Tag Archives: mommy wars

Mother and Child Reading

A Toe in the Mommy Wars

“this is not just a mother’s issue”

As a work life flexibility advocate and pundit and I have the occasional opportunity to attend forums where employers, academics and organizations gather to advance innovative work place solutions. Without exception, the mantra of “this is just not a mother’s issue.” is proclaimed.

Seems so obvious – of course work place flexibility is not solely for mothers. Work place flexibility needs arise for fathers. They arise for non-parents. They arise for children as their own parents age and deteriorate. They arise for those pursuing further education, volunteer opportunities or personal growth and development. But the movement’s history and success owes it’s DNA to mothers who want to nurture and provide for their families. Last month, Working Mother Magazine held their annual 100 Best Companies Work Life Congress in new York. It is always refreshing to attend these events, because the conversation is unabashedly mother-centric and no one has to pretend otherwise.

One of the things I’ve noticed at most work life reform gatherings is the one topic that is rarely discussed. We talk about about part-time work, flex time, compressed work weeks, telecommuting, parental leave and breastfeeding. We talk about business cases, strategic imperatives and global cultures.

What we hate talking about is opting out (such a clinical term for this most important of times). In other words, mothers leaving the workforce for a period to be at home with their children. I figured at a Working Mother Magazine gathering, it would be a safe ask.

Elephants in the room

Some women stay home with their children for a season. It is often a long season; a hard season and one with its own deeply gorgeous rewards.  A portion of mothers want and need and desire and choose to stay home with their children and mother in a traditional way. And yet, the “punishment” meted out for this choice is substantial. It is notoriously difficult to get back on track and penalties in terms of seniority and salary seem vastly greater than the actual time out.

I asked magazine Founder Carol Evans, and Ernst & Young’s Inclusiveness Officer, Billie Williamson, what companies are doing to address this disproportionate penalty to mothers seeking to re-enter the workplace . What shocked me was not the answers these two experienced women offered; including minimizing or avoiding all together opting out of the workplace, and the real pain of receiving resumes from returning mothers and turning them down for complex reasons.

Rather, it was the round of applause from the packed ballroom of several hundred professional women, as I voiced one of the greatest challenges mothers face. I was right. It was the perfect venue in which to ask my question. Each one of us hits this same wall. For those who do mother at home, it can feel like an insurmountable wall is blocking the path back.

Telling mothers “don’t opt out” isn’t a viable solution

We need mothers in our Board rooms and in our legislatures. We need mothers in our homes and communities, nurturing and teaching children in partnership with fathers. We need to allow mothers the opportunity to step in and out of these pivotal roles as it makes sense for them and their families. How to navigate this impasse?

The linear, hierarchical career that commentators keep telling us is dead, needs to actually die. Organizations and mothers bear equal responsibility to make these shifts a reality. This post is the first of three tackling this topic.

  • Part two of this post will talk about what mothers can to do to stay gently connected whilst mothering full time.
  • Part three of this post will address what companies can do better to close the gap.

Meanwhile, have a look at the survey data collected by Working Mother on what mothers want and choose. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. In other words, treat us like adults, and we’ll behave as such. And if we cannot find that flexibility in corporate structures, we will keep on opting out and rarely heading back in, because we are busily creating it on our own terms in our own way. To work the way we need to work. And to mother the way we need to mother.

Comment below if you have ever faced the opt out impasse. What worked or didn’t work for you?

Postscripts

On related issues, these fabulous posts from two of my favorite work life writers caught my eye last week:

Morra Aarons-Mele: What Women Are Teaching Men About Work-Life Balance
Katherine Lewis: How flexible work actually works

I will also be blogging in a future post about a couple of key sessions from the Work Life Congress that I can’t stop thinking about. Researcher Peter Linkow led a fascinating conversation on what work life policy means to those in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. His colleague Debbie Phillips and Cindy Martinangelo from Merck took it further with a fabulous workshop on work life strategies for global organizations. I am intrigued by the relevance (or irrelevance) of Western thoughts on work life balance to other extraordinarily different cultural approaches.

Disclaimer: Labels that divide women frustrate me. I use the terms "working mother" (what mother does not work?) and "full-time mother" (what mother ceases to be so, simply because her children are not present?) for ease of reference and clarity. The terms are what they are.
Disclosure: I attended Working Mother Media's Worklife Congress 2011 as a press attendee. The opinions expressed here are mine alone and no compensation has been provided for my coverage of the conference.
Image Credit: iStockphoto.com

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Work-life Extravaganza!

Wow.  Quite the week for work-life balance discussion.  And quite the week for women’s issues.  It seemed the debate lifted a notch with some serious new data telling the story of the health of the American workforce from Ellen Galinsky at the Families and Work Institute and more data coming out of Harvard via the Wall Street Journal to demonstrate that working less can really help you do more – true productivity.  On the downside, still more data via leadership guru Marcus Buckingham at the Huffington Post told us women were getting sadder perhaps because of too many choices?  Then the New York Times really stuck it to us with Maureen Dowd’s compounding piece.  Oh and there was last weekend’s article on SAHM having to go back to work after years out because husbands are losing their jobs – and most of them are having a very tough time of it.

The “are you a feminist if you opt out of the work force to raise your kids?” argument reared it’s head again and then Eli Lily was spotlighted as a top 100 best companies for working mothers whilst in the same breath canceling one of their prime flex benefits.  And it would seem drilling down that some of the companies listed offer policies without cultural support which means no one really uses the flex arrangements (although I remain thrilled that there are at least 100 big companies trying).  I’ve worked for one of them (Ernst & Young but a long time ago) – they are trying. However the list needs to come with a warning label – a company can have all the policies “on the books” it wants. But if top down messaging, by word and action doesn’t reinforce, then on the line employees don’t get real access.

In the meantime I’ve been stretching my own work-life balance pretty thin with sick children and a couple of great business opportunities that have me mothering and working at all hours – demanding, all coming at once of course, but super exciting for me (and I wouldn’t really have it any other way).  Which is why this post is a few days later than I intended.  Got to take care of business!

There is some great analysis out there on each of these developments – read these fabulous commentators I’ve been getting connected with in the past few weeks.   Leanne Chase of Career Life Connection, Cali Yost at Fast Company, Morra Aarons-Mele at the Huffington Post and Families and Work Institute and Lauren Young at Business Week.  If you have time follow the comment threads on any of the links I’ve provided – there are a whole lot of people with things to say on all of these stories.  I won’t replicate here except to say that I find the conversation compelling, exciting and disheartening all at the same time. 

One blog that I typically enjoy shocked me with “as important as childcare and homemaking roles might be, they are not likely to dramatically improve the collective.” You’re kidding, right? If raising grounded, secure, nurtured children isn’t dramatically improving the collective, I have no idea what is.

I struggled with the furor around the NYT piece on women re-entering the workforce because of the narrow stereotype of these women trying to on-ramp, as pampered and privileged (indeed, some of them may have been). In all the discussions of how women who stay home are failing society, it is rare that the financial scrimping, cost-cutting and even debt that goes with a one-income situation is ever discussed. The “stuff” is sacrificed precisely so the family AND by definition the collective can benefit overall.

Having said that, I do feel it’s imperative that professional mothers (a term I came across yesterday on a Dare to Dream blog on one woman’s decision to stay home in her fabulous essay on the “Economics of Motherhood”) keep their skills in play and their finances progressing, with social media and face to face networking, part-time work, a small business, further study, consulting or whatever that looks like.

On a related note, I fundamentally have to disagree with the premise that feminism is not about having choices. Being constantly reminded that I am not a feminist because I am wasting all that incredible education and 18 yrs of corporate life is getting a tad dull. The fact that my children and therefore generations will benefit from the full impact of those experiences (assuming I am proficient, but that’s a whole other post) would appear to have no value because it cannot be easily monetized.

There are huge battles to be fought; agreed. But until the debate can embrace, acknowledge and value professional mothers, we cannot proceed beyond the ridiculous “mommy wars”.

Finally, I invite all of you, of all genders, all marital and child status to take ownership of whatever flexible work practices exist (or don’t) in your organization and fight to have them apply to everyone.  Non-parents, we don’t want special treatment, we don’t want to single you out as the one without kids who can do the longer hours, the endless business trips.  What we do want is for your to join us in getting your voice heard about what work-life balance means to you and have your flex needs met too.

It’s not just parents who have other demands in their lives. I challenge and invite you to join in this debate as a player instead of feeling negative towards your parent co-workers.  I for one would welcome the contribution. This is universal people. I repeat, this is not just a Mommy issue.

Let’s talk.