COMMUNITY VOICE:<br/>America's Family Values?

America's Family Values?

The Challenges of Being a Working Mother


First published in Glamour magazine in 2002, this essay explores the difficult challenges working women face as they attempt to balance their work and family obligations. In this day and age, women are expected to--and frequently forced to--have full-time careers, while, at the same time, they are expected to do most of the childrearing and housekeeping. Karenna Gore Schiff asks, "Where are America's family values?" and argues that American society and government are punishing working mothers.

Confession: this article was due a long time ago. But while I was writing it, a legal case I was working on blew up, the babysitter went on vacation, and both of my kids came down with stomach flu.

This cacophony of conflicting demands put me in good company with the army of bleary-eyed working mothers who lurch between briefings and diapers, conference calls and games of peek-a-boo, the watercooler and the bottle warmer.

It's a big army, some twenty-five million strong, each of us struggling in our own unique way to bring a little order to the chaos. It's a fantastic feat that many American mothers accomplish every day. But instead of support and solutions, we get finger wagging, finger-pointing, and sometimes, it seems, just the finger.

The dissing of American working moms starts at birth: ours is one of only two major industrialized nations without paid maternity leave (Australia is the other). In England, you get eighteen weeks of it; in Hungary, twenty-four. Compare this to our government's guarantee of a measly twelve weeks of unpaid leave if you work for a company of fifty or more people, and you get the picture. Worse still is the lack of national investment in affordable day care, resulting in heart-wrenching conflicts for those who can't afford to lose their jobs or to pay for the care their kids need.

Why, in a nation like ours, is it so hair-raising for a woman to combine children and career? The reality is that more than 70 percent of American women with school-age children work outside the home. For women like me, and I know how lucky I am, it's a choice that's made easier by a supportive spouse, solid child care, and a flexible workplace. I work because I love the law, I love my independence, and, perhaps most important, I have a boss who lets me work part-time. But many women don't have that option: they work under difficult circumstances in order to survive, and they do it without society's help.

Watching my son put Elmo down for a nap may in fact be worth not making law partner. It's a trade-off I can live with. (My law firm has been extraordinarily kind to me, but the reality is that private-practice lawyers are evaluated at least in part by the hours they log. An ambitious associate is rarely home on the weekend, much less by dinnertime on weekdays. I work three days a week and am home by 7 p.m.) But almost every working mother I know feels pulled in a direction other than the one she's chosen. When I'm with my kids, I need to keep myself from checking email constantly (anyone who has cleaned baby spit-up out of a keyboard knows whereof I speak). When I finally show up at the office on four hours of sleep, breast pump in tow and hopefully without too many wet Cheerios stuck to my back, I sometimes need to take a few deep breaths and remind myself that I'm a lawyer, not a Teletubby.

But even when a working mom manages to enjoy a moment of satisfaction and equilibrium, there will always be a member of the Women's Identity Patrol ready to weigh in. Cousins, neighbors, random people in the elevator--everybody has an opinion. "Kids need their mom at home at that age!" countless people have scolded me. And then, looking at me like I'm the shoe bomber, "How can you leave those little faces in the morning?"

Even my stay-at-home-mom friends aren't immune to criticism. People talk down to them, ask if they have any ambition and simply don't recognize the amount of skill it takes to raise children.

Instead of giving women grief for the choices they make, let's try creating a better menu of choices: full-time, part-time, flextime, time off, for all parents. Why do we hold our government accountable for providing safe streets, good libraries, and efficient transportation, yet not decent before-school and after-school programs? Why is it so difficult for parents to take time off or to work part-time? Why do we pay child-care workers (who earn about $16,350 annually) less than pet sitters ($17,600)?

Rather than questioning the choices of women who are working hard to raise kids and pay bills, let's start questioning the choices of our lawmakers. Don't the people raising the next generation of Americans deserve resources comparable to those being allocated to the people developing the next generation of weapons? Yet the administration cut the funds for the Child Care and Development Block Grants, the main source of help for those who cannot afford quality child care. We should also consider expanding the approach of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 to cover smaller businesses, provide more time off, and perhaps offer some paid maternity leave. Why not explore incentives to encourage employers to provide flextime and onsite day care?

As I accidentally pulled a pacifier out of my purse during a meeting the other day, I was struck again by how difficult it can be to check our home lives at the office door. I am privileged not to have to, but millions of working moms fight daily battles for time, money, and peace of mind.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, there has been a lot of talk about our nation coming together to lend a hand to those in need. Let's do that on behalf of all the parents who are trying to raise kids and not tear their hair out in the process. It doesn't matter if you're Marge Simpson, Wonder Woman, or a confirmed bachelorette; we can all raise a juice box, a briefcase, or a martini glass to that kind of change!


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Comments (4)

Lynn Smith
United States

My first reaction while reading this piece was, "tell me something I don't know." The further along I got, the more informative it became. I could never really understand the author's standpoint, for she kept saying how lucky she was and how fortunate she was to have such an easy management of work and home. After a while, I realized she was speaking out against injustices her friends went through, other people she knew and saw, as well as giving everyone a lens to every mother's life. Schiff writes, "I am privileged not to have to, but millions of working moms fight daily battles for time, money, and peace of mind." It's almost as if she puts herself on a different plane than the other mothers, as if she doesn't have this constant battle or any participation in the "war."
Schiff really hits hard with the statistics of it costing more to pet sit than it does to keep your child in a day care. She keeps hitting the reader with more and more evidence of the negatives of children's educational or after and before school programs cut back. She spoke of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and how she wants it to be tinkered with so it can help women, especially working mothers. I think the article gave more incentive for people to do an action or see into lives of every type of mother. Her ending wraps up what she has wanted all along, to make a change and help out those in need; the mothers that bear and raise the future generation.

Karenna Gore Schiff’s article spoke to me as through my work, I have encountered both working mothers and stay at home mothers alike, who deal with these very issues on a daily basis. As a nanny, I am often hired by mothers who are struggling to balance their work as well as their children. It is very easy to see that the typical child’s school day does not coincide with the typical full-time work day; in such cases a mother is left in a bind if she, like the majority of women, isn’t provided with a flexible schedule. Because of this bind working mothers are put in, extra help is not only desired but absolutely necessary. These days, mothers are often left with no choice but to hire someone to wake their children up in the morning and drive them to school (which I’ve done), or hire someone to pick their children up from school (which I’ve also done), all because they are not offered the flexibility to come in a few hours later or leave a few hours earlier. Stay at home mothers face equal troubles, as Schiff acknowledges. People automatically think they live a life of luxury or one with no ambition. Being a stay at mother is no easy task, and many stay at home mothers once were participants in the American workforce. A woman whom I currently work for is a stay at home mother but was forced to leave her job upon birth because of the rather shaky maternity leave available, unpaid that is.

In America today, the options for working mothers are very limited. One is either forced to spend outrageous amounts of money on childcare, stay at home or struggle to make work and family life fit as one. The government’s lack of concern for working mothers is terrifying. “The dissing of American working moms” truly does start at birth. How can America still not have any form of paid maternity leave? In a society that places work and family so highly, I question how the two have ended up as such oxymorons. Women should not have to choose between having a successful career and raising a healthy family. It is time, as Schiff says, for all women to “raise a juice box, a briefcase, or a martini glass to that kind of change”. As one strong unit, mothers are a force to be reckoned with!

United States

The endless battle between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers is one that, I personally feel, won’t end until society begins to change the way they view women’s roles. Majority of today’s people ardently believe that women should be the primary caretakers of their children and home- and if they can, still have a successful career. But the reality is that there is no balance; not just as a mother and a working-woman, but between them, their partners, and work. Why should the sole responsibility of motherhood and homemaker rely with women? Shouldn’t the work, time, and commitment be split evenly between partners? I strongly feel that if a woman- or man-wanted to work and/or focus on their family has the right to do so without being judged or criticized. That being said, supportive tools could be provided: a flexible work place, benefits, and child care to name a few. All of these tools will be helpful in finding a balance between a career and a family for a father or a mother.
I include fathers in this because we live in a society where men are not encouraged to be nurturing, to care for their family, to contribute at the home besides money. Men have to recognize that it took two people to make a baby, and that more than one person lives at the home, thus, 100% of the work and responsibility (stress and pressure) cannot be held accountable to a single person. We all have to stop living the “American Dream” ideal and start acknowledging that balance is key to everything. People can have their successful dream job, a great home, car, income, and at the same time, have a family, take care of them, and spend time with them. Excelling in both worlds, without asking people to devote 110% in each- because something has to give in the end- is what people should strive to attain. In the end, everyone is better off.

As a recent college graduate making decisions about my career, this is a very interesting topic to me. I know that in the future, it will be important to me to be able to devote time to both my career and a family. But given the current conditions in which I live, I honestly have no idea how I will do that.

I look around at the models that older generations of women provide, and there seem to be three main options: put work first, put family first, put work first and then put family first. None of these are ideal, because they all mean making major sacrifices - sacrifices that men just do not tend to be called upon to make. Those that try to be superwomen, "balancing" both work and family at once, are so stressed that it's difficult to aim for such a lifestyle.

I can see why Karenna Gore Schiff calls for a broader range of work options and social services. I am also inclined to agree with Nitz's statement that these issues will not be fully resolved until there is a deeper systemic change in how society is organized. I think men should share the responsibility of child-rearing, but not simply because "it takes two to make a baby." It is important to consider the radical, perhaps idealistic, idea that a child is the responsibility of society as a whole, and not just the two people who share its genes. Raising children is both wonderful and difficult, and we all need to share the pleasures and problems associated with it.

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