“Is your wife going to stay home with your baby?”
“Oh, she hasn’t decided yet.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll make the right decision. She can’t get that time back.”
As a mother of two young children, I have encountered a lot of opinionated people over the last 5 years who had some strong feelings about whether I should work outside the home. Nearly all of them thought I should be home raising my children, and doing only that. And beyond the incredibly judgmental people that make it difficult for mothers to make a decision about whether they should work or stay home with their children, there are many other factors that make it difficult to be a working mother. Here are some things we can keep doing to keep women with young children out of the work force:
- keep ridiculously long work days the norm
- encourage inflexible schedules
- make sure meetings are scheduled really late or really early
- keep quality daycare costs high
- think that people who put in more work hours are making a better product
- discourage working remotely
- limit maternity leave to 12 weeks, and make sure none of it is paid
- don’t make any accommodations for breastfeeding mothers unless legally required (and then, only reluctantly)
- tell women that their relationship with their children will suffer if they work (be sure to say it with a particularly judgmental tone), and that they will never get that time back
When I was pregnant with my first child, I agonized over the decision to stay home or go back to work. I grew up on a farm in rural Oregon, with a mother who stayed home while my father worked. I had no idea what working with kids would look like. But I had spent a lot of time and money on an undergraduate degree in bioengineering and a graduate degree in public health. I wasn’t career-driven to the exclusion of everything else, but I was good at my job conducting health research and I enjoyed it most of the time. I made preparations to return to work, but knew that if I couldn’t handle working and taking my baby to daycare, I would stay home.
But my maternity leave was tough. My baby was fussy and I had never worked so hard in my life (and for growing up in a farming family, that’s saying something). I was exhausted, depressed, and ready for a break. And ready to have anything be about me and feel appreciated again. So I went back to work.
It wasn’t and isn’t easy, and at times I wonder if I’m making the wrong decision. I feel like I am always trying to catch up on my life. That load of dishes a stay at home mom does after breakfast greets me at 4 pm when I get home. There isn’t much opportunity to do a quick load of laundry during the week. Swimming lessons have to be after work, which means they interfere with dinner or bedtime. Every morning I have 45 minutes to have everyone fed, dressed, and packed up for the day. I’m chronically getting to work 15-30 minutes later than I intended. I feel like I’m constantly trying to balance what I owe my family versus what I owe my job. It’s definitely not easy.
But despite those challenges, I’m happy to work, and to have a part of me that isn’t defined by someone else. People usually assume a mother’s decision to work is financial, like there can be no other motivation for her to keep her career. While many of us working mothers appreciate having two incomes, that’s not the only reason we work. If I wanted to stay home with my kids full time, I would. Women who worked long and hard to obtain an advanced degree and pursue a career are often reluctant to give up all that work. They worry that if they take time off when their children are young, it would be nearly impossible to get a job again. Plus, work is often more than a paycheck. There is professional satisfaction and pride, in addition to engaging with people socially.
Further, not every woman feels like she is cut out to stay home with her kids all day. A highly educated woman I work with recently told me that she is envious of the women who stay home with their kids and do a great job in that role, but that she didn’t think she would be able to do it. Another said she couldn’t imagine spending that much time at home, that she wanted to be challenged intellectually, and she gets that at work.
I chose to keep my career. But I would be remiss not to acknowledge that I work with a pretty fantastic group of people. I work primarily with women, and most of them have children of their own. They understand, empathize, and mentor. They encourage me to be a mother and pursue my research career. And no one thinks that I’m not valuable because I work reduced hours or have three times each day where I need to pump.
Kids definitely change how I approach my career. I don’t waste time; I work faster because I know I can’t stay late. My kids expect me to pick them up at a certain time, and my maternal guilt won’t let them be at daycare any longer than they have to be. So I work through lunch, and if absolutely necessary, do a bit more once the kids go to bed.
Despite the personal satisfaction that professional women gain from working, I know that many of these women choose to leave the work force when they have their children for various reasons:
- daycare is far from cheap, and good nannies are even pricier
- they want to spend more time with their kids
- dealing with the schedules of two working parents isn’t worth it
When I hear discussions about keeping women in the work force, I think what people fail to acknowledge is that after becoming a mother, your maternal drive to care for your child often trumps other pursuits. And although there are women who want to work, they are still a mother and that isn’t something that can be shut off. And for mothers, allowing someone else to care for their babies isn’t an easy thing to do. So they opt out of the work force. This same maternal instinct that causes women to stay home instead of working is why women cry after dropping off their infant at daycare. It’s why they feel guilty for having a good time out with friends if their baby cried when they left. It’s why they will be bone weary, yet still feel like they should comfort their screaming infant in the middle of the night.
So if society really wants women with young children to stay in the work force, we need to acknowledge that working mothers are really working two full-time jobs. We need 80-hour work weeks to not be the norm. We need people we work with to recognize that we can’t stay late, or work on a weekend, or put work ahead of everything else. Honestly, I think that’s true for everyone, not just working mothers. But if there is a group of people who retain that heavy work load, keep their ridiculous hours, and always put their job first, everyone else is forced to be that way too. If the working norm changed in our country, I think you would see more women choosing to opt in to the work force, instead of opting out.