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Saturday, January 01, 2011

Working Moms: Finding a Balance Between Work and Motherhood

Working Moms: Finding a Balance Between Work and Motherhood

Sojourner Marable Grimmett is assistant director of recruitment at a prestigious Southeastern university of art and design.  She holds a B.A. in communications from Clark Atlanta University and an M.A. in media studies from The Pennsylvania State University.  Her experience in higher education spans over 10 years working in student services and enrollment management. In 2009, Grimmett was awarded the first SACRAO President's Outstanding Presenter Award.  She has served SACRAO in a variety of roles, including as chairperson of WISDOM: Women, Institutional Equity, Sexuality, Disability Services, and Opportunities for Access, Multicultural Awareness.

This study interviews 17 working mothers in higher education to examine if they are able to achieve a balance between their professional objectives and family life. This paper presents the voices of working mothers, their voices are frequently not heard by the general society and many question their credence with regard to the complex and salient characteristics of the stay-at-work mother experience. 

Over the last several decades, there have been major changes in the United States in how families address the issue of women working outside the home. Fifty years ago, the majority of American women did not work outside the home.  However, two wars played a major role in the labor workforce: World War II and the Vietnam War.   With the emergence of the women’s rights movement of the 1960s, women began to demand equal opportunity for employment and better wages.

The first part of the study will provide historical background information about American women in the workforce over the past fifty years. The second part of the study will draw upon personal experience, providing examples from my own life that illustrate some of the challenges and possibilities of being a full-time working mother. Thirdly, my thesis will be expanded upon by the mothers I interviewed who work in higher education, in order to derive the common themes that emerge from their personal experiences. The personal narratives will illustrate challenges to expectant, new or seasoned mothers in balancing work and motherhood. Perhaps these experiences will assist supervisors to understand the dual role that stay-at-work mothers endure to maintain a successful and healthy balance.

The 17 women in the study were presented with these questions:
  1. Have you been able to successfully juggle work and motherhood?
  2. How does your institution assist women with children by encouraging them to be productive (flexible or part-time schedules, job sharing, etc.)?
  3. Does your institution have policies that support working mothers with taking time off, or provide on-site nurseries, lactation rooms, etc.?
  4. What challenges have you faced as a working mom?
  5. How supportive is your spouse/partner and/or family in your efforts to pursue a professional career?
  6. Does your direct supervisor demonstrate an understanding of some of the demands you shoulder as a mother, while you are also performing your professional duties of your job?
  7. What advice (solutions) would you give other working moms?
  8. For supervisors: How do you accommodate the working mothers you supervise?
  9. How have you been able to obtain upward mobility (advance) in your position?
  10. Have you had to make any sacrifices?

This article provides information, advice and philosophies about the personal and professional issues that impact stay-at-work mothers.  It provides a balanced perspective addressing an issue that presses many “hot” buttons.

A century ago, the vast majority of women did not work outside the home. Even for women who graduated from high school or who had professional experience working in clerical or professional jobs, nearly all of them, once they were married, left the labor force and became homemakers.  The big change occurred during World War II, when millions of men went into the U.S. military, leaving the labor force.  Millions of women replaced them in their traditional male jobs. After the war, most of these women returned to their previous roles as wives and homemakers, although a significant minority remained in the workforce.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gave rise to the second wave of the Women’s Movement.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark legislation that outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations.  Other legislation and presidential executive orders created reforms such as affirmative action and equality of opportunity in employment.  These laws not only targeted racial discrimination, but also gender discrimination.  In other words, the Civil Right’s Movement and its sacrifices created the context for the advance of the women’s rights movement.  In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s organizations like the National Organization for Women [NOW] lobbied to improve equal opportunity for women to advocate job equity, reproductive rights, childcare, to oppose gender stereotypes and to advocate equal pay.  There was a dramatic increase in women working outside of the home. “In 1970, about 43 percent of women aged 16 and older were in the labor force; by the late 1990s, the labor force participation rate of women had risen to 60 percent. Though still well above the rates that prevailed throughout the 1970s, the 1980s, and much of the 1990s, the participation rate for women has receded slightly since 1999, to 59.4 percent in 2006” (Charo & Rones, 2007, p.1).

Women have attempted to integrate work and motherhood since the beginning of household and family life.  There are more than 83 million moms in the United States and roughly 61% of moms in the United States work. “In today’s labor market, 7 out of 10 mothers are in the labor force, compared with 5 out of 10 in 1975. Working moms account for almost one-fifth of all employed individuals, and nearly three-fourths of employed mothers 4 usually work full time. Mothers who usually work full time also spend more than 2 hours each weekday performing active childcare, cleaning house, and preparing meals. In addition, nearly 4 out of 10 mothers who work full time perform volunteer work at some point during the year” (Utgoff, 2005, p. 3).
As society and the economy continue to change, more women returned to work right after maternity leave.  Several reasons explain why women return to work, ranging from families being dependent on two incomes, being the primary breadwinner for their children, to the fear of a recession (U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, 1993).  A third factor is that many women want to work outside the home because they desire to achieve through professional careers of their own. 
Background: The Joys and Challenges of Motherhood
My experience is similar to millions of other middle-class professional women. Throughout my life, I have been strongly committed to pursuing professional goals and a career in higher education.  These goals always have been the top priorities of my life plan; but all of this changed two years ago with the birth of our first child. 
Prior to my son’s birth I was a workaholic.  I worked more than 10-hour days and responded to work-related e-mails on the weekends.  My life was my job; and work came first.  I skipped family functions and sorority meetings to perform work related tasks.  I sacrificed my personal and social life to advance my professional career.

Maternity leave gave me time to collect my thoughts and prioritize my life.  Before returning to work, I decided to modify my work schedule in this manner: 1) changed my work hours to 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., in order to pick up our child from daycare, 2) found a daycare facility where I could monitor our child online, and 3) made a firm commitment to leave work on time every day.
I had fears of returning to work—fears of not being able to juggle my new life and fears that my supervisor and co-workers would not understand my struggle to maintain a happy medium.  And, although, I am an extremely good multitasker, having the responsibility of taking care of another human being is a huge deal.  Sleep deprivation, diaper changes, dressed in burping clothes, and pacing up and down the same hallway ruled my whole universe.  I was a changed woman.

A year ago, my own experience of balancing motherhood with professional goals led me to give a presentation about this topic at the 62nd Southern Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers (SACRAO) conference.  The positive response and feedback I received from participants inspired me to conduct a qualitative study to find out how working moms balance professionalism with family demands.

Interviews: Speaking Truth to Power
There is a constant struggle between family-friendly pursuits that support family and children and the yearning women have to pursue professional careers. In some situations, employers respect the need; in others, they don’t.  Ann Crittenden (2001) in The Price of Motherhood states:  “A mother’s work is not just invisible; it can become a handicap. Raising children may be the most important job in the world, but you can’t put it on a résumé” (p. 3). The achievement of success for most women is having a profession, healthy and positive families, and supporting the development of one’s children.

The feminist movement suggests that women should be able to have it all. In my examination of the feelings of other stay-at-work moms, and whether or not this feminist supposition is real or imaginary, I interviewed 17 mothers who work in higher education across the country to find out how they maintain an equilibrium of work and motherhood.  After transcribing the interviews, I reviewed their contents closely. 
I had anticipated that working mothers would be 1) torn with how to balance work and motherhood, 2) frustrated with the lack of work policies to support mothers, 3) guilty, and 4) extremely grateful for and expressive about the importance of family support.  Many of the factors that cause frustration for working mothers were identified in their interviews. 

Question (Q) Have you been able to successfully juggle work and motherhood?

Answer (A) The feedback from all the women was very similar. The best way for women to balance work and motherhood is to maintain a positive attitude.  Once a consistent routine is established, then coping and handling the new responsibilities are much easier. Some women rely on daycare for their children, while others prefer hiring a live-in nanny or depend on family.

Finding (F) Overall success for most women is defined in part by making sure that your children are healthy and productive individuals. More than two-thirds of the women interviewed said they were able to mediate work and motherhood. 

(Q) How does the workplace support women with children in encouraging them to be productive (flexible or part-time schedules, job sharing, etc.)?

(A) Many mothers complimented their direct supervisors for being empathetic and very flexible by enabling them to care for their children when and as necessary. ‘Trisha#,’ assistant director of student media, stated: “My direct supervisor is very understanding about my need to take time off to care for my sick baby, or adjust my work hours to be able to pick the baby up from daycare. I also was able to take a month off from work this summer (unpaid) to spend time with my family, which has very positively affected my work morale.”

(F) Mothers stated that they are productive if they have a supervisor who is flexible with their work schedules.  One mother indicated that she gets more work done at home when she telecommutes than when she’s in the office.  

(Q) Does your institution have policies that assist working mothers with taking time off or provide on-site nurseries, lactation rooms, etc.?

(A) Three mothers praised their institutions for having lactation rooms on campus. One mother replied: “There is only one designated lactation room (that I know of) on campus.  It’s in our new law building.  I was lucky to have supervisors who supported my pumping milk, which I did successfully with my two children, from when I returned to work at 3 to12 months with each child. “
(A) Another mother stated: “I was lucky to have my own office and understanding co-workers so that I could "pump", but there is absolutely nothing helpful on campus for others who don't have a private office. A colleague down the hall had to sit in a locked storage closet on boxes. Even my own office is open to a busy hallway, so people would knock on the door even with curtains drawn, recycling staff would unlock the door and find me attached to a pump when I was pumping before a late meeting. Just not a good scene for lactation!”

(F) The 1992 Family Medical and Medical Leave Act allows mothers with newborns to take 12 weeks of paid leave. Some employers also will allow mothers to have flexible work schedules. Finding ways to accommodate mothers (i.e., lactation rooms) permits them not to feel so alienated in the workplace. ‘Nora,’ an associate director at a Northeastern university told me, “I was able to work part-time from home during my last month of maternity leave.  When I came back to work full-time, I was able to telecommute two days a week.  I’m transitioning to telecommuting one day a week now.  Being able to telecommute is wonderful, because I’m still nursing and it gives me a chance to pump and nurse while I’m at home, so that I can maintain my milk supply.”

My colleague and I returned from maternity leave about the same time, and I was finding it difficult to pump in the ladies’ room.  In an effort to make it easier for other new moms, we approached the vice president of our institution and requested the establishment of a lactation room. The university responded positively by creating a comfortable private room. A working mother’s support group was also started on campus—a coalition of expectant, new and seasoned moms that promotes the balancing of professional careers and raising happy, healthy children. Each month moms are invited to join a brown-bag lunch, and are encouraged to talk about challenges of work and motherhood. This outlet has been extremely beneficial for all moms who have participated.

(Q) What challenges have you faced as a working mom?

(A) ‘Sherri,’ who works as an academic adviser, said her biggest challenge is “guilt.” She stated, “Not being able to give 100% to either work or mothering and always feeling torn and needing more flexibility with scheduling when family emergencies arise can have negative impacts on other staff. Learning to let go of self-imposed "rules" about house cleaning and other domestic duties, leaves me with little time to recognizes that the family rarely considers the demands on working mothers and how fatiguing it can be—day in and day out.”

(A) ‘Laurie,’ another mother who is divorced with special needs children, stated several different obstacles that were reoccurring themes throughout the interviews: “scheduling issues, coordinating (my) mother’s and children’s schedules; financial issues with child care, while mother has to work; feeling tired after work and guilty for not having enough energy to give my children enough quality time because of the demands of work. “

(F) The increase in the number of divorces has left many women as the sole financial support or primary breadwinner for themselves and their children.  In the findings 100% of all women stated that they confront significant challenges both in the work place and at home. However their answers regarding how they address theses problems varied widely based on the interviews.  

(Q) How supportive is your spouse, partner, and/or family in your efforts to pursue a professional career?

(A) Most women stated that they have support from their families. Those that have family or a helpful spouse appear to be able to balance far more than those without support. ‘Carmen,’ an associate director, said: “My spouse and I discussed early on the fact that I wanted to continue to be a working individual; it was an easy decision for both of us. He was supportive of my decision from the start.”

(A) Another mom had a different opinion:
“It has depended on his career demands along the way.  When I was the primary breadwinner, he was forced to assume more of the 'emergency' roles when kids were sick or needed transportation, etc.  He was glad to hand over these responsibilities to me, but never realized that he still had responsibilities to the family and the household that he couldn't ignore just because he was working hard.  When I worked part-time and had more time for all of the family stuff, he resented that our budget was so stretched and couldn't wait until I was working full-time again. But, he had difficulty accepting that I could no longer do all of the household things.  I know very few men who really understand how hard women work – at home and on the job.”

(F) A family lifestyle that depends on two incomes has become the norm in American society. Based on the sample, most women with children in the workplace appear to receive different levels of support from their spouses and family.

(Q) Does your direct supervisor demonstrate an understanding of some of the demands you shoulder as a mother while you are also performing your professional duties of your job?

(A) ‘Ava,’ coordinator of advising said: “The attitude of the supervisor is the key to satisfaction for a working mom.  I have had supervisors who were single women who made life hell for a working mother; my current supervisor is extremely supportive because she values family and a work/life balance, and it brings a huge sense of relief. “

(A) ‘Linda,’ who has a daughter in college and works as an administrative assistant exclaimed
“I only had one boss that understood.  I will never forget her. We often cried together because she knew exactly what I was going through. (Men will overlook a lot when it comes to new moms because they have wives to take days off and stay at home.)  I think if I had to do it all over again, with the way things are improving, it would be better. I think having other moms to share, would have been ideal.  It's a joyous time in our lives as a woman, but it's sad that we have to make choices when it comes to the welfare of our children. No one should have to make those choices. I think new moms are sometimes looked over too [for accolades, promotions, etc.] because of starting families.”

(F) Most women interviewed had at least one supervisor who was supportive of their needs to take care of their children.  This support takes the weight off of mothers’ shoulders, from feeling guilty about taking care of their children and maintaining their jobs. Naomi Wolf (2001) author of the controversial book, Misconceptions, presents the thesis of the marketplace creating a “Machine Mom.”  She argues, “… this ideal of the superfuctional mother/worker, who is able to work at the top capacity up to the due date: takes one to three months off to deliver, nurture, and bond; finds top-notch child care; and returns to work, where, if she breast feeds, she will pump discreetly in the employee ladies room” (p. 229).  Based on my interviews Wolf’s thesis seems to be accurate.

(Q) As a supervisor how do you accommodate the working mothers you supervise? 

(A) ‘Rebecca,’ a controller, stated that when supervising mothers, “I give them flexibility to make up the time they have to be away from the office or, if possible, to take the work home with them.  I try to let them know I had the same issues when my son was growing up…inconvenient appointment times, last-minute changes of plans, etc.”
(A) Another supervisor gave similar feedback. “I am extremely sensitive to their needs – while also knowing the work that must be done.  I tell my colleagues that family comes first, and I will do whatever I can to support their needs as long as they recognize their responsibilities toward the students and institution. So we all have to partner to make sure the work gets done and that our families don't suffer.”

(F) In some instances, the interviewees indicated that supervisors who are single and without children are often detached from the strenuous hardships and difficult mediating responsibilities of motherhood.  However, a number of mothers interviewed mentioned that supervisors who understand the high demands of working mothers benefit in the long run and have more loyal and productive employees. A sub-theme that emerged was that individual departments are more sympathetic to working mothers than the institution. Mothers also mentioned that many of their supervisors do understand, because many of them are parents themselves. Another supervisor talked about her experiences supervising staff with children. She stated, “Things are unpredictable.  Kids don’t get sick, have accidents at school, etc. on a predictable schedule and so sometimes it means re-shuffling responsibilities or stepping in to get the job done on the fly.”  Several of the supervisors have not had major problems supervising working mothers. She continued, “Luckily I only had a small problem with one employee and we were able to discuss alternative solutions so that it didn’t become a bigger problem.”

(Q) How have you been able to obtain upward mobility (advance) in your position? Have you had to make any sacrifices? 

(A) One mom indicated: “I left my original career because I had moved as far up the ladder as I could go and still maintain any connection with my children.  When it became apparent to me that there was no further mobility, I decided to switch career paths to something that would be fulfilling, but also more family-friendly.  Working now with students and parents allows me to continue ‘mothering’ my advisees and provide support to parents who are struggling to help their children become independent.  It has been the right move for me, but there have been financial consequences.  There is more to life than money; so I am satisfied with my choices. “
(A) Another mom who supervises (associate director capacity) had a different take on the question. “I thought my skills and talents would lead to greater upward mobility, but it is still a man's world.  I finally reconciled with the idea that I would still be making the same salary as a counselor and did not need the grief of being a director, although I have been a consultant to the director these last eight years.”

(F) Women who have delayed marriage and childbearing have had the opportunity to grow attached to the world of work, making it difficult for some of them to give up their employment to have children.  Mason & Ekman (2007) in their book, Mothers on the Fast Track, discuss the pivotal years for the “make or break” years in ones career. “It is between ages thirty and forty that women change career direction. This is the decade, which I call the ‘‘make-or-break’’ years, when women are mostly likely to drop into the second tier. The demands of a first job in the fast track male-dominated professions are daunting. This is the time when sixty- to eighty-hour work weeks are not uncommon and when extreme flexibility, including moving or constant travel, is often a job requirement” (Mason & Ekman, 2007, p. 4).  According to Mason & Ekman (2007) most women who choose to have a career and family are forced to modify the pace in which they are able to move up the professional ladder. “Women adopt various strategies to successfully combine family and employment obligations. One is to postpone childbearing and to have smaller families. Another adaptation is women’s choices of part-time or gender-segregated jobs that are supposedly easy to enter, leave and reenter “(Spain & Bianchi, 1996, p. 191).

The Keys for Working Moms

  • Raising children only comes once in a lifetime. 
  • Be proactive and creative. Many supervisors are open to considering creative solutions when they are presented, but will not be so conscious as to offer them unasked.
  • Absolve yourself of “mommy guilt.”  You are doing the best that you can.  
  • A desire for a career does not make you a bad mother, nor does a desire for work/life balance make you a bad employee.
  • If you have a partner, ask them for their help and unconditional support.
  • Find a community of mothers who also work outside the home.  So much mom support is based on the stay-at-home crowd, and while some of our issues are the same, some are very different.  
  • Even if support and a listening ear is all this community can offer, it can be helpful to know that other women are experiencing the very same issues that you are.

Helpful Publications

  • Ellison, S. (2001). The Courage to Be a Single Mother: Becoming Whole Again After Divorce. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Gentile, M. C. (1996). Managerial Excellence Through Diversity: Text & Cases. Illinois: Waverly Press.
  • Kunhardt, J., Spiegel, L. & Kunhardt, S. (2004). Intimate Dialogue on Becoming a Mother. New York: The Soho Parenting Center.
  • Orenstein, P. (2000) Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids & Life in a Half-Changed World. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Sachs, W. (2005) How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-At-Work Moms. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Warren, E. and Tyagi, A. (2003) The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents Are Going Broke. New York: Basic Books.
If you were going to pay homemakers a salary, a mother’s job is too often still overlooked and underestimated. “A mother’s worth was calculated and established at $508,700 per year in wages alone, not counting retirement, health, and other benefits” (Crittenden, 2001, p. 8).
There is hope, however. Moms can find a balance between work and motherhood. Kiss guilt goodbye, and, instead, think of ways to make work, work for you. Ask your supervisor about the possibility of telecommuting, working a compressed workweek, or job sharing.  Make your workdays more pleasant. Personalize your office space with photos. Spend a few moments each day to take a virtual vacation.  Take the annoying things off your to-do list first, before going to lunch. Exercise. Or, wear something that makes you feel and look good. There is nothing like transitioning from maternity clothes back to your regular clothes, or buying a new “power suit” to add to your wardrobe.

As a working mom, engaging in such a project that entailed a sizeable amount of research, reflection and composition was, indeed, a lofty pursuit. But it is in the living of these moments of tremendous accomplishment that self-confidence and self-worth are gained and coveted.
1993 Handbook on Women Workers: Trends & Issues (1994). Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of Labor, Women 's Bureau.
Charo, E. & Rones, P. (2007). Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. Departement of Labor: United States of America, Report 1002, 1.

Crittenden, A. (2001). The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. New York: Henry Holt.

Mason, M. & Ekman, E. (2007). Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spain, D. & Bianchi, S. (1996). Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage, and Employment. Russell Sage Foundation: New York.

Utgoff, K. (2005, May). Labor Market Data. Speech presented before Joint Economic Committee for United States Congress: Washington, D.C.

Wolf, N. (2001). Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood. New York: Doubleday.
First published in the SACRAO Journal, volume 23, pp. 5-10.

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