Can Women Have It All — The Career and The Family?

woman and child with laptopLife is becoming more and more expensive and an increasing number of households are opting for a two-income model, with mothers starting a full-time job not just for professional fulfillment but to pay the bills. According to figures from the US Census Bureau for 2011, the number of households with both parents working represented 57.5% of the overall population (Catalyst, 2012), and the next year the figure climbed to 59% (BLS, 2013). With the end of the global crisis and the reviving economy, it would be safe to assume that there will be even more job opportunities for women as a whole, and for mothers in particular. Yet, is it possible to take advantage of them and not let work affect family? In short, is it possible to have both a career and a happy family life?

However one looks at it, sacrifices would need to be made in order to balance these two major aspects of life. Let’s start by looking at the reasons that make mothers choose to become part of the workforce. The most obvious is, of course, the second paycheck that comes into the house, but outside the purely material motivation, there are a number of other factors that determine a mother’s decision to start — or go back to — working. Some of these are listed in an article by journalist Katherine Lewis. One is the fact that a job gives us another social role, outside that of a mother. Motherhood is a 24/7 occupation and the work never stops. What’s more, most of this work is repetitive and not really inspiring (think washing up, making meals, cleaning, washing clothes, dressing and undressing the kids if they’re very young, etc.). Although the workplace can also burden one with repetitive action, there will invariably be something to do that has a clear start and end, and something that makes a woman use her creativity productively. Of course, this does not mean that mothers who have devoted their time to raising their kids are not creative, by no means, but a woman with a profession will be happy to engage the skills and knowledge she acquired when learning that profession.

For many working mothers having a career is part of their identity, says Becky Sweat in an article for The Good News magazine. Many of us need to be able to grow professionally, to be able to employ our problem-solving talents, our creativity and also learn new skills outside our home. A job is a source of personal satisfaction for many women, regardless of the stress related to it, especially in the ideal case when the work schedule is such that a mom can have the best of both worlds. Many college graduates are in fact choosing their career field with this work-family balance in mind, according to an article by Margaret Steen, which looks at the career choices of MBAs from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Those for whom having a family is a priority tend to choose a career, which, although it may not be her first choice, will both provide her with personal gratification and leave her time for her family.

Another reason for mothers to start work that Katherine Lewis lists is the opportunity for interaction with adults, something that any mother needs in order to get away, for a time, from the world of kids and all things childcare. We all love our children but we equally need some time to talk about things unrelated to them, be it current issues, arts, sports or even problems at work, and a job gives us a great chance to do that. Besides, much as we all love our families, every woman needs some time alone, says Lewis, and a job can give her that time, even if it’s a lunch break or 15 minutes for a cup of coffee.  Kids are the best thing, but they can be overwhelming, nevertheless, and we need some rest now and then. A mother’s career is actually beneficial for the children — parents are their first role models and in all likeliness, they will first follow the example set by their parent when they grow up, before finding other role models. Even better, a working mother helps her kids learn to be independent as they get used to spending some time away from their parents, developing their social skills in an environment outside the protective embrace of the home, according to Lewis.

To be fair, there are differences of opinion on that last issue. According to developmental psychologist and author of “Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-At-Home Parent” Dr. Isabelle Fox, a number of studies have shown that it is essential for children to have enough “bonding time” with their mothers between birth and the start of school. Missing out on things like the first step or the first word your child utters, as well as the general feeling that you are not spending enough time with your kid, is undoubtedly emotionally taxing and is the reason for many women to put their career on hold while the kids start school, says Sweat, drawing on interviews with working mothers who have made this choice.

The accumulation of stress, lack of down time and sleep should not be underestimated for mothers with an active career. Stress is a major contributing factor for a series of health-related issues, because it affects the immune system, as demonstrated in scores of studies on the subject (American Psychological Association, 2006). And it is not just work-related stress that is the culprit. Sleep deprivation is a major stressor in its own right, leading to anxiety, irritability, loss of motivation, attention deficit and, in terms of health, has been found to be conducive to increased risk of conditions such as hypertension, heart attack and diabetes (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2008). Many working mothers find it hard to get all the sleep and down time they need as they juggle with a job, a house and kids that, whatever their age, need to be taken to and from daycare or school, fed, washed and helped with the homework, and that’s not mentioning the “together time” outside all these necessities. Of course, stress does not affect everyone equally and some may cope with it better than others, but it is important to keep it in check. Trying to be a superwoman is a doomed task; rather we should try to strike a balance that, although imperfect, will help us maintain a reasonable level of happiness and self-satisfaction.

Can dads help? According to 2011 figures from the BLS, 93.5% of fathers with children below the age of 18 were in the workforce, compared with 70.6% of mothers (Catalyst, 2012). Moreover, dads are generally working longer hours than moms, so it is a question of individual family arrangements as to what extent the father takes part in the daily chores, Sweat says. It depends on how much he is willing to take on and what time he has to spare for household activities. One thing, however, is unquestionable: a full-time job will require compromises within the family, such as missing a concert of one of the children because you have to work late. The opposite, however, is also true: having a family means that compromises will have to be made with the job, for instance, passing on a promotion opportunity. It is once again a question of personal choice what kind of compromises a mother is willing to make and in which respect.

Whatever the choice, mothers should be prepared to feel some sort of resentment. According to the 2011 “What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report”, compiled by the Working Mother Research Institute and Ernst & Young, 51% of working mothers feel guilt about not spending enough time with their children, but at the same time 55% of mothers who stay at home are worried that they do not contribute to the family income and are also nagged by the feeling that they are not putting to use their education. Bringing money in is not the only concern of mothers, either. An earlier report by the Working Mother Research Institute revealed that women want their jobs to be meaningful, as well (“What Moms Think: Career vs Paycheck”). Career-oriented mothers wanted to develop their skills and accomplish professional goals and being career-oriented warranted greater satisfaction with life as a whole. So, is there a win-win situation? According to the 2011 report, there is, in the form of flexible work hours. Career-oriented mothers of pre-schoolers were found to need more time with their kids compared to mothers of children of school age. The most desirable option seemed to be a part-time job while the kids are young, and a full-time occupation when they start going to school. Part-time is what Sweat also identifies as the best option for many mothers who are unwilling to leave the workforce entirely, and she cites a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center which has found that for 60% of working mothers a part-time job is the best scenario. Freelancing is another option that provides flexible hours and the opportunity to work from home. Of course, it comes at the expense of having health benefits and paid leave, among other things, so, once again, it is a question of choice.

The business world has come to realize the benefits of gender diversity and many companies are already offering flexible work hours and family benefits for their employees in an effort to retain valuable talent. The “2013 Working Mother 100 Best Companies” list includes enterprises from all industry sectors that provide options such as choosing your own hours of work every day or even choosing the days to work. Many of them organize family-related events or vacation-time workshops about family issues and also offer their working mother employees (and not just) additional unpaid time off. So, it looks like there is a range of options for a working mother to choose from that would allow her to find the balance between a career and a family life. No scenario is perfect, as we already noted, but being able to choose from several alternatives is nevertheless invaluable. The ability to grow professionally and at the same time be there for your children whenever they need you is what any career-oriented mother wishes for. It would require sacrifices but in many cases these seem like they could be acceptable. All depends on personal priorities and, of course, the availability of suitable jobs. These are likely to increase as the economy heals and if they don’t, a career change is also an option for a driven, motivated mother who, even though her children are and always will be her number one priority, has something to give to others, as well and a need to feel professionally fulfilled.

 

Sources:

1. Sweat, Becky. “Career, Home and Family: Can Women Really Do It All?”. The Good News Magazine, July – August 2008. http://www.ucg.org/marriage-and-family/career-home-and-family-can-women-really-do-it-all/

2. Steen, Margaret. “Balancing Career and Family Commitments”. Stanford Graduate School of Business http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/bmag/sbsm0911/feature-strober.html

3. “Employment Characteristics of Families Summary”. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2013. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.nr0.htm

4. Lewis, Katherine. “6 Reasons Working Moms Say Thanks”. About.com http://workingmoms.about.com/od/todaysworkingmoms/a/workingmothers.htm

5. “What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report”. 2011 http://www.wmmsurveys.com/WhatMomsChoose.pdf

6. Working Mother. “2013 Working Mother 100 Best Companies”. http://www.workingmother.com/node/146788/list

7. “Stress Weakens the Immune System”. American Psychological Association. February 2006. http://www.apa.org/research/action/immune.aspx

8. “Sleep Deprivation”. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2008. http://www.aasmnet.org/resources/factsheets/sleepdeprivation.pdf

9. “Working Parents”. Catalyst. May 2012. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/working-parents