Opting In

Having a Child Without Losing Yourself

Amy Richards

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks

Opting In
If I were the president, then … schoolteachers would be paid more than movie stars and basketball players.
—MADONNA, as quoted in a 1995 interview in George




In the fall of 2005, The New York Times printed its perennial story on how smart women just want to be at home doing hook rugs with their kids.1 This time the news was based on a limited study of 138 female undergraduates at Yale. The article tried to determine once and for all what will win out: working or staying home. Not surprisingly, given its front-page placement, the majority (about 60 percent) said they would stay home. Had the findings been more positive about women’s integration into the workforce, that revelation would likely have been buried in a short article in the business section. “My mother always told me you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” Cynthia Liu told the Times, explaining why she planned on being a stay-at-home mom by the time she was thirty. What made these particular findings “shocking” was that they were coming from Yale—the exact place where you should find overachieving women who knew better than to while away their days at Mommy & Me classes. (Ironically, days before this article ran, this same newspaper did a roundup of the Forbes 400 list—129 of whom had never graduated from college. If success is based entirely on notions of who makes the most money, then a rural high school might be a better place to conduct interviews.)
The question in the Times article was clearly a setup, and these young women shouldn’t be used as proof of an antifeminist backlash when they were simply sounding back the more socially acceptable response. In addition, these college students were predicting what might happen, not saying what had happened.
Looking at women’s work lives across their life spans tells a different story. Few women actually permanently catapult their career ambitions; some have a leisurely approach to their jobs, taking time away when their kids are young, but most stay in the paid workforce for a good percentage of their adult lives. Ninety-three percent of those who leave work to parent intend to return to their careers and the average amount of time that women take away from their careers is 2.2 years.2 The college students I meet have their lives planned out exactly this way—career in their twenties, babies in their thirties. It’s not babies in exchange for a career, but one and then the other. Sandra Day O’Connor took five years away from her prestigious law firm job in order to be home after her second son was born, and then went on to become the first woman Supreme Court justice.
If I had been asked at twenty what I thought my life would be like at thirty, I would have said that I would be a lawyer (I’m not); that I wouldn’t be living in New York City (I do); that I would have one child (I have two, but I had them both after thirty); and that I would be married (I’m not). This is what I imagined for my future, but it was also what others expected of me. My more repressed desires—say, being a travel book writer or running a restaurant in some Podunk town—were to me emotionally less possible. Just like the Yale women interviewed, I had conventional ambitions. I felt that I was expected to procreate and produce the next generation of leaders. When you are middle-class, as most college students are, the question is “when” you are going to have kids, not “if.” You have to explain yourself only if you choose not to reproduce. To be quoted in a prestigious paper saying that you had every intention of working full-time, leaving your kids to be cared for by someone else, sounds irresponsible—why have kids if you are going to sign them up for full-time day care two days out of the womb? Saying you can do both career and kids sounds unrealistic.
In “Homeward Bound: The Truth About Elite Women,” one of Linda Hirshman’s contributions to the topic, she concluded that “feminism has largely failed in its goals.”3 According to her findings, “There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged.” Hirshman culled her research from a very limited source, the wedding pages of The New York Times, presuming that women who want such an announcement are the best measure of feminism’s success: “Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism’s promise for opportunity?” Hirshman’s claims were intentionally piercing because she was a self-identified feminist.
Stories of this ilk become “newsworthy” because they’re an opportunity to suggest that women are rejecting feminism. A further problem with these articles is that most take it as a premise that the workplace is the sole measure of equality. This is exacerbated informally as well. When people describe how feminism does and should prioritize motherhood, they come back dully to the workplace and its associated issues—flextime, child care, on-site day care, paid leave, and so on. Other parenting issues are overshadowed, including what fathers do or don’t do, adoption, fertility, divorce, and health care. To wit: The Motherhood Manifesto: What America’s Moms Want—and What to Do About It bills itself as solving “the problems faced by mothers and families,” but four of the six chapters deal exclusively with work.
Focusing on this one issue misleads people about the range of feminism’s accomplishments and furthers the mistaken idea that certain choices are more feminist than others. Women who take the less canonically feminist route are left feeling disenfranchised. “Why is it that so many people see this as a lazy job? Is feminism to blame?” Cheryl Smith asked me in a letter about her decision to stay home and raise her kids. Or as another woman said in response to Linda Hirshman’s article: “If traditional feminism means that all ‘elite’ women are required to put their kids in daycare and march off to work, I want no part of it. Count me out. That’s not what I signed up for, when I became a feminist.”4
The opt-outers are accused of casting away independence for convention, of discarding Betty Friedan’s revelation that highly educated women were being undervalued, in favor of embracing the domestic goddess and party planner extraordinaire Martha Stewart. Of course, in reality Martha is a full-time working mother, and simultaneously an upscale housewife, which gets to the crux of the problem: we want whatever it is that society values, be it Rosie the Riveter one day or TV’s June Cleaver the next, but the vision that is valued is often not real. We fall in step, seek approval, and follow the script du jour—forgetting to trust our own instincts. But trusting our instincts and questioning the “ideal” is what feminism is all about.
It’s also true that the facts of our day seem to matter less than what image we want to project. According to a study conducted by The Washington Post, even when women identify themselves as “stay-at-home mothers” they are likely to have worked outside the home in the past year, and those who identify themselves as “working mothers” often work less than full-time.5 I have witnessed this, too. There are non-working-outside-the-home women with full-time nannies who empathize with other full-time mothers as if they were one of them, yet also trump up something they are mildly working on, did work on, or plan to work on, all in order to blend in with mothers who work outside the home. Nothing could be clearer proof of our need for acceptance.
I think the question “to work or not to work” also takes up a lot of airtime because it masks larger issues individual women have with one another, namely a competitiveness about who is the better mother, and insecurities about how our own lives do or don’t match up to those of our peers. The workplace becomes a symbol of the angst, jealousy, and sadness we feel. “The thing I hate is when my non-working friends try to get me to stop working … [I] feel as though they do it because they want to make themselves feel better,” said Elizabeth Mayhew, who was once an editor for Real Simple.6 Sadly, working and not working are perceived not as two distinct choices, but rather as a competition about who has made the better choice.
The most pressing concern isn’t choosing work or family, but finding some way to reconcile our seemingly conflicting ambitions. Most of us want to work or need an income, and we crave an identity beyond “mom” or “dad.” Yet we also want and need to be there for doctor’s appointments and soccer games, to help with homework, for music class, or for bath time. Emotionally, there are conflicts: mothers who work outside the home are kept awake at night by the fear that they are failing their children, and mothers who stay at home are anxious about compromising their goals and presenting their kids with a narrow model. Most mothers need money, we need time away from our kids, and we need time with our kids. Even before women are officially parents, they weigh these options, and long after the decision has been made, the debate still lingers. The looming question then is, How can we have all this and feel less compromised?


In my observation, the rare woman who actually chooses parenting over her professional life beyond her child’s early years usually does so both because she didn’t have the professional life she wanted and because she’s among the minority that doesn’t need the money. And women who do take on parenting full-time usually aren’t saying that “motherhood is the most important job,” but rather that they want a break from their unimportant job. “With the exception of six weeks postpartum, this was the first time since high school that I had a good excuse not to work like a maniac, and I was grateful for the break,” said the writer Hope Edelman, describing her decision to drastically reduce her work hours after her husband’s work hours increased.7
In Salary.com’s “Top 10 Reasons to Leave Your Job,” parenting didn’t even make the list. Salary (obviously) was number one, and other reasons included poor management and inadequate benefits. According to many studies, even aging parents are a more bona fide reason for leaving the workforce than taking care of kids.8 Statistically speaking, the only recent dip in women’s workplace participation was about a slumping economy and the dot-com bust—not parenthood.9 Kids are a better excuse than admitting that your career ambitions changed, you are bored, you aren’t as successful as you wanted to be, you want early retirement, you want to “take it easy,” you are buying time before the next career move, or you don’t really want to commute.
For most women, there’s no debate about working, that’s just how life is. Parenting exclusively without ever earning an income is a possibility for only a handful of women in this country. And though the majority of women don’t have the luxury of a debate, the issue stays current precisely because it is predominantly a middle-class issue, and society has a bias toward that constituency, not to mention that logistically, they are an easier demographic to target.10 It’s harder to follow undocumented and freelance professions—from seamstress to writer—than to poll the fifty women in management who report to work every day at Colgate-Palmolive on Park Avenue.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, even those women poor enough for public assistance are rarely allowed to use those subsidies to raise their children. This wasn’t always the case, so in some ways we have moved backward. In recent years the state of Minnesota pioneered an At-Home Infant Care Program that allows working parents who meet the income eligibility—a household income under twenty thousand dollars—to receive funds to care for children younger than one year old. In addition to financial barriers, there are societal implications to not working, which is one reason that poor and middle-class mothers are more likely to work than wealthier mothers.11 Not only are poor women more likely to need the cash, but if they are poor and not working, they are “lazy,” whereas women who are wealthy and not working are “making choices.” (There might be emotional hurdles to not working, too, but there is less respect for that being a legitimate consideration.)
Among my peers, I noticed that those who were the most strident about the need for professional success were also the most likely to be won over by motherhood. Their career ambitions were almost too high—wanting to be Oprah by the time they were thirty—and rather than acknowledge failure in not being able to attain that level of success, they found a socially acceptable way to explain their changing dreams. On the other hand, women who had more reasonable professional expectations at the outset tended to find solutions that allowed them to continue on professionally.
When pushed, I would say that women should work—for themselves, for their children, and to preserve their relationships. As Helen Kirwan-Taylor admitted in London’s Daily Mail, “In my view, making a child your career is a dangerous move because your marriage and sense of self can be sacrificed in the process.”12 Working itself isn’t necessarily the crucial detail, but rather how “work” affects and overflows into the rest of our lives.
Having an identity beyond “Mom” or “Mrs.” helps women in their relationships with friends and lovers, and in negotiating more equitable child-rearing arrangements with their spouses or partners. In addition, a more balanced range of interests helps you to not micromanage your household and reduces the obsession with children. As constricting as it might feel not to be able to pick up your kids from school every day, it can be liberating not to have to do some things—make your child’s lunch every day or research the best Gymboree class to enroll your children in.
While the “work” issue isn’t paramount, women’s ability to work, and encouragement and access to do so, is a natural inhibitor to overprocreating. Knowing that you are capable of responsibilities beyond the house and economic independence makes you less dependent on the home for your identity and instills confidence. Not to mention that if we want our children to work, then we should mirror that back to them. Of course, there are other influences over their lives, but what their parents do is supreme. Among my friends, the majority of those who are primarily “mothers” were raised by stay-at-home mothers, while the majority of those who are motivated professionally had working mothers. According to many studies, sons of working mothers expect to raise their children, too, and sons of stay-at-home mothers expect a wife will take care of all of those child-rearing responsibilities.13 When I meet with students, I can pretty easily discern who had working mothers: these young women are less intimidated by their own ambitions and these young men are less conflicted about taking on child rearing. In my younger son’s first year of life, I was often lecturing on college campuses, and so hired babysitters regularly during my travels. Of the dozen or so, about one-third were male. Most told me they loved babysitting because they had helped to care for their siblings.
In my own life, I’m both a worker and a full-time mother. I work from home most of the time and spend my day juggling. I work at least eight hours a day, but often do so at one in the morning, and I always put in a few hours each weekend. People don’t understand my scenario; they want me to fit neatly into one category because to present an alternate possibility challenges their sense of how things are supposed to be.
It used to be that a person who found a way to do it all was “unique.” Today, there are more people who combine work and family in their own ways. We forget to use the evidence of diversity that is right in front of us. “Most of the friends I talk to would like an interesting part-time job or to job share when they have young kids, rather than a hellish full-time corporate job, as the reality is 9 out of 10 times women are still the primary care givers,” one San Francisco mom wrote to me. One day in the course of researching this book, I made phone calls while my son napped. I called Carol Mills, the event planner for the bathing suit designer Malia Mills, and pitched an event for the Third Wave Foundation. Carol was interested but asked me to call back in thirty minutes; she was dropping off one child at ballet and picking up another. Another call was to the television producer Jennifer Donaldson, who was mid-carpool and couldn’t talk. She called me back the next morning when her kids had gone to school.
Given this increasing range, more accurate questions might be: Are you a mom with a flexible work schedule or one with a rigid schedule? Do you have a parenting partner or not? Do you parent with or without child care help? For example, I organized a soccer team at my son’s school on Wednesday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:30. Most parents were enthusiastic but said they couldn’t be there because they were “working mothers.” I am, too, but I resisted pointing that out for fear of sounding either too lucky or too defensive. Most of us have several options that are crowded into one deceptive label. There may be a right way for each family, but there’s not a single right way for all families.
And yet, some people are unsympathetic to women who choose not to work. They view that one woman’s luxury as burdening all working women. “She is cast as a mother figure and disregarded by her colleagues as a formidable figure,” Leora Tanenbaum wrote of one woman, describing the all too common assumption that once you become a mother, all other interests are submerged.14 One woman told me that her sister insists the appropriate feminist thing to do is to work seventy hours a week. That sister has a great nanny to take care of her child, and sees the kid on weekends, vacations, and early in the mornings; at least that was how her sister summed up the relationship—which isn’t so different from the relationship most fathers have with their children.
Another woman told me how mad she is at women who don’t work because that makes it harder for others to believe that she legitimately wants to work. She senses her male colleagues who are parents calculating that she doesn’t want to be there because they believe their wives don’t want to be there. Of course, those men can often be there themselves only because their wives are picking up the slack on the home front. And perhaps this is foreshadowing a potential problem. When all of those stay-at-home moms want to return to the workforce, if they do so with ease, some of those mothers who stayed in the workforce are likely to be bitter that they didn’t treat themselves to a more extended leave.
When people trash or overemphasize the uncompromising work/not-work examples, saying that such statements are the exact reason they don’t align themselves with feminism, I’m inclined to fire back, “It’s your movement, too.” But I also sympathize with those who don’t feel confident enough to own their choices as feminists. My background qualifies me as a “legitimate” feminist—I’ve written books with that word in their titles, I’m on an advisory board for Planned Parenthood of New York City, and I’ve worked with Gloria Steinem. Yet I’m vulnerable to the retort that my feminism is somehow “less-than” since I didn’t struggle in the 1970s, when women could be fired for being pregnant. I have to withstand certain feminists insisting that my more inclusive approach is naïve.
In truth, what enables one to speak as a feminist is not only a belief system, but also the commitment to act on those beliefs. It’s not enough to “think” that mothers should be able to have paid work. We also have to figure out how to make the workplace hospitable to family life and how we will practice this in our own lives. Change won’t come until we are so frustrated that we stop making excuses and until we have the confidence to demand the range of choices we are entitled to. As Kristen Joiner wrote to me, “I feel so strongly in my heart that I want a 35 hour work week. I want it more than I want anything right now (even though I would work on other issues to help). I have a vision of the kind of society we could be if we all worked less and how happy that would make me.” Kristen runs a nonprofit that produces educational films for teenagers. She cofounded the organization with a friend, and there are only two other staff people. She is in the perfect position to start implementing her ideal in her own workplace.
In past centuries, women grappled less with these workplace problems because home was usually the site of work, both men’s and women’s, whether it was farming or a craft. Kids often didn’t go to school; they were educated mostly through experience and apprenticeship. Women bore children to be helpers, workers, inheritors of the land, and caretakers in old age. Kids were a commodity, which meant the more productive women were, the more productive the farm, craft, and even country could be. With the Industrial Revolution, work was taken outside the home, and women often became dependent for the first time on a man’s salary. In order for industrialization to succeed, the home had to cease being primary; otherwise, people couldn’t give it all to their jobs. That push to work outside the home introduced the concept of “mothering.” Who would take care of kids inside the home if everyone was working outside the home?
A consequence of the Industrial Revolution was that children became a burden to be supported—thus the push for smaller family size. The impetus often came less from women wanting to work (though women who worked did have fewer kids) and more from fathers, who saw kids as a drain on the family’s resources, an extra mouth to feed.15
When men went off to fight in World War II and women entered the work force in greater numbers, it became clear that women could do what men could do. In 1942, only 13 percent of Americans objected to women being in the workforce.16 But with that progress came the fear that women would want to do only what men could do and would stop doing what women could uniquely do: bear children. That fear meant that the 1950s developed as a time when women were forced back into their homes and their role as baby makers.
By the mid-sixties, this push back into the home and into the suburbs had produced Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and caused “overeducated” housewives to rise up and fight so that all women, mothers or not, could work and no longer be trapped in domesticity. “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry,” Gloria Steinem has said famously of her peers. Women flooded into the paid workplace and forced legislative changes that made the workplace more hospitable to working parents, introducing the language of family-friendly workplaces and work-life balance. White, middle-class, straight women primarily benefited from this workplace integration because they had an easier time accessing the corridors of power and assimilating.
Should you choose to reenter the conventional labor market after spending years “at home,” your parenting years weren’t wasted, feminists argued; you garnered skills that were applicable to your out-of-the-home jobs. For this generation, the reverse is also true—because we spend more time working before we become parents, we can apply the skills learned at work to our child rearing. When I want my older son to do something, I usually just explain what needs to be accomplished, and we figure out together how we can do it. I have learned this from younger women who work with me. When I ask them to confirm a statistic or research an organization, they often introduce me to new ways to accomplish those goals. Ann Crittenden suggested, first in Ms. magazine in the early 1970s, and later in If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, that women put mothering on a “transferable skills” résumé. The argument was that mothering skills are fungible. For example, just as you would avoid open-ended questions with children (“Do you want an apple or an orange?” rather than “What do you want to eat?”), you avoid them in the professional sphere. However, such advice did not change how mothering is valued professionally, and Crittenden’s own biography reflects that by giving top billing to her accolades for having worked at the Times and other prestigious honors, rather than her parenting. If we really believe parenting is the most valuable job, how do we substantiate this in the absence of a paycheck? To the “what do you do” question, salaried jobs are our instinctual answers. Only later (and often apologetically) do we incorporate motherhood into our work identity.
Feminists such as Crittenden were trying to break free of what had become a far too common experience; disclosing your family life to a potential employer marked you as having competing interests. Mothers who wanted to work confronted an initial problem of never being considered for the position, and a later problem of being pushed out. In an attempt to weed out the “bad seeds,” employers held working mothers to stricter standards. One mother wrote to me about her reentry into the workforce with a résumé that included parenting: “I had to put the experience on my CV, or else just have a big chunk of empty time.” She was convinced that was why she was being passed over for interviews. Working fathers were automatically viewed as committed and responsible.17 It was assumed that a man could do the job without being torn away by a sick child. When twenty-three-year-old Dwyane Wade was recruited to play basketball for the Miami Heat, one of his assets was that he was a father, which proved how responsible he was.
Feminist efforts eventually made it illegal to fire a woman because she was pregnant and, after years of advocating, secured family leave so that women and men could return to their jobs after entering into parenthood without being penalized. President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on February 5, 1993, weeks after coming to office, and this officially launched him as a crusader for women’s rights. The FMLA guaranteed workers time away from their jobs to deal with a serious health condition, either their own or a family member’s; employees in companies with more than fifty employees can take up to twelve weeks’ leave for each calendar year and return without having their jobs jeopardized. Celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in gender equality since the civil rights laws of the 1960s, the FMLA came years after women’s organizations worked with Congress to solidify a more respectful balance between paid work and home needs. Carolyn Maloney, a congressional representative from New York, was one of the crusaders for this legislation, which she saw from the beginning as a stepping stone. The FMLA has limitations in not requiring paid leave, and unpaid leave is a luxury few can afford. Ironically, those who can afford it are often in workplaces with paid leave. Further, an estimated 40 percent of American workers aren’t even covered by these laws, because of the threshold of fifty or more employees.18
For those who didn’t want to work in a conventional way, “Every Mother Is a Working Mother” became a popular slogan of the women’s liberation movement, which attempted to put parenting on par with what men and women were paid to do outside of the home. Just because women didn’t apply or have an interview for the job of mother, that didn’t mean mothering wasn’t work. Tired of having the realities of their day diminished by others, feminists sought to make parenting a valuable and desirable choice. The famous economist and onetime U.S. ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith extended this notion, arguing that not only were women short-changed by unremunerated work, but entire economies would have something to gain if women’s work were attributed a value and included in the gross domestic product, the monetary value for all of the goods and services produced in a country. In Canada, one woman’s research revealed that if her country accounted for all of the otherwise invisible work done in the home, it would raise their gross national product by almost 30 percent.19


If we would pay someone else to do the housework, why not pay ourselves? In 1972, Chase Manhattan Bank determined “the replacement value of the mother,” though only to aid insurance companies in calculating the appropriate amount to pay her family should a homemaker die. Considering all that goes into parenting—maid, chauffeur, food buyer, cook, dishwasher, seamstress, nurse—in 1972 a mom was worthy of an annual salary of $13,391.56.20 In 2004 the going rate would be approximately $60,000. After the tragedies of September 11, many companies did have to compute the replacement value for individuals who perished. Each amount attributed to a deceased parent was tied solely to an income, with no consideration given to the income disparities between women and men, or to the time women take away from the workplace in order to bear and rear children.21 Though by way of progress, each child at home accounted for a $50,000 payout, regardless of the income earned by the deceased parent.
Putting a price tag on motherhood could honor the choice that should be involved in parenting, but sanctifying it as a salaried profession could also usher in problems. Just as being a doctor is more valued than being a nurse, the more we pay, the more we pay attention. Predominantly female professions pay considerably less than predominantly male professions; the pendulum usually swings when more than 70 percent of the employees are one gender, meaning that not until men are more than 30 percent of the primary parents would parenting be highly valued. (In 2003, according to the Census Bureau, there were 5.4 million at-home moms compared with 98,000 at-home dads.) Until then, paying for this “women’s work” could reinforce mothering as a “pink collar ghetto.” Furthermore, this assumes that value comes only with a price tag, which conflicts with feminism’s grievances with capitalistic and consumerist thinking. Capitalism’s successes usually come at the expense of using a disproportionate number of women as cheap labor, nationally and internationally. In order for someone to reap huge financial gain, others have to earn a pittance. There is also a distinction between money as economics and money as class—economical value versus emotional value. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman pondered more than a hundred years ago, “Are we willing to consider motherhood as a business, a form of commercial exchange? Are the cares and duties of the mother, her travail and her love, commodities to be exchanged for bread?”22
Add to this other big questions, such as who pays? And how much do we pay? Do you really want to be paid by your partner? Keep in mind that when you are unpaid, you are free to do the job as you envision it and you’re not beholden to your “boss.” Those who pay someone to take care of their kids are usually white-collar workers paying a nanny in the range of $25,000 a year without benefits, whereas these same parents would likely command much higher salaries and benefits if they were working as mothers.23 In valuing motherhood, women from middleto higher-income families would be paid more than women from middle- and lower-income families, which would send the message that certain children were more valuable than others. As proof that this level of sensitivity is necessary, in the early seventies white mothers received more welfare benefits than black mothers, which reflected an implicit assumption that parenting white children was more valuable than parenting black children.24


Despite these decades of work to prove that women are equal to men and that child rearing is a valuable profession, it’s debatable whether feminism is yet free enough of the surrounding culture to respect women who choose to be full-time mothers. Many mothers feel the issues they grapple with—affordable child care and the quality of school lunch programs—aren’t prioritized or even taken seriously by feminist organizations. Today, younger women choosing to stay home with their kids often have that choice challenged by some feminist foremothers who interpret younger women’s “just wanting to stay home” as a slap in the face for their tireless efforts. Feminists aren’t so much mad at individual women as concerned that stay-at-home mothers fuel the impression that feminism failed. Older women are also confused. Given all of the options available to today’s young women, why wouldn’t they want to take advantage of that glorious range?
As for my younger woman’s perspective, I see this work-family balance as a continuum in most women’s lives. Taking five to eight years to raise your kids doesn’t mean that you won’t come back to a job at another point. Also, labeling someone as a “stay-at-home mother” erases whatever professional contributions she might have already made. With women having children later, they are likely to have given fifteen years to a great job and then the next fifteen years to their kids. Ignoring this invalidates their history—and potentially their future. Even if women don’t return to work, why can’t we trust their choices?
Some women want to stay home while their children are young simply because they can; others make this choice because that is the expectation they were raised with. Some women have very personal reasons for wanting to mother full-time, such as making up for an absent parent in their own childhood or repairing shattered self-esteem. Others depend upon supposed facts to justify their choices, such as the claim that having a working mother damages children, though study after study confirms that children of working moms fare no better or worse than those with at-home mothers.25 I once witnessed a two-year-old girl push another child off a swing, while the two stay-at-home mothers standing next to me whispered, “And she has a stay-at-home mother,” meaning that the child has no excuse for being ill-behaved. This is one of the reasons I personally don’t want to be a full-time, stay-at-home mother. I don’t want to be blamed for my child’s not learning a sonnet by kindergarten. Working gives me an excuse to not be perfect in my perceived parental duty; of course, it also gives others an immediate explanation for my parental foibles.
Defending one’s choices is really a matter of what research we reject or highlight in order to justify our own situations. A version of this is the woman who says, “I wish I could be at home with my kids all day,” usually someone who could make this happen, but doesn’t choose to make the economic sacrifices in lifestyle. What many mothers are really saying is, “I wish I wanted to be at home with my kids all day.” As Ernestine, a stay-at-home mother cum teacher, told me, “It’s sad that being a stay-at-home mother wasn’t enough.”
The tension between mothers today who feel betrayed by “the women’s movement” and older women who fought so hard, oftentimes making their own personal sacrifices, comes back to value. The disappointment shouldn’t be that some women are staying home, but that homemaking is still not on par with paid jobs. Additionally, many feminists have yet to fully embrace motherhood the way they have encouraged others to do. Older women might argue on a political level that parenting is a valid profession, but their personal reality doesn’t always match that conviction. Take Ann Crittenden’s résumé example; some feminists call for a cultural shift, but in its absence, don’t challenge or change their own behavior. Flextime exists, but many progressive and feminist employers don’t really want their employees to take it. For instance, Legal Momentum, a feminist legal defense group, is just one of many organizations that theoretically and legally support flextime but put up many roadblocks when their employees actually want to use it. The group cites its difficulty in paying for leave, making the squelching of options exclusively about finances.
What cannot be accurately conveyed is that one generation’s limitations may be another’s liberties. Wanting to be home is actually a freedom for some women, something other generations couldn’t imagine. “Forcing us to be June Cleaver was no choice at all. Forcing us into the workplace is still no choice at all,” one woman posted on a parenting blog.26
Have you ever been so frustrated with the lack of support for raising kids that you contemplated escaping to Europe, where motherhood is supported by social policy and parents can have more sane lives? Many people envy what Europe offers in the way of up to three years of paid parental leave and other mundane (for them) options that afford most people the opportunity to be parents and professionals at the same time. Governments actually prioritize the quality of life for kids. According to the Work, Family, and Equity Index, a watchdog of governments around the world on work-family issues, the United States lags seriously behind other industrialized nations. Of 168 countries, the United States is one of only five nations to withhold paid or subsidized maternity leave.27 The biggest difference between being grossly lacking (the United States) and almost utopian (Scandinavia) seems to come back to three specific issues: paid leave to women after childbirth, a fixed maximum length of workweek, and a longer school year for children. This gives us a starting point for the changes that need to be made in order to save ourselves the trek across the Atlantic.
In the United States, corporations are cast as the main villain in the drama of the working parent. Because of this negative pressure, over the past decade corporations have made some serious inroads in helping working parents. For example, we have the FMLA, flextime, on-site child care, telecommuting, compressed workweeks, and other innovations that are worksite specific. Financial institutions such as Ernst & Young, Lehman Brothers, and Deloitte & Touche have implemented programs to keep absent workers in the loop through networking events and part-time work.28 Even graduate schools sponsor reentry training programs, often underwritten by corporations, that include skills and leadership training.29 Some employers are truly flexible with valued staff. “When I started on a quirky regimen for a disabled child, which meant a 16 hour timetable of complicated physical and mental exercises, my foreign editor gave me all the time and space I needed … and never even suggested putting me on an official part time list,” Barbara Smith said of her beloved employer, The Economist.30
With a large percentage of baby boomers on the eve of retirement, businesses are motivated to accommodate the remaining workers and keep them employed. Gay Gaddis, who runs an advertising agency in Austin, Texas, lets her employees care for babies up to nine months old in the office. She devised this scheme when four of her top employees were going on maternity leave at almost exactly the same time, something Gaddis predicted would freeze her business. She realized that both her business and her employees would benefit if she made it possible for them to parent and work at the same time. Her one hundred and fifty employees and $60 million annual gross demonstrate that what’s good for families is good for business.31
Companies increasingly respect their employees’ out of work commitments and interests, partly because it makes business sense to invest in them.32 “The biggest, most global and best-managed companies tend to be those offering employees the best work-life balance—flexible hours, job sharing, time banking and working from home,” Newsweek confirmed.33 When employees are polled on what makes the best workplace experience, those companies that account for this balance are consistently praised. Best Buy, the electronics megastore, surveyed its employees on the reasons for sinking employee morale and found that the main culprit was growing resentment toward the workplace, where they spent most of their time. All workers, not just parents, wanted out-of-workplace time, prompting the company to redefine what work means. The resulting new structure, ROWE (Results-Oriented Work Environment), gives each department the option of flexibility, and its employees monitor themselves. Though still in its infancy, this flexibility has thus far shown that employees are much more satisfied, and more productive, working fewer hours with the same result.34 “Leadership innovation” is how Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Program, described this reorientation. Friedman told me that the best way to get employers to offer these options and to get employees to use them was couching them in terms of bringing more of their full lives into work with the intent of making things better and more productive in all parts of life—work, home, community, and self. Changing the workplace for everyone also circumvents the otherwise common tension between parents and nonparents. The former assume the latter don’t understand the pressures, and the latter assume the former are allowed to work less.
Of course, obstacles remain. The FMLA could be strengthened by lowering from fifty to twenty-five the number of employees required to trigger it, as proposed by Representative Maloney, among others; by making the leave paid (which California inaugurated in 2004 when it offered partial pay for up to six weeks and which New York is currently pushing for); and by creating a campaign to help small businesses conform voluntarily. 35 There are also other needed measures such as the Healthy Families Act, which would provide employees with seven paid sick days a year to be used for their own medical needs or those of family members, whether it’s to have a regular checkup or to have wisdom teeth removed. As it stands now, such policies are dependent on the goodwill of the employer. Jack Welch, the famous former CEO of General Electric, confirmed this reality when he told Newsweek that promoting family-friendly policies was only for recruitment. As he put it, “The real work-life arrangements are negotiated one on one in the context of a supportive culture, not in the context of, ‘But the company says … !’”36
Some employers are often stubborn on providing leave or even considering hiring pregnant women, because of past experiences with employees who took leave and then didn’t return to work. This past experience makes it hard for employers to trust that although this was one woman’s behavior, it won’t be every woman’s. Knowing this, some mothers return to work solely to keep faith with their employers and so they don’t “ruin it for other women.”
Nonprofits, which employ one in every ten workers, and educational institutions are exempt from the pressures placed on corporations, mostly on the grounds that corporations have the resources to actually make good on these promises and can influence larger numbers of people. Yet, Stew Friedman told me, “higher education is the least supportive community for these issues because they are built on a very outdated business model.” But just as financial gain is the sole goal of most corporations, goodwill and service are the motivation in the nonprofit world, all the more reason to implement more employee-friendly practices. Nonprofits should view implementing these policies not as sacrificing financial stability, but as reinforcing their values.
Nonetheless, most workplaces are still rigid and intractable, and put unrealistic demands on their workers, lower-waged institutions being the biggest culprits. As a result, 78 percent of Americans can’t afford to take the family or medical leave they need. Of those who are theoretically eligible for these benefits, 43 percent earn less than $20,000. The FMLA has also compounded the problem for women: mothers who take off a year pay a 32 percent penalty over the next fifteen years—in lost wages and seniority—contributing to their already second-class situation.37 One result of the time that women take away from work to have and rear children is that most women receive less Social Security, even if they worked their entire adult lives. In 2004 the average annual payout for women over age sixty-five was $9,408, compared with $12,381 for men. Because most employees aren’t paid while they are on maternity leave, no contributions go into their Social Security account from either the employee or the employer during this time. At a minimum, employers could and should be required to continue to pay into the Social Security system while women are on maternity and child-rearing leave. Even if a woman took only the government-acceptable parental leave of twelve weeks, that would add $1,145 to the account of someone making $40,000 a year.
The wage disparity also contributes to the imbalance. Men’s careers are often prioritized above women’s, simply because men are still likely to earn more. (And sadly, even though women earn less, on average they pay more in taxes because they are more concentrated at the bottom of the income ladder, a group that pays a higher percentage in taxes than those who are clustered at the upper levels.38) In 2000, a semi-famous study suggested that the wage gap between women and men was much smaller than previously reported: 97 cents on the dollar earned by men, compared with the more widely touted average of 76 cents. “There’s no wage disparity at all among full-time workers between the ages of 21 and 35 who live alone … What’s more, the pay gap is only three percent among full-time employees who are married but childless,” stated the report.39 These headlines led us to believe that the gap was practically nonexistent, but upon closer inspection, this was true only if we didn’t account for the time women took off for childbirth and child rearing. Women are economically punished for giving birth, so much so that they are unlikely to recover economically over their entire lifetime.
In the rare instances when women do make enough to be the primary breadwinner, this often brings other problems. A doctor in Seattle I met at a playground said her family had become too accustomed to the dual salaries to give up that lifestyle, even though she would have loved to work less. In my own relationship, I don’t like that I earn more because that seems to give me more decision-making power. I do things without having to check in. “I make more than my husband, but that brings its own burdens and stresses,” one mother told me. Many others have echoed this same sentiment about the problems with being the primary breadwinner. One woman works at a progressive foundation; ideal employers, they gave her three months’ paid leave, up to six months’ unpaid leave, and then flextime (among other perks). This mother of two is the primary breadwinner, while her husband brings in an income and also has more flexibility to help around the house, something they count on along with a full-time nanny. Though she is relatively content with their setup, this mother complains about having to shoulder the primary financial responsibility and feels frustrated when she comes home from a full day and her husband goes off to work on his writing, more a hobby than a career if income is the measure. She doesn’t have a nonincome-earning project, so she finds herself wondering, Why should he?
Men often simply feel entitled to ask for more. They have been imbued with a sense of entitlement. The feminist prescription initially was to give women more encouragement so they could be equal. However, even in the absence of early conditioning, it’s the rare woman who can ask for more without feeling guilty. A woman will often assume that the execution of her desires will cause her children to resent her or will diminish another person, especially a male partner. It’s an emotional battle: feeling we deserve more, yet not really believing we are entitled or deserving.


If the workplace is only partially to blame, who else is responsible for parents feeling so conflicted? The dominant feminist spin is that society tells women that good mothers stay home, and the media spin is that feminism failed and that’s why women cashed in their briefcases for their Bugaboo strollers. The director of Work/Life Law, Joan Williams, complains that society “defines adulthood as having both [work and family].” But I would counter that today’s parents have defined that for themselves: the dual role is real, but that means women are also pretty wiped out. “Superwoman” wasn’t created entirely because “society” asked this of women. Individual women who wanted to work wanted to also prove that they could do so without slacking on their home responsibilities. Most mothers have to, or feel they have to, do it all (some combination of work and family), as do more and more fathers. Dual-worker families provide the most common scenario, if only because most families require two salaries to get by.40
It’s easy to blame uncompromising employers and the media for making it impossible for individuals to both work and parent, but women can’t search only outside themselves for justification for their choices or for a solution. A large obstacle to flextime and other benefits is an employee’s own lack of initiative. We often contribute to the banter without considering how we might also be contributing to the problem. Women have to start asking ourselves why we resist owning our decisions.
For most women, the focus should be on how to implement the good research on this issue that has been produced by such groups as the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Center for Work-Life Policy. These organizations have contributed volumes of reports and gazillions of figures on how to make work viable for those parents who want and/or need to work. Our responsibility is to act on them. Today, 71 percent of employers offer flexible work schedules (up from 32 percent in 1996)—for instance, one day a week from home or part-time three days. But the majority of workers don’t use these onceutopian options.41 Rather than only call for “more flextime,” we need to use it, figure out how to use it, or examine the very real reasons why flextime and other supposedly parent-friendly inventions aren’t the best scenario for all workers. “You’re so lucky … to create the perfect work-at-home situation,” Leslie Miller wrote in Bitch about the “ideal situation” she had before she closed up her home office. “After a few months, however, making coffee in a kitchen smeared with rice cereal didn’t make me feel like a better worker—it made me yearn for a clean office kitchen where elves took out the garbage at night and coffee was sometimes made by someone else and kept warm in a thermal carafe … Getting to work in your underwear is a treat, but so is being forced to wash your hair once in a while and hearing people comment favorably on your shoes.”42
As much as we regulate such things as maternity leave and the Fair Pay Act, injustices continue because the culture hasn’t caught up with these laws. Fear of retribution is certainly a reason more employees don’t indulge these benefits. However, a general climate that hasn’t yet made such demands acceptable is even more to blame. Europe is a great example not only because laws exist to mandate child care, make it affordable, and so on, but also because employers monitor leave taken and encourage workers to actually take advantage of the laws. If we had the option of full-time preschool, as people do in England, would mothers really send their kids, since many currently argue that the day is too long? If we had state-subsidized child care, it might well be as substandard as the health care in England, and those who could afford to would go for private options; thus poor kids might well be ghettoized.
Believing that these changes need to happen isn’t the biggest obstacle; actually coming up with such changes in usable forms is. When Bruce Babbitt was the governor of Arizona in the early eighties, he made children’s issues the focus of his agenda; the only topic he addressed in his 1985 State of the State address was the need for “more money to protect and educate children.” Many people mocked him for serving his constituents quiche, instead of “meatier” political issues, but today others realize that when children’s issues are authentically captured into political stump speeches, voters pay attention.43 According to ballot initiatives, for example, voters overwhelmingly support parental leave, even if it would mean a two-cent-per-hour payroll-tax increase to be shared by employer and employees.
I don’t doubt that people want options and the security that comes with having laws to back them up, but many resist taking that final step in enacting benefits for themselves. This is especially true with the option of paternity leave, which many men don’t take, fearing that it will interfere with their careers and maybe even their masculinity. When I asked men if they took it, most said, “Yes, I was home a few days.” Many of those who use the excuse that “it’s just not possible in some professions” are precisely the people with the power to do it. For instance, several at-home mothers I met at one mothers’ group were happy with their situation and with their husbands’ being the breadwinners. “I mean, he can bill five hundred dollars an hour, and that’s why I’m at home and he’s at work,” said one mom. Though these mothers want more from their partners, husbands, and fathers, they understand that the culture simply doesn’t tolerate fathers taking more than twenty-four hours off after the birth of a child or leaving early to tend to a sick kid. Yet, if privileged fathers don’t take that leap, who will? And if these progressive, thoughtful moms can’t ask for more, who can?
The power to create change often comes from those who are the most privileged. (If Martha Stewart and other white collar criminals had served time in New York’s Rikers Island prison, I guarantee that prison’s conditions would improve.) The fivehundred-dollar-an-hour husbands are certainly in positions that must feel scripted and strict, but at five hundred dollars an hour, they are also often in positions of power and can afford to initiate change. As Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress explained it, “If the fight isn’t joined by men (like me) who want a life, too, any solutions become ‘women’s’ solutions. A broader drive to redesign work will take a union-style consciousness that makes it safe for men who secretly want balance to say so.”44 But there is hope. “I always ask my students what they dream of becoming,” said one college professor, “and these days, I am likely to hear that they want to be good fathers, or change careers and have a total integration of their lives. In that way, they’re becoming much more like women.”
The challenge before us amounts to a redefinition of work. Previous generations expanded our image of the “worker”; the term used to be synonymous with a male breadwinner. Today we have to acknowledge the work that consumes our days and consider those responsibilities as a part of our “job.” With President Clinton’s welfare reform of 1994—or “deform,” a term coined by the feisty economist Julianne Malveaux—the basic requirement was that recipients “work,” but the assumption was that raising children wasn’t “work.” Some states, such as Montana, creatively decided that taking care of small children or aging parents was work. Others, such as Maine, included the pursuit of education in their definitions of work—justified because lack of education is currently an obstacle for many women when vying for a competitive job. Though we can’t depend on such creative solutions spreading on their own, it’s comforting to know that they exist. These were good temporary solutions, but sadly when Congress reauthorized Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2006, it created a nationally uniform definition of work, one that doesn’t include pursuing an education.
Money, career, professions, just a job, or ambitions—all indicate “work.” Traditionally, work was only what we got paid for, which was precisely why feminists argued that stay-at-home mothers have an attributed economic worth. Volunteer and charity organizations, too, are sustained by women’s unpaid work, which is why feminists argued that those skills should be included on job résumés or that volunteers should try to turn their lives into paid jobs in the future. Not only would this recognition be a realistic reflection of the work done, but it would also be a self-esteem boost to those who otherwise said “I’m just a mother” or who poured countless hours into community service. The question is: In lieu of a paycheck, how can we give value to the passions that fill and reward our days, such as taking care of kids? Beyond money, benefits, value, and stimulation, what is it that we get from work and also from other productive areas of our lives?
If you are a white collar worker pursuing a conventional career path, work has more clearly defined boundaries—you’re hired as an associate, get promoted to management, and eventually set your sights on being a vice president or CEO. In these cases, it’s hard to step away or “off-ramp.” But even women in these more elite professions are more likely than men to take risks—to on- and off-ramp and have nonlinear careers. If you have a fulfilling job—or jobs—that keep you challenged and engaged, but don’t hold you prisoner, you are freer to prioritize your nonwork life. This is precisely why many women choose a less-scripted career path: they would rather plateau in their careers and be rewarded with more time away from the office. Or, as John Tierney said in his New York Times column, “[Women] realize better than men, that in life there’s a lot more at stake than money.”45 You could argue that women are freer to imagine this because of the men in their lives, but women are also more willing to locate their value in other contributions.
We are so accustomed to hearing “need” as only the bare necessities—and, in fact, we would be put off if someone said something that is closer to the truth, such as, “I need to work so that I can buy only organic food, send my kids to private schools, go on an annual vacation to the Caribbean, and pay a babysitter every Saturday night so I can try some new restaurant.” On numerous occasions, Lisa Belkin, who has a regular work-life column in The New York Times, has said that she needs to work. I knew her husband was a doctor, and so when I read this, I thought that “need” seemed a bit exaggerated. My snickering response: Does she really “need” to have a nice home in New Jersey? When I asked Belkin to expound upon this, she said that she needed to contribute to her family’s income, emphasizing that the need wasn’t purely monetary, but emotional—if you aren’t contributing, what is your role? What do you get a say over? “I work because I have to financially and because I love to,” wrote Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple.46 When legitimate financial need is a factor, mothers are encouraged to work. When mothers work to contribute more money to an already comfortable lifestyle, they’re accused of abandoning their kids. Both approaches fail to value the nonfinancial assets of having a profession. Additionally, when we are sanctimonious about what qualifies as need, we unfairly judge other people’s realities.
Poor mothers and wealthier mothers are pitted against each other because we condescendingly exempt poor women from the same desires that wealthier women naturally have. True, private schools and fancy spring-break vacations are less likely to be in the realm of possibility for those struggling economically, but most everyone wants good education, a healthy diet, exposure to different cultures, and quality family time. When I publicly stated in The New York Times Magazine that I didn’t consider having triplets because I was worried about how I would afford summer camp, I was condemned for being an insensitive yuppie. When people say they “have to work,” what are they really weighing? Working or not working is a serious question because it is as much about values and social status as it is about economics.
I know that work is more than money, and yet I personally stumble when it comes to incorporating my parenting into my professional successes. I have spent countless hours writing my online advice column, “Ask Amy,” and poured many late nights into creating the Third Wave Foundation, all without ever receiving a dime. Yet I consistently describe these two responsibilities as a part of my work. But still, when I list my accomplishments, I actually don’t include parenting. In part, I’m protecting myself from having others make assumptions about me, but I also lack confidence that parenting is work. Yes, it consumes hours in my day, but I don’t put it on par with what I am paid to do or with what I consider more intellectual pursuits. That’s certainly my own limitation. With the help of feminism, I hope to change some of that. We all can.
Copyright © 2008 by Amy Richards
All rights reserved