Redefining Caregiving: Success : What’s a “Good” Father, Mother, or Child of An Aging Parent?
How the pressure we put on ourselves related to our roles as a parent or a caregiver for an aging parent either supports or undermines our chosen work+life “fit.” I will share my experience adjusting my “fit” to care for my mother who was recently diagnosed with cancer, while continuing to care for two small children.
Personal Work+Life “Fit” Innovation – How Michelle continually readjusted her “fit” throughout her career….

One thought on “It’s an “Everyone” Issue, Part II — How Recognizing This Fact Will Help Working Mothers More

  1. Rock on, Calzone! I love what I am reading, especially the fact that as new roles develop, we men are without any role models to follow or learn from. I know in my gut that working from 7:30am to 6pm at my desk is no longer proof that I am “working” the way it was when I was a young commercial banker on Wall Street. Sure, email, the laptop, and cell phones mean I can work anywhere and anytime (a different set of challenges to look out for), but looking to parents and older generations yields no help or understanding. We are blazing a trail, to be sure!

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