My Brief, Reluctant Dive into the “Moms vs. Work” Debate

Frequent readers know that I consciously steer clear of the ongoing “Moms versus Work” debate because I believe:

  • Work+Life is not just a “mothers” issue, it’s an “everyone” issue
  • Making it a mothers-only issue actually hurts women, not helps
  • It doesn’t get us any closer to a solution, but keeps us mired in the problem
  • Only a privileged, minority of mothers who have the financial wherewithal to live on one salary can really engage in this debate. Most mothers need to work and are left feeling guilty that they aren’t able to make a different choice.

That said, here I am anyway. Because I believe the mommy wars/opting out/off ramps and on ramps conversation is way off track. We’ve gotten stuck in a circular, emotionally-charged, all-or-nothing debate that misses not only the countless work+life “fit” possibilities, but also overlooks some key facts that really should influence a mother’s decision whether or not to work.

So what do I tell someone who asks me “How do I decide if I should work after I have a baby?”…

First, change the question. Instead of “How do I decide if I should work,” ask yourself “How can I adjust my ‘fit’ after I have a baby?” It’s a more manageable, less extreme decision-making process that gives you access to the countless work+life “fit” possibilities from which you can choose. You have many choices beyond working exactly as you do today, or not working at all. But you can’t take advantage of those creative solutions if you don’t see them.

In fact, be wary of advice from “stay-at-home mom” experts who write books and appear on television because they are WORKING! Maybe they work 20 hours a week writing out of their home office, but they are still working. In other words, they have found a creative work+life “fit” that gives them time with their children but also allows them to make money. This is why I believe Caitlin Flanagan’s new book, The Hell with That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, has caused such controversy (Slate). She advocates the benefits of staying home, but…she’s a writer, with a full-time nanny, who’s been paid to write essays for the New Yorker, and to write a book. She works! It’s not all or nothing.

There would be much less drama around the subject if we got beyond the extremes and acknowledged that there are countless creative ways to combine work and motherhood.

Decide your “fit” based upon your unique realities today. The operative word here is “unique.”

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else because there is no single right way to combine work and life. There will always be a portion of mothers who want to work full-time, and there will be a portion of mothers who don’t want to work at all. And there will be the majority of mothers who want both. In my experience, most women either need or want to pursue some combination of work+life.

Question: What’s one of the most important realities mothers should consider when making their decision? Answer: If I stopped working completely, would I be able to support myself and my children financially if anything happened to my partner either through layoff, divorce or death? This is the part of my advice to mothers that surprises people most, but it’s one of the most important realities to consider. Why? Because, sadly, the truth is:

  • Trends show that younger people in the U.S. who are marrying for the first time face a 40-50% chance of divorcing in their lifetime (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).
  • The number of women over 65 in the workforce has increased by 38% since 1980, while male participation has remained stable (U.S. Dept. of Labor). The reason for this increase is that older women, due to divorce, death of a spouse, or illness, don’t have enough money to support themselves in retirement. And, their average income after 65 is about half that of their male counterparts ($12, 080 vs. $21,100), because they tend to start working later, take time off for caregiving, earn less, and live longer (Chicago Tribune 4/24/06).

Now, remember if the answer for you isn’t “nothing,” it still doesn’t have to be “all.” You don’t necessarily have to work full-time. Consider three things:

  • If you want a reduced schedule, the best time to get it is when you are already working. It’s much harder to negotiate a reduced schedule if you are coming back into the workforce after not working for a period of time. It can be done, but it’s easier if you are established in a workplace that knows and values your work.
  • If you work a reduced schedule and make less money, you may only break even after direct expenses, such as child care, and commuting expenses. That’s okay. There are “indirect” benefits that are harder to measure, like maintaining expertise and contacts. These are equally important to the “work or not to work” equation. For more on what I call the New Work+Life “Fit” Math see my 2/13/06 blog posting.
  • Remember, there is an earnings penalty if you stay out of the workforce for an extended period of time. Again, for a privileged minority of mothers that’s not a concern. But for the majority of women who need to maintain their earning potential, it’s better to stay in the game with a reduced schedule and reduced salary than to leave and suffer an earnings penalty.

Bottom line:

The fact is that for most women the decision to work or not after having children is financial. They need to consider whether they could support themselves and their children should something happen to their partner due to layoff, divorce, or death. While you can’t live your life expecting the worst, the sad truth is that many marriages do end in divorce, and many women do live longer than their spouses. When considering whether or not to completely stop working after having children, you need to weigh this fact very carefully. And remember that there are many creative work+life “fit” possibilities that would allow you to find time and energy for your family while continuing to maintain your earnings potential.

Yes, emotions around this subject can run very high. But when we look at the facts, hopefully everyone–not just women—will move beyond the unproductive all-or-nothing circular conversation we’re stuck in. Hopefully we can then discuss how to help everyone—not just working mothers—strategically create a unique work+life “fit” that meets their needs as well as the needs of their job.

Join me on May 9th for the next Work+Life “Fit” Blog!

4 thoughts on “My Brief, Reluctant Dive into the “Moms vs. Work” Debate

  1. Thank you Cali for putting this in perspective. And for pointing out the irony of these self-professed “SAHM’s” who have book deals and are actively on the speaking circuit (and employ nannies and other help). Fortunately, Gen Y men (and women) seem to be taking up the work/life “fit” battle.

  2. I really liked this piece. I am quite fascinated by all the ways that moms (and dads, though I don’t know any personally) who want to be around for their kids and yet want or have to work figure out solutions. I’d love a list of what you’ve seen, sometime! I keep an informal list, if you are interested; here are some examples, with the number of people I can quickly think of who do that:

    — freelance editor (2)
    — playgroups in their home (12)
    — freelance consultant (2)
    — PT teaching (2)
    — PT graphic artist (1)
    — professional chef (1)
    — online college admissions counselor (2)
    — aerobics teacher (1)
    — personal trainer (1)
    — writer (2)
    I never forgot a conversation we had, Cali, about this topic, when you said “It’s a lot easier going from 30mph to 60 mph, than 0 to 60mph”. That’s really helps me keep going when I get the inevitable slow moment in my freelance management consulting career. Someday when the kids are bigger I would like to ramp it up, so I want to “keep my hand in” now, plus I really do enjoy it. Anyway, thanks! Lilian

  3. Cali –
    Your comment about women over 65 needing to work — there’s a different feeling out there. I work because I love it! I have few family responsibilities now, and it’s simply fun. Retirement can be a bore, but my work has never been more exciting or richer. I think there’s a trend to older women working longer, simply for fun. And because it’s fun, they offer a of exciting ideas, based on years of experience. And — they keep young because of their interaction with young women such as you!

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