by Meghan Rabbitt, originally published by Capital Health’s Real Woman Magazine
Many women want and need to work when they start a family. But the decision to continue climbing the corporate ladder, stay at home, or find an option in between is fraught with stress, guilt, and expectation.
Allison Blouin is sitting at her desk right now, and like so many of her colleagues in the tech startup industry, she’s stressed.
It’s not a looming deadline that’s freaking her out. The 31-year-old director of public relations logs 10-hour days—minimum—and she knows the work will get done even if she has to stay late at the office.
The reason Blouin is so stressed is that she’s 17 weeks pregnant and wondering if being a mom and a good employee will be possible. “The men in our office work long hours as a badge of honor,” says Blouin. “Many of the men with children have wives who stay at home with the kids, so they don’t have to cut back their hours. As a middle-class family, both my husband and I will likely have to work until we retire. I want to keep working—yet I also want to be a hands-on mom.”
A Stressful Decision
Blouin is facing a dilemma almost every woman who’s ever worked struggles with if she decides to have a child. Weighing the choice to continue in the workforce, stay at home to raise kids, or find part-time work or a new job with more flexible, family-friendly hours is a touchy subject that feels incredibly loaded. That’s because all of the options seem to come with sacrifices and stigmas, and trying to choose the path that feels best often happens when a woman is pregnant or soon after she’s given birth—a time of major transition, when everything is new and unfamiliar.
“The struggle with the decision to work or stay at home starts with the fact that we all want to be the best mom in the world, and we have very little training for this role as mother,” says Leslie Morgan Steiner, a mom of three and author of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. “You’ve got a situation where your standards are very high and your knowledge base is really low, so you’re insecure—and that always makes
a decision tougher.” Steven P. Levine, M.D., a psychiatrist in Princeton, N.J. and member of the Capital Health medical staff, says he sees this pressure to be “the best” mom and make “the best” choice amplified by the number of outside influences a woman faces when she’s trying to make the decision.
“Making this choice touches upon a woman’s personal values—including both her career and gender identity—and is also influenced by her spouse or partner’s wishes and expectations, financial considerations, what her family and friends think, as well as societal values,” says Levine. “Trying to satisfy all of these demands on top of doing one’s best to prepare for a new baby can feel impossible at times.” Add to that the dramatic and rapid shifts in hormones during pregnancy as well as all of the unknowns—Will the baby sleep? Will my husband be as helpful as I’m hoping he’ll be?—and it’s understandable why this decision throws so many of us for a loop.
Morgan Steiner adds that for many women, like Blouin, the decision to work or stay at home doesn’t actually feel like a decision at all. “I used to get annoyed when men I worked with said, ‘It must be nice to have a choice,’” says Morgan Steiner. “It never felt like a choice to me. I either had to work for financial reasons or because something was driving me to keep working, but I know so many women who had to stay home not because they wanted to, but because they couldn’t afford daycare.”
Katrina Alcorn, author of the book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, agrees. “The media portrays this decision to work or not to work as a matter of choice, but what the research shows is that most of us want and need to work,” says Alcorn, a mom of three in Emeryville, Calif. “We end up having to choose between work and family because the companies we work for aren’t making our jobs compatible with our personal and family lives. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to choose.”
Unfortunately for Blouin, that scenario Alcorn talks about hasn’t quite happened yet. So along with her growing belly is a gnawing feeling that something is going to have to give once the baby arrives.
The Realities of Being a Working Mom
The days of women automatically leaving the workforce when a baby arrived are long gone. Whether we’re choosing to “lean in” Sheryl Sandberg-style or just trying to make ends meet, the fact is most moms in America work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau stats, 70 percent of married moms older than 25 leave the house for work, and one of the biggest reasons is financial: “Families used to be able to get by on one income, and now they can’t,” says Alcorn. The cost of living is higher, companies are increasingly putting the onus on employees to save for retirement instead of providing pension plans, and more women are also earning degrees and racking up student loan debt. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one in seven student loan borrowers owes more than $50,000 and one in 25 owes more than $100,000.
In addition to the need to work, many women also want to keep working after starting a family. For Karri-Leigh Mastrangelo, a reality TV producer in Los Angeles, the decision to go back to work after her two daughters were born was easy. “I find that I am a more balanced woman when I’m working, which makes me a better wife and mother,” says Mastrangelo. “There is no question that my love for my family far surpasses my passion for my career, but I also appreciate that they work best in conjunction with one another, and I respect that I didn’t have to abandon one part of myself to nurture another.”
Adrienne Penake, the chief operating officer for a small tech company in San Francisco, says she’s also happy she continued to work after her two young children were born. “The upside of going into the office is that it really does keep me engaged and up to speed on the evolving world around us,” says Penake. “I hope that over time, it will help me better connect with my children at various stages of their development because I’ll be more in tune to trends and technology.”
But even women who are keen to continue working after having children admit there are downsides. “Most mornings I walk out the door as he’s crying and reaching for me,” says Penake. “Sometimes those moments haunt me the entire day.”
Other full-time working moms say trying to juggle a full workload at the office with the demands of family life at home is pushing them to the edge, as Alcorn experienced first hand and writes about in her memoir. “There’s nothing wrong with leaning in at the office; I’m glad I did it for many years. The problem is that it doesn’t work if you don’t have a lot of support around you,” she says. “How are you supposed to lean in when you’re maxed out?”
Mothers who choose to stay at home often do so for this reason: Working full time and juggling everything at home takes too big a toll. For Sarah Walton, a 40-year-old mom of two in Tenafly, N.J., this happened despite an understanding manager and forward-thinking company. When Walton was pregnant with her son Jack, now 7, she was working 14-hour days. Even after her daughter Emma, now 4, was born, she continued putting in long hours. A year ago, she decided to leave the corporate world. “I always felt pressured to do more, be more, and do everything better,” says Walton.
While Walton admits that much of this pressure was self-inflicted, she also acknowledges that there’s a paradigm shift that needs to happen if working moms are going to be truly satisfied—and feel supported—at the office. “I’ll never forget the eye-rolling that would happen when I said I’d be late because my son had a school play or if I had to take one of the kids to the doctor,” says Walton.
Alcorn and other experts say these bigger shifts Walton is talking about are crucial. “I think we need to start having the discussion about how everyone can lean in to care-giving,” says Alcorn. “If we’re serious about women leaning in at work, then we need men to lean in more at home,” she says, noting that studies show women do 30 percent more housework and childcare than men do regardless of their working status. “We also need employers to lean in and make it work for parents by creating more flex time and job-sharing opportunities, and we need policy makers to lean in and change policies so that childcare is more affordable for more people.”
Stewart D. Friedman, a director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and author of Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, writes about ways to help nudge this paradigm shift along. From making family leave available and providing world-class childcare, Friedman says there’s much that can be done to ease the challenges that thwart the career-family balance.
Finding Work That Works
Until the day comes when policies change and paradigms shift, experts agree it’s important to create a situation that works for you and remember you can switch courses down the road. “There are very few people who are either a full-time working mom or a full-time stay-at-home mom for the rest of their lives,” says Morgan Steiner. “Moms move in and out of the workforce more than we think, and there are many more options now.” Levine says remembering this can be particularly helpful when trying to make a decision to work, stay at home, or find a new position with more flexibility. “You may have always had in mind that you would continue to work after having children, feel very differently during pregnancy or after delivery, and then reverse course and decide to return to the workforce. This is not a case of having made right or wrong choices,” says Levine. Translation: Cut yourself some slack and you might feel a little less pressure.
Alcorn adds that the stress of the decision to work or stay at home often prompts a lot of women to quit—even if they don’t really want to. If this is you, Alcorn’s advice is to get a little gutsy: “If it’s just not working and you feel you have to leave your job, you have nothing to lose—ask for what you want,” she says. “Request to work from home two days a week so you don’t have to commute, or maybe try a job share with a colleague who’s in the same position as you. You might be surprised by the answer.”
Another idea is to talk to other working moms about the tricks they’ve discovered that foster better balance. When Morgan Steiner’s kids were small and she was working as an advertising executive, she put a lunch meeting on her calendar every Tuesday and Thursday. “My colleagues thought I was meeting with clients, but I was really running to my kids’ school to sit in the cafeteria with them,” she says. “My assistant was the only one who knew what I was doing. I think the moms who are happiest carve out their own sneaky little solutions like this.”
Sometimes those solutions are drastic, like what Denise Blasevick decided to do when she had to go back to work two weeks after her son was born. “As one of the owners of an ad agency, I got creative: I turned a room at work into a nursery,” says the Boonton, N.J. mom. “Sure, I had to do a few unusual things, like ask relatives to drive my son around in the back of my car while I attended meetings. But it worked.” Other times, a solution might be as simple as asking for a better scenario, like a day or two of working from home each week. Or maybe it means starting that business you always wanted to get off the ground, so you can make your own hours.
For Blouin, it’s still uncertain how she’ll chart a course that will work for her and her new family, though it’s clear that if she’s not able to work out a more flexible schedule, she’ll have to look for a different job. “It’s a shame, as I’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to my work at this company,” she says. “The answer isn’t easy.” Welcome to motherhood, says Morgan Steiner.
“Being a mom is more messy and chaotic than someone could’ve ever told you, and it changes every couple of years,” she says. “Try to accept early on that there is no balance once you throw kids into your life, and that it’s this way for everyone. Your only chance at enjoying this is to accept that it’s very messy. Wonderful and amazing—and messy.”