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!