Mission: Almost Impossible
Working Mothers Struggle to Balance Career and Home Life
Kelly Tobin has three children, is a claims consultant for Disability Management Services in Springfield, and loves her job. In fact, she would definitely not want to be a stay-at-home mother.
But she does not have a minute to herself from the minute the alarm goes off until her head hits the pillow at night. “There is always something to be done and someone to take care of,” said the 41-year-old Hatfield woman.
Jessica Phaneuf agrees. “I start my day at 6 a.m. and don’t stop until 8 or 9 at night. It’s really difficult to achieve balance between family and work, and it’s stressful because I bring work home with me. When I am home, I want to focus on my children, but that’s not always possible,” said Phaneuf, who has an 8-month-son and 2-year-old daughter, and owns Fitness Together in Amherst and Northampton.
And Janet Casey knows no limits, as she gives her all to home and work. Six hours after giving birth to twins via cesarean section, Casey was on the phone conducting business. “The twins were born on Election Day, and I was managing seven political campaigns,” explained the owner of Marketing Doctor in West Springfield.
Casey has four children, including 15-month old twins Cassidy and Cooper. Cassidy has had a feeding tube since he was born, and during four surgeries Janet slept in a chair in the hospital and kept up with work via a laptop and iPad. “My clients didn’t even know I wasn’t in the office,” she said, adding that her husband was home caring for their other three children.
As these women can attest, balancing responsibilities at work and home is not easy. “When women are juggling multiple roles — mother, daughter, parent — it can result in a very high amount of stress with significant mental-health consequences such as depression and anxiety,” said Jessica Carlson, associate professor of Psychology at Western New England University.
Still, a study released last year by the University of North Carolina, which followed 1,300 working mothers, showed those who work have better health and fewer symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms. However, it also revealed that mothers with part-time jobs do a better job nurturing their children and balancing their life than those who work full time.
But working part-time is not always possible, especially for women intent on getting ahead in the business world. As a result, guilt and stress are constant companions, and in spite of their ability to multitask, women make real sacrifices to accomplish all they must get done.
For this issue and its focus on Women in Business, we take an indepth look at what, for many women, appears to be a mission almost impossible.
Michelle Budig, associate professor of Sociology at UMass Amherst, says researchers in time management have found the number of hours women spend at work has increased dramatically since 1960, but the hours they spend caring for their children has not changed. “What women have sacrificed is their personal care, leisure, and sleeping time,” she said.
Crocker is frequently sleep-deprived. “My exhaustion level is crazy. I have learned to function on four hours of sleep. On occasion I catch up, but if something has to give, my sleep is the thing that gets sacrificed because it’s definitely a priority to be with my children,” said the 43-year-old.
She also puts in extra effort to teach her children to be independent, and although it adds to her workload, she wants them to attain life skills necessary for independence. “It would be so much easier to do more for them, but the more you do for children, the less they do for themselves.”
Research shows that, although the amount of hours working mothers are present in the home has diminished, they have preserved the number of hours they spend interacting with their children. “They are still reading to their children, giving them baths, making meals, and feeding them,” Budig said, adding that researchers find it surprising that women are still doing so much. What has gone by the wayside is household chores, and working moms are hiring more help, eating out more, and lowering their standards for household cleanliness. Although many husbands help out, time diaries kept by parents over a period of about 40 years showed that men spend only five hours more a week helping out at home than they did in the ’60s.
Crocker makes a real effort to spend quality time with her children. But like other working moms, she has missed out on important milestones while at work, which results in conflicted feelings. “It’s a struggle, and I have to remind myself I am working to support them and give them everything I can,” she said.
Tobin remembers getting a phone call from her day-care provider, who told her to listen to the tapping noise on the phone. “That is your daughter walking,” she was told, as the knowledge sunk in that she had missed her baby’s first steps.
These losses, combined with continuous worry, lead mothers to try to compensate for the time they must be away from their children. Crocker keeps watch on them from a distance by calling her day-care provider several times a day. “I make sure I talk to both of my children. I don’t miss a day, and it makes me feel better,” she said.
Casey also goes above and beyond. “I spend days in my daughter’s classroom as a volunteer,” she said. And like Crocker, she also calls her day-care provider every day. “I have guilt every day, depending on which child I am more concerned about,” she said.
In addition, she spends time playing with her children every night. “When I come home, my needs come last. But this is the road I chose. I don’t know any mother who can be 100% sane. You are always at a varying degree of insanity because of everything you have to do.”
That includes dealing with the fact that young children get sick frequently, which means someone has to stay home and care for them. “I have missed a lot of work,” Tobin said. Her husband is an attorney, so if he is scheduled to be in court, “he trumps me, even though we try to juggle it.”
Bonuses and Penalities
Carlson says working mothers in high-level positions have equally high levels of stress hormones flooding their bodies. But they also have better coping strategies than men because they are more likely to take advantage of social support.
“So even though they have more stress, evidence suggests that they handle it better than men, and multiple roles offer more opportunities for success, which leads to higher self-esteem and greater self-efficacy,” Carlson said, explaining that, if a woman has a frustrating situation at work or home, doing well in the other arena can compensate for it.
Marriages also benefit when women work, because they are contributing to their family’s resources and are able to share issues in the workplace with their husbands. However, having children does affect a woman’s earnings. Budig recently testified before the U.S. Joint Economic Committee about a research project she conducted titled “Work-Family Policy Consequences of Employment and Wages of Mothers.” It showed that women are penalized for having children while employers “see fatherhood as a signal of more stability and greater commitment to work. It’s a complete opposite,” she said, adding that there is a “wage punishment” for motherhood.
“On average, women earn 6% less per child in terms of lower wages after all the adjustments,” Budig said, explaining the study took a wide variety of factors into consideration, including whether women return to work immediately or take time off after giving birth, as well as their education, job changes they make due to motherhood, and the types of jobs they hold.
However, women who make $75,000 or more suffer significantly less. They are only penalized by about 1% to 2% per child in terms of earnings, while the lowest wage earners are penalized as much as 15%.
This may be because they are often dependent on family members and friends for child care, so in a crisis they may be forced to quit their jobs or take time off from work, while women with higher incomes are more likely to have quality child care, sick time, and flexibility. “They have more resources to maintain their employment when life gets difficult. Research has shown the women with the least to lose — the lowest earners — get the largest penalty for having children,” Budig said.
Other losses result from difficult emotional choices, such as whether to leave work to attend school events. “You only get so many of these opportunities in a lifetime. There is a price, and for every choice you make you lose something,” Tobin said. “There are days when I get heart palpitations or when I have felt so overwhelmed, I am afraid I could have an anxiety attack or go over the edge if I think about how many balls I have in the air. But working mothers are always hard on themselves, and when you make the decision to be a working mother, you have made the choice to live in conflict.”
There are benefits to mastering motherhood and job responsibility, and research shows the juggling act enhances a woman’s competencies. “For example, mothers have to learn patience, which can serve them well in the workplace,” Carlson said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship, and having multiple roles doesn’t always have to be detrimental, as the effects can improve their skills at work and at home.”
Working mothers also provide a positive role model for their daughters. “Girls who see their mothers working have more egalitarian views on gender,” Carlson said.
The ability to multitask successfully is another asset that is often overlooked. “The question,” she explained, “is how an organization can help make use of these talents and help women shine.”
Some of the measures that could make a difference have been identified. They include flexible hours and telecommuting that would make the work-life balance easier for women.
But few businesses offer these perks. “There is a perception that face time is important, so even if the benefits are available, people don’t feel free to use them,” Carlson noted. And only about 10% of U.S. firms have established on-site child-care centers. “So strides are being made, but there is still a long way to go.”
Tobin made the decision to leave her job when was pregnant with her third child because she realized she had missed out on a lot with her other children, and her employer didn’t offer part-time positions. But in time she was told she could work 25 hours a week, which she eventually expanded upon.
“I was fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds. It was risky for my employer because it was uncharted territory, so I am forever indebted to them,” she said, adding that the arrangement allowed her to maintain her professional status without impacting her career.
However, some countries that put a high value on family life don’t put parents in this predicament. “In Sweden, parents get a year of paid leave when they have a child, and it is commonplace for men as well as women to take these leaves,” Carlson said.
But in the U.S., motherhood is not always seen as a plus, and a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University indicates that employers may discriminate against women with children. Budig said researchers submitted résumés that were almost identical to a number of companies. The one difference between them was that one group listed activities such as parent-teacher-organization involvement or other things that indicated the women had children. Their research showed that the résumés without references to children resulted in significantly more callbacks and salary offers.
Still, American women are doing their best to work and raise their families within the confines of the system. “You can’t deny that someone else is raising your kids during the hours when you are at work,” Casey said. “Your family suffers when you are at work, and your business suffers when you are with your family. It’s just reality.”
But overall, women are happy that they can achieve both goals. “I like my job, and work is my escape from home. It allows me to use my brain in a very different way,” Tobin said. “I have suffered from guilt and cried, wondering if I am doing the right thing. But at the end of the day, I know I wouldn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom.”