While there hasn’t been a shortage of articles over the past few years about the challenges of juggling children and work, I feel like we still have yet to get stuck in to a down-to-earth, nitty-gritty conversation on the topic. Too often the discussion seems to get sidetracked by a borderline fetishistic interest in that exceptional breed of ‘superwomen’ with their stellar careers and bands of nannies, forever pictured perching on desks, all gym-toned arms, flawless foundation and perfectly compliant hair. But it’s not just the hair that makes those women irrelevant from my perspective and the perspective of most mothers I know. We also struggle to relate to their choices. They have an irritating tendency to tell us we can do it too! They generally don’t stop to question whether we want to.
Now, I’m never going to judge anyone for their decisions about work and family, nor do I desire a world in which we all see things the same. But the simple fact is – isn’t it? – that most mothers would prefer to spend somewhat more time with their children than the superwomen do. I’m not just talking about those who are content and able to be full-time stay-at-home moms, and I’m certainly not proposing that we all become helicopter parents, hovering over our kids all day. On the contrary, many of us actively want to take on paid work, for financial, intellectual, civic, social and sanity reasons; some of us have career ambitions too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend almost all our time working. Many of us value being regularly present for some of our children’s daily routine (dinner, pick-ups, bedtimes, etc.), and also want more than just a few minutes grabbed here and there to hang out with and talk to our kids, to get to know them and their weird kid brains. Then there’s the small matter of the work required to run a family: the cleaning, the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, the scheduling, the problem-solving, the emotional counseling… the list goes on and on and on. The superwomen can of course pay to outsource a lot of that stuff, but for many of us no amount of hard work or determination will make that a realistic option – and, even if it did, we might not want to do it that way.
Discussions on this topic, at least in the US, tend to be dominated by an all-work-or-all-kids rhetoric, but what many of us really want is a mixture, a combination that involves engaging in paid work somewhere between 20 and 80 per cent of the time. It doesn’t mean we’ve lost interest in our work or careers, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect any particular ideology of parenting; it’s just a rather pragmatic matter of the optimal way to divide up our days during the period of our lives when we have children with us at home. (I’m being deliberately vague about this. I used to think it was the pre-school years; now my son is six, I think it extends at least to the end of elementary school. After that, I expect I’ll decide that it’s definitely during adolescence when he’ll need me most).
Does this preference make us less super than the superwomen, or less committed to our families than the stay-at-home moms? Aren’t we all compromising, just in different ways?
Here – in no particular order – is my list of the 10 things that, from my experience, many mothers want when it comes to paid work in the child-rearing years. (I say mothers, by the way, simply because I don’t know any dads who act as the main carer for their children, though there’s no reason why this list wouldn’t also apply to them).
- The option to work less than five full days per week (not every mother would choose this, but the option would be nice).
- Work that is sufficiently flexible that the whole world doesn’t fall apart if a child is sick or there’s a snow day at school.
- Work that is interesting and stimulating, where we can make an impact.
- A reasonable amount of paid leave (see below for more on what ‘reasonable’ might mean).
- To contribute to the family finances, or at least (given the cost of childcare) to maintain a level of earnings capability that will enable us to contribute in future.
- Not to be so tired or stressed out that it makes us or our families miserable on an ongoing basis.
- To have time left over after work and children to devote to the household tasks for which, ample evidence shows, women whether working or not almost always take main responsibility.
- Maybe even – heavens forfend! – to have a little time left over to spend with our partner, friends or alone.
- To maintain career continuity so that, when our children are older, we’ll have the choice to devote a greater proportion of our time and energy to work.
- Not to be disadvantaged in terms of our long-term career or earnings prospects because we are women with children.
There are, of course, exceptions. Besides the superwomen and the full-time stay-at-home moms by choice, there are those who, for financial reasons, have no alternative but to work full-time. Many single mothers fall into this group; you can take all the challenges I’m alluding to here and sextuple them for the single moms. There are also mothers whose partners work flexibly, including at home, which may offset some of the demands on them. But, for the sake of keeping focused, let me stick with this key group, just for now. I’ve found that articles on this topic often try to do too much. After all, this is complex, wide-ranging stuff – well, it’s people’s lives.
Is that wish-list really too much? What would it take to give mothers what they want? Being a Brit living in America provides me with an interesting perspective on this. Consider paid time off, for example. In the UK, almost all employees are entitled to at least 28 days’ paid leave a year, exclusive of sick leave but typically including eight public holidays. In contrast, in the US ten working days plus eight national holidays is fairly standard and, where employers offer more, they sometimes stipulate that the first few sick days of the year will be subtracted from that number – of course, for mothers, in practice that often means kids’ sick days as well as their own. In summary, the funny cousins don’t see eye-to-eye on this. There’s no strict right or wrong, of course, although research has linked paid vacation to a range of physical and mental health benefits as well as increased productivity, and of course more vacation means spending more time as a family, which may pay off in other ways too.
The flexible work agenda also has a much higher profile in the UK than the US, though many would argue that governments and employers in both countries could do much more. A lack of appropriate part-time jobs seems to be a particular issue for the American mothers I‘ve met here, forcing them into a dichotomous choice between full-time work and becoming a stay-at-home mom. In the end, if they can afford it, most opt for the relative simplicity of staying home, which is clearly a less than ideal outcome not only for them and their families’ incomes, but for employers and the wider economy as well. Women who are able, skilled and not just willing but eager to work are lost altogether to the labor force. And when, at some point in the future, they might be ready to consider re-entering work full-time, the stretch of time they’ve taken off may make it hard for them to do so.
In policy terms, the US is fundamentally on the side of the business owner, which is probably why the argument for flexible work has failed to gain much traction here. But when talented, dedicated, hardworking people are being lost to the workforce due to a lack of acceptable employment options, you don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to think it’s at least worth a serious, open-minded, creative conversation about ways the interests of businesses and mothers might be better aligned. This will involve some challenging questions, such as whether working part-time must always unavoidably entail a career slowdown. The answers may well be different for different industries and types of work. I don’t have the answers here. I’m just trying to make the case that the questions are worth asking.
Listen, I don’t want to be too down on the superwomen. They have an important symbolic role, because we all – including our children – need to see women in the boardroom; that visual alone counts for a lot. But we shouldn’t assume that getting more women into top jobs will automatically change the system for most mothers, any more than we should assume that men in positions of influence are unable or unwilling to make the changes mothers need. Just making more superwomen won’t be enough, because for all we might admire their success in an inhospitable system, they don’t hold the key to how most mothers can find a way to manage children and work. To make real progress on that question, we need to stop telling women they can play the men’s game if they really, really try, and start putting pressure on employers and governments to change the game in recognition of the many mothers who want to raise their children in a relatively hands-on, time-consuming way, and keep the running of their households mostly in-house, whilst also going to work. We mothers aren’t asking for the world. We’re asking for part-time, flexible jobs, with reasonable leave and the chance to continue to pursue our career goals over the long term. We’re offering to work for it, too.