Many Mothers are Fine Working Full-Time

Because the recent debate regarding mothers and work has focused on mothers who “opt out,” or mothers who’ve left the workforce and want to get back in, it’s perpetuated an assumption that most mothers would prefer not to work after having children.  The problem is that it’s not true.

Yes, having children causes every mother (and many fathers, for that matter) to reevaluate the role work plays in their lives.  Some mothers will choose to step out of the workforce.  But lost in the debate is the fact that, for many mothers, their personal and professional realities support a decision to work full-time, either because they have to or want to.  Yet this assumption that “mothers don’t work” causes these full-time working mothers to not only experience personal doubts about their choice even though everything is fine at home and at work, but to feel judgment from others.  

I received this email from a reader named Ellen, who has three children and works full-time at a manufacturing company.  Even though her employer isn’t particularly “family-friendly,” it’s all working fine for her and her family to the point that she’s considering not pursuing part-time work at this point even though it might be an option.  The biggest problem?  The comments and questions from others that cause her to doubt her choice even though it’s working:

“I work at XYZ Mfg., Inc. as the assistant manager in our Development Dept.  In January, I had our third child and took the standard 3 month maternity leave.  Upon return to work in mid April, many of my co-workers were surprised I came back.  In addition, I got and continue to get the “How do you do it?” question from men and women.  I’ll admit, that first month was a killer.  I was very stressed and even questioned myself if I could work full-time.  But after that one month hurdle, everything fell into place and I am now having second thoughts about going to part-time work.  We’ve settled into a routine and my husband is very supportive and helpful with the kids and things around the house. 

I have always worked full-time after each maternity leave.  We’ve made it work.  But the point of this email is that I’ve been experiencing the pressure from both inside and outside the company that maybe it’s not a good idea to work FT: “How do you do it?”, “Don’t you miss your kids?”, “What about all the activities they are in?”, “Isn’t is hard to leave your baby every day?”  If you hear these questions enough you start to wonder if you really are doing your family a disservice or not.  Women are few and far between at my level at XYZ and many of the men in my dept have wives who stay home.  So it’s a very interesting work environment here – I’ve got men around me who are not on the flexible bandwagon and have the attitude I’ve got a job to perform no matter what, and then there are the other guys who make me feel I’m not being a good mom by working full-time.

Do you address issues of the women who do decide to work FT (whether for financial or personal choice)?  This is a type of “fit,” too.

XYZ is, as I mentioned in my first email to you months ago, not a very flexible company.  They are taking baby steps in that direction, however.  Part-time work is available but only for a limited number of years.  I’m still considering it, but also need to consider which years would benefit me most.  The fact that my current situation is working for us and my family tell me to hold off. 

Bottom line – full time working moms are not bad mothers!”

What did I tell Ellen?  Basically, I told her to “go for it.”  If it’s working then hold off taking advantage of the part-time work the company offers because there may come a day when her realities change and she will need to adjust her fit.  Who knows, maybe that day will never come.  But the point is if it’s working now, keep going—even if others don’t understand.

Which brings me to the comments and questions of others…I urged Ellen to try to see their comments from a different angle.  Instead of experiencing them as a judgment (which is hard to do), look at their questions as an opportunity to share your experience and educate.  I believe questions such as “how do you do it?” or “don’t you miss your kids?” are usually simple questions, not judgments.  Take it as an opportunity to share how you do it, because we are all still trying to figure out new models for managing work+life.  Educate and help, which makes their comments and questions less off-putting and hurtful.

Bottom line: 

  • There are countless ways to manage work+life between “all or nothing”, and no choice is right or wrong:  It’s a continuum with countless creative combinations in between the extremes of “all or nothing.”  And the right choice is based on your unique realities.  If working full-time is compatible with your realities today, then great!
  • Move the debate beyond “why,” to “how”:  Collectively we need to spend less time studying “why” mothers either choose to work or not work, and spend more time on how we all must more actively and strategically take the initiative to creatively manage our work+life fit in today’s 24/7 work reality.  It’s about finding a “fit” that supports our unique work and personal realities.  But most of us don’t know how, and that needs to change.
  • It’s an everyone issue:  I know I say this at least once in every blog, but it’s true.  By making “work+life” a working mothers’ issue, it actually hurts women more because it perpetuates the erroneous assumption that motherhood is the only transition that causes people to readjust their work+life boundaries.  Actually, it is just one of many transitions, albeit a large one.  We all need to learn how to actively readjust the boundaries around work because we will have to do it many times over the course of our careers for a variety of reasons.

My Thoughts on Linda Hirshman’s Book, Get to Work….

Finally, I also received a number of emails and phone calls this past week asking what I thought about Linda Hirshman’s controversial new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.

Her book is an expanded version of an essay she wrote at the beginning of the year in American Prospect magazine, which basically said that women who chose to leave the workforce after having children were hurting society.   She then outlines steps (that some may consider quite radical) for women to assume their rightful place in society’s “power” structure by continuing to work in motherhood.  (Here are some links to commentary about the book).

I originally mentioned Professor Hirshman’s American Prospect article in a blog entry earlier this year.  In that posting, I discussed the need to move beyond the “all or nothing” language we use to discuss the challenge of managing work and life, because it doesn’t reflect reality and therefore, doesn’t get us any closer to finding real solutions.

This is my position on her book as well.  On one hand, I can see what Professor Hirshman is trying to say.  But I think it’s too simplistic to say all mothers must work full-time.  The truth is, as noted above, many women will have realities that happily support working full-time after becoming a mother.  But for others that “all” choice is not going to work because of their unique realities.

The problem is that most people, mothers included, don’t know how to strategically manage these big work+life transitions, and find a unique fit they need today.  And while many may sincerely want to stay home full-time (which is as valid a choice as working full-time), I believe there are many who, if shown how, would choose some new, creative combination of work and life for a period of time.  They would find a fit somewhere along the continuum between “all or nothing.”  But not knowing how to find that in-between alternative they default back to the only other choice they think they have—no work.

Again, let’s listen to what Linda Hirshman is trying to say—when too many high-achieving women feel forced to leave the workforce after having children it could impact the place of women in our larger society.  But then take let’s take that information and make sure women—and men—have 21st Century tools and strategies for creatively managing their work and life outside of the “all or nothing” box.

Helpful Work+Life Fit Resources:

•— a site dedicated to helping working mothers manage “chaos.”  Plus, I love that they give 10% of the sales of their notepads to an organization which supports Stage 4 breast cancer survivors.
•– as seen recently on the Today Show, Jill Tipograph is the only expert, objective camp consultant who will help you find the summer camp that is exactly right for your child. 

See you on August 1st for the next Work+Life Fit Blog (I’m on vacation for the next two weeks) !