Changes in Employment after Children
After years of being the last person to leave the office, often carrying armloads of work to finish at home, when women become single mothers they would like to be the first to walk out of the building on time and empty-handed. After years of enjoying employment, many women downsize their jobs in order to expand their role as mothers. They are placing children at center stage, not unlike some dual-earner couples in which one or both spouses make the same decision. The strategies individuals adopt depend upon their position in the labor market, as well as their marital status.4 This does not mean that the arrival of children leads women to slack off at work. The vast majority of Americans simply do not work eighty hours a week, but prior to motherhood, some of the women I interviewed did work these kinds of hours.5 They expanded a nine-to-five job to fill evenings instead of returning home to an empty house. When they become mothers, some women are able to work fewer hours because they increase the intensity of their work time, skipping a lunch break or stepping up their pace to produce the same amount in a shorter period. The voices of the women who open this chapter show the variety of possible work-family juggling acts. Their sound bites lay out a range of choices that they have made about employment and children. They have reinvented themselves to not only bring home a paycheck but also serve up dinner.
Even among dual-earner couples, work hours are a result of strategic decisions, which may be different for husbands and wives. These arrangements are neither static nor linear, and they may vary over the life cycle. Just as there is no prevailing work-hour strategy among dual-earner couples, there are various ways that single mothers manage family and work.6 The major difference between single mothers and dual-earner couples is that single mothers cannot decide to opt out and make motherhood their sole pursuit.7
For some women, like Joy, motherhood means using their skills to open up new professional spaces. For others, like Abby, making room for kids means passing up advancement opportunities, choosing to spend at home the time that otherwise would be eaten up by schmoozing with colleagues and volunteering for committee work. Still others, like Claudia, are trying to escape the institutional model of rigid hours, often moving into private practice or entrepreneurial ventures, only to then confront worries about health insurance.8 Working conditions, such as nonstandard hours, are sometimes in direct conflict with parenting—for example, Lori-Ann struggled to smooth over the gap between the end of her child’s school in early afternoon and the time when she gets home in the evening. Other women, like Ellen, are subsidizing their income in creative ways. Finally, the subset of women who work multiple jobs on an hourly wage, like Jasmine, precariously juggle motherhood with unsteady employment.
This study included both salaried professional women and women working for an hourly wage.9 While career women, understanding the intimate contours of their chosen career fields, are able to streamline their employment, women who are piecing together a paycheck by working multiple jobs prior to motherhood have fewer options for employment transitions. Bargaining power, in the form of education and skill sets, is key in their negotiations with employers.10 While their success in molding their employment to fit their family varies, all women are slowing their pace at work. Weighed down by the responsibilities at home, many women would rather work fewer hours, though few wish to exit the workplace altogether. Meeting the needs of both their employers and their children becomes a delicate balancing act, falling primarily on their shoulders alone.
Annette, a manager who decided to change firms just after her son was born, explained how this move enabled her to shape her own work life. However, she admitted that she could do this because of her advanced technical skills:
I’m going to have one-third of the number of people reporting to me than I used to and I’m going to walk out of work at 5:15 p. m. . . . Aid that was a very conscious choice. I didn’t want a job that was going to consume me right now because I know that my priority needs to be taking care of Ben. … So it’s constantly this balance of how much time at work and with my child. How deep docs the foot go in? Is it the toe, up to the ankle, up to the knee? How
deep am I in the work world with still my arms and my head free to be with Ben?
And it’s a balance that I anticipate continually needing to adjust as the years play out.
A variety of strategies is employed by these women as they pull their limbs out of the corporate quicksand. They still work full time, but they assess what is really required of them in their jobs. Some strip jobs of nonessential “face time,” reducing their hours and streamlining their careers. Others use technology to be present but not in the office, making conference calls while in the carpool line. Others become contract workers, accepting the insecurity of project-based employment for the sake of flexibility of hours. Still others shift organizational settings and take jobs more compatible with their children’s school hours. Patricia used to care more about the kind of specialized carework she loved than about the nonstandard hours she worked. But when her daughter arrived, she concluded that not all hours of the day were equal, and sought a change in her career:
As much as I loved being a neonatal intensive care nurse, I worked twelve-hour shifts and decided once I adopted my daughter, and after an entitled paid maternity leave through the hospital, I would find work as a school nurse. I wanted the same time off as my daughter so I could be there for her in the afternoons and she could have the childhood of hanging out that I had growing up. I also couldn’t work nights and leave my daughter as a single mom.
Finally, other women, like Fran, take their more established careers in new directions. Unable to negotiate with her corporation, Fran was stuck until she discovered a more creative, entrepreneurial route to support her family.
Before I had my kid, I was a corporate consultant. I love the travel and being an expert; I’d pop into a city7 to see a client for a day. But the hours were terrible and I was always living out of a suitcase. Making the decision to become self- employed gave me more control over my hours. I probably work the same number of hours, but now I decide when.
For some women, redirecting their careers is about more than hours. Rebecca, a lawyer by trade, mentioned the logistical details that become more important on a mother’s already packed schedule.
It is the little things that make the difference. At my new job, I have greater flexibility. By this I mean I work regular hours, but I can do so from home if need be.
The government agency I work for has installed a computer at home so I can manage my staff without being there face to face. But the best perk is a downtown parking place in the building I work in, not the building next door or down the block. A parking place allows me to get my kid faster. When my parking place was in the building next door, it added a half hour onto each day. Days that already don’t have enough hours.
Women realize that it is tough to maintain the same commitment to their jobs as they had when they were child-free and often served as the reliable backup person who worked later to finish the project so that their colleagues with children could go home earlier. Their own hard-won children have put a new spin on work. Not only is the office no longer a substitute for their home life, but they also realize that few bosses either care or have the power to change the workplace norms they have lived with for years. Some are able to negotiate special deals with their employers (such as minimal travel or working one day a week from home), but most seek “mother-compatible hours.” They figure out ways to match their children’s schedules by morphing their careers or changing their employment tracks, usually while continuing to utilize their degrees and expertise. These women leverage their experience in the workforce in order to create a work/ family balance; often they opt out of meeting organizational goals and agendas that do not fit their conception of motherhood.
Low-wage women negotiate, too, but there is less to be asked for and won. Many of these women are simply stuck in pockets of the economy that just do not pay. For example, Brandy, twenty-six years old, had been working at the same day care center for ten years, starting in high school. She negotiated with the center owner that her child would have a free slot at the day care two days a week.
Yeah, my supervisor just figures I was there for ten years, why should she make me pay for my daughter to be there? Luckily, she’s just that kind of woman who really cares. She just felt it wasn’t going to make or break her if my daughter is there, which is good. I just can’t see myself behind an office desk typing and answering phones. That, to me, is boring. I like to be out there. I’m a very very active person and I love the energy level of kids. My goal has always been to own my own day care.
While Brandy would have preferred having her child there the full four days a week she works (her mother watched her daughter the other two days), she considered herself successful in her negotiation because relative to her pay, a two-day-a-week slot was a major bonus. Brandy used longevity and experience at her job to get a perk that, like the parking places and the company-provided home computers of her salaried counterparts, eases the tension between work and family.
Other women who do hourly work, such as Jasmine, face a more daunting challenge. While they may have made ends meet working a series of jobs prior to the arrival of a child, now they too would like time with their children. There are only so many hours they can shave off their work time and still make enough money. These women are the most likely to work nonstandard hours, and they also usually have mothers with whom they leave their children a few nights a week.”
After having committing themselves to employment for many years, women, especially single mothers, are between a rock and a hard place—they are choosing
between commitment to their workplace and their children. They quickly discover (or already knew) that their commitment to the workplace, the very thing that kept their careers on an upward trajectory or made them successful employees, will preclude them from making a real commitment to their child. In short, no one in this study was willing to use a twelve-hour-a-day substitute, whether it was a nanny or her own mother, in order to continue working at her former pace. In order to spend time with these long-debated and hard-won children, women allow their employment to plateau. Being a good mother means being a good provider as well as nurturing children at home, but juggling providing and nurturing as one person is a daunting task.12 These women understand work and family as competing but not separate worlds. Negotiating between these two worlds takes incredible energy. Women come to realize that fulfilling the ideal—being both the model employee and the model mother—is simply not feasible. As much as women once enjoyed their work, children now overshadow their jobs. Formerly an end in itself, employment is transformed into a means to an end.