WorkLife Matters

Life and work and parenting.

"Having It All" On Their Own Terms

Mothers find a solution to work-family conflict.

Since 2012 when The Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s reflection on “Why women still can’t have it all,” a spate of books have appeared. Some describe the problem: mothers are Overwhelmed and Maxed Out. Others present solutions, on everything from Getting to 50/50 to What Works for Women at Work, and how to Lean In to a career.

Yet, as Ann Crittenden notes in The New York Times, even after decades of these books, the pressures on mothers have worsened, despite sensible tips offered in them. The problem, says Crittenden, is the “fallacy that a systemic problem can be addressed if we, as individuals, just try harder to fix ourselves.”

As an author of one of “these books” and a scholar of them all, I was captivated by the authentic voices of mothers echoing this perspective, and yearning for change, in one of the genre’s latest entrants, Mogul, Mom, & Maid by Liz O’Donnell. O’Donnell and her subjects unflinchingly state unpopular truths about what it’s like to pursue a career and maintain a marriage, family, and healthy self-concept. They are Main Street, not c-suite, executives and they don’t get to outsource most of their child care and household duties, or delegate freely to angelic husbands. Instead, they tackle their multiple jobs mostly by sacrificing rest.

“I suck as an employee, suck as a mom, suck as a wife,” says one, for the well-worn reason that not enough hours exist in a day for all three roles. She exhibits what psychologists call “role conflict” from the barrage of competing messages pounding her brain. She knows rationally she will miss things in her children’s lives, such as some school events, but it still hurts. “Why can’t you come in, Mommy?” to be the secret reader in class, the child asks, tugging on her mom’s heartstrings. “When I told my son I couldn’t attend his [art] show, I could tell he was trying to be mature, saying to me, ‘that’s okay.’ But it wasn’t okay.” And unfortunately it’s also not okay to miss out on the “forced fun” at work—those after-hours events for team building. One woman described how they added an additional obligation and more nights away from her family. “I’d get dinged on performance reviews for not going to team birthday parties,” she said. “I had an infant at home.” 

Dinged by your kids, dinged by your boss. Little wonder articles are now popping up asking men to demand parental benefits, such as paid paternity leave, to help fathers assume more of the parenting burden. But, here again, the mothers in Mogul, Mom, & Maid serve up their realistic take: “Looking back I can see that the forces my husband was fighting were very powerful. At his Christmas Party there was a guy with a baby in a Baby Bjorn. Everyone was like, ‘That’s so sweet.’ That guy was gone a few months later.” And though baby-Bjorn-wearing dads are applauded for their effort, Mogul’s moms wondered if parenting could ever be truly equal:

I remember fielding similar questions [such as “What are you going to do?”] when I was pregnant. Up until that point, I enjoyed what I felt was a fairly progressive partnership with my husband. I was the primary breadwinner. I kept my name. I felt like “I am woman, hear me roar.” But when I got pregnant, I was the one who felt like I needed a nap at my desk. I was the one who had to miss hours of work to go to the doctor’s appointments. I was the one whose stomach entered the conference room seconds before the rest of my body did. And colleagues and clients commented I was cute, or huge, or, worse, they touched my stomach. My husband was about to become a parent too, but his work identity hadn’t shifted, while mine had morphed from smart, hard-working employee to woman-about-to-take-leave. I hated the whole experience....

If you think mothers might throw in the towel—and who can blame them?—you’d be partially correct, for some did. But many others spoke passionately about needing solutions, because “opting out is not an option” for reasons spanning personal identity and mental health, to paying the rent and financial security. In addition, a desire to go beyond their individual circumstances, to forge paths that might help other mothers cope with work-family pressures, pushed many onward. One path: entrepreneurship.

“I think a lot of women run their own businesses to call the shots,” said one entrepreneur. But she also wanted to “change the dynamic for other women” when she started her firm: “As female managers, we have to give women some latitude out of sheer compassion. After my son was in high school and more independent, I tried to make it easier on the women we employed. I’d say to them, ‘I mean it, really. What can I do to help you?’ You have to persuade that employee that you want to help.”

Entrepreneurship attracted the mothers also because feelings of dissatisfaction with corporate culture ran deep. “Middle corporate America absolutely destroys. It’s full of Willy Lomans of the world,” said one, while another blamed the exit of mothers on “cowboy cultures.” Still another captured what many struggled to articulate: “Gosh, my time is really precious. Why would I want to build something in an environment that isn’t tied to my own optimal growth and development? For anyone to work effectively, they have to be in an environment where they can be themselves.” “Being themselves” means deploying their talents in a business without circumventing their identity as parents.  

I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, there’s Bess [leaving early].’ I need it to be part of the culture. … I wanted the flexible feeling, not just the flexible benefits, but the feeling, which is entirely different. Now, if you’re remote or working from home, it’s entirely normal for people to call in from home. You’re not the weird one.

To be sure, while entrepreneurship can offer needed flexibility, income, and potentially meaningful work, it’s no panacea. Women have less access to capital to start and grow companies, even though they are founding businesses at twice the rate of men, and more than 30 percent of privately held businesses in the U.S. are run by women.  Only 13 percent of venture capital deals in the first half of 2013 went to women-led businesses. And according to a recent study, investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs over those made by females, even when the content of the pitch is the same. Further, a new study finds women less likely to become the boss if they co-found a business with their husbands. Still, the moms in Mogul, Mom, & Maid are bullish on entrepreneurship as a way to integrate their professional ambitions and personal lives—and they are in the right place to try: the U.S. ranks number 1 of 17 countries in the 2013 Gender-Global Entrepreneurship Development Index (GEDI) for fostering female entrepreneurship.

The embrace of entrepreneurship allows mothers (and others) to proactively build family-friendly companies with organizational cultures that reflect their values and accommodate their needs. This relieves overwhelming work-family pressures at a systemic level, rather than asking individuals to go-it-alone. In my view, it also adds a much-needed third leg to the work-life conversation. One leg consists of policies: public and business policies like paid parental leave and paid sick days that establish a minimum amount of time off for care-giving (of others or yourself), below which we, as a decent society, will not fall. Business policies also can include job sharing, childcare assistance, babies-at-work programs, and results-only performance assessments—to name a few. A second leg of the work-life stool is to “make the corporate world a bit more like your corner Rite Aid,” as Jordan Weissmann explains. Where occupants of a job type are mostly interchangeable (for example, pharmacists), allow people to work flexible schedules to accommodate family responsibilities, without dinging their pay. The sturdy third leg, entrepreneurship, adds what Americans do well: build something from scratch, especially organizations and businesses to match our spirit, values, and needs. Three legs, one stool:  all moguls, moms, and maids may now sit down for a well-earned rest.

Nanette Fondas. D.B.A., M.Phil, is co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where, and How to Work and Boost Your Bottom Line. more...

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