A Toe in the Mommy Wars

by Chrysula on November 14, 2011 in asking,mothering,reforming,work life balance

“this is not just a mother’s issue”

As a work life flexibility advocate and pundit and I have the occasional opportunity to attend forums where employers, academics and organizations gather to advance innovative work place solutions. Without exception, the mantra of “this is just not a mother’s issue.” is proclaimed.

Seems so obvious – of course work place flexibility is not solely for mothers. Work place flexibility needs arise for fathers. They arise for non-parents. They arise for children as their own parents age and deteriorate. They arise for those pursuing further education, volunteer opportunities or personal growth and development. But the movement’s history and success owes it’s DNA to mothers who want to nurture and provide for their families. Last month, Working Mother Magazine held their annual 100 Best Companies Work Life Congress in new York. It is always refreshing to attend these events, because the conversation is unabashedly mother-centric and no one has to pretend otherwise.

One of the things I’ve noticed at most work life reform gatherings is the one topic that is rarely discussed. We talk about about part-time work, flex time, compressed work weeks, telecommuting, parental leave and breastfeeding. We talk about business cases, strategic imperatives and global cultures.

What we hate talking about is opting out (such a clinical term for this most important of times). In other words, mothers leaving the workforce for a period to be at home with their children. I figured at a Working Mother Magazine gathering, it would be a safe ask.

Elephants in the room

Some women stay home with their children for a season. It is often a long season; a hard season and one with its own deeply gorgeous rewards.  A portion of mothers want and need and desire and choose to stay home with their children and mother in a traditional way. And yet, the “punishment” meted out for this choice is substantial. It is notoriously difficult to get back on track and penalties in terms of seniority and salary seem vastly greater than the actual time out.

I asked magazine Founder Carol Evans, and Ernst & Young’s Inclusiveness Officer, Billie Williamson, what companies are doing to address this disproportionate penalty to mothers seeking to re-enter the workplace . What shocked me was not the answers these two experienced women offered; including minimizing or avoiding all together opting out of the workplace, and the real pain of receiving resumes from returning mothers and turning them down for complex reasons.

Rather, it was the round of applause from the packed ballroom of several hundred professional women, as I voiced one of the greatest challenges mothers face. I was right. It was the perfect venue in which to ask my question. Each one of us hits this same wall. For those who do mother at home, it can feel like an insurmountable wall is blocking the path back.

Telling mothers “don’t opt out” isn’t a viable solution

We need mothers in our Board rooms and in our legislatures. We need mothers in our homes and communities, nurturing and teaching children in partnership with fathers. We need to allow mothers the opportunity to step in and out of these pivotal roles as it makes sense for them and their families. How to navigate this impasse?

The linear, hierarchical career that commentators keep telling us is dead, needs to actually die. Organizations and mothers bear equal responsibility to make these shifts a reality. This post is the first of three tackling this topic.

  • Part two of this post will talk about what mothers can to do to stay gently connected whilst mothering full time.
  • Part three of this post will address what companies can do better to close the gap.

Meanwhile, have a look at the survey data collected by Working Mother on what mothers want and choose. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. In other words, treat us like adults, and we’ll behave as such. And if we cannot find that flexibility in corporate structures, we will keep on opting out and rarely heading back in, because we are busily creating it on our own terms in our own way. To work the way we need to work. And to mother the way we need to mother.

Comment below if you have ever faced the opt out impasse. What worked or didn’t work for you?


On related issues, these fabulous posts from two of my favorite work life writers caught my eye last week:

Morra Aarons-Mele: What Women Are Teaching Men About Work-Life Balance
Katherine Lewis: How flexible work actually works

I will also be blogging in a future post about a couple of key sessions from the Work Life Congress that I can’t stop thinking about. Researcher Peter Linkow led a fascinating conversation on what work life policy means to those in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. His colleague Debbie Phillips and Cindy Martinangelo from Merck took it further with a fabulous workshop on work life strategies for global organizations. I am intrigued by the relevance (or irrelevance) of Western thoughts on work life balance to other extraordinarily different cultural approaches.

Disclaimer: Labels that divide women frustrate me. I use the terms "working mother" (what mother does not work?) and "full-time mother" (what mother ceases to be so, simply because her children are not present?) for ease of reference and clarity. The terms are what they are.
Disclosure: I attended Working Mother Media's Worklife Congress 2011 as a press attendee. The opinions expressed here are mine alone and no compensation has been provided for my coverage of the conference.
Image Credit: iStockphoto.com

If you have a great work life story, or know someone who does, please share! You can reach me here or comment below. Thanks for stopping by my site. I’d love your comments and to have a conversation here. Please subscribe here or at the top right by email or rss feed. Or connect with me on twitter or facebook.



Elise November 14, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Bravo, bravo, bravo!! It is time your question is not only asked but adequately addressed. On behalf of all moms (and other caregivers) looking for viable work/family solutions – whether or not they ultimately choose to “opt out” – let’s keep asking it.

Chrysula November 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Elise, I am sure you’ll have thoughts to add to Parts 2 and 3 of this post as to the HOW of all this. I have a million thoughts and I’m never doing to stop asking this question, nor attempting to answer it in a myriad of ways. Thanks for reading.

Kara November 14, 2011 at 10:31 pm

You’re so right.  The difficulty of “opting back in” is by far the biggest problem I’ve faced as a full-time, part-time, flex-time, telecommunting, and eventually opted-out mother.

Chrysula November 14, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Have you found you are actually able to enjoy this season? Or is the weight of knowing how hard it will be to “recover” professionally niggling in the background? I’d be curious, if you’re comfortable, in learning more…

Kara November 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Yes, I am enjoying this time away from work.  I don’t (very often) regret taking a break from work to take care of my family.  But I enjoy working, too.  And it’s been on my mind more and more that I’d like to find a way back into a career (even if it is different from the career I had before I had kids).  Frankly, I don’t know if it is an option to go back into the law.  I certainly don’t think it is an option to go back to the type of firm and the type of practice I had a few years ago.  And while I’m not actively looking for work, I have found that for the last few months I’ve been wishing there was an obvious route for me to pursue getting a toe back into the water.

Chrysula November 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Thanks so much for your candidness. Wondering if you have a chance, what your wish list would look like? This I think is part of the challenge, is re-writing the script of what we want to offer the formal work place. They can’t provide it without us creating the blueprint maybe?

Kara November 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

In the same manner that I transitioned from full-time to part-time to not working, I’d love to ramp up starting with small projects, working part-time for a while, maybe even years.  And then transition to larger projects, more hours, more responsibility as my children continue to get older and my family’s schedule becomes more flexible.  I can, of course, see many reasons why this would seem risky from an employer’s point of view.  But I, for one, would feel a great deal of loyalty to an employer who was willing to take this type of risk for me–in the same way I have very good feelings for my employer who was so flexible with me before my full “opt out.”

Michelle November 15, 2011 at 4:23 am

Chrysula, I look forward to the rest of your posts. I have so many thoughts on this topic…too many for a comment. I’ve only scratched the surface of what some of those thoughts are, but I’ve shared them on my blog. FWIW. (Note: My response to your question asked Kara is sandwiched in between some thoughts that are more religiously-based, so to those who don’t want my faith-based thoughts, skip to the italics where I repost Chrysula’s question to Kara and share some thoughts about some of the barriers I see to family-friendly policy. 

Chrysula November 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

Michelle’s post here: http://michelle-dot-el.blogspot.com/2011/11/thoughts-on-worklife-balance-ambition.html ~ Michelle, we are on the same page on so many levels. With respect to ambition, read the post I listed by Morra Aarons-Mele, I think you’ll find much synergy with your thinking, just phrased in a more general way.

Michelle November 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

Will do. (BTW, the link to my post was connected to my name there above…sorry I didn’t make that more obvious.)

Cynthia L. November 15, 2011 at 4:51 am

Thank you!! I’ve brought this up at a Women’s conference for women in the field of computers, during a panel about work/life and it was all blank stares. Companies are really starting to get parental leave, they are starting to get flex time, etc. But the idea of what I call “on-ramps” was completely foreign, a non-starter. The only suggestion I got was to not stay out of the workforce for more than 6 months or so. None of the 5 women on the panel could think of a single person they knew who had been out a year or more and then had a very successful comeback. Talk about discouraging.

Chrysula November 15, 2011 at 10:48 am

I found this piece by Lisa Belkin at the Huffington Post after I published my post yesterday. What’s fascinating is that many of the earlier generation of women (she cites Nancy Pelosi, Sandra Day O’Connor) mothered at home for years and THEN kicked off these amazing careers. We’ve shifted to this unrealistic space where we are supposed to do it all at the same time. http://huff.to/tyYuC9 It’s a must read! Thanks for sharing your insight Cynthia. 

Michelle November 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

So do you agree with this article, Chrysula? 

Chrysula November 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm

It was an ah-ha moment for me that there are these public figures who are also mothers didn’t do both at the same time, at least not when their children were very young. So the binary choice that is presented in the contemporary workforce wasn’t operating at the same magnitude. 

I would add a whole bunch of things to Belkin’s list of policy and cultural shifts needed, especially that, as per my post, the punishment for a substantial time out of the work force is ridiculously and disproportionately high. When in fact we can truly value at home mothering, the whole nature of on-ramps and off-ramps change dramatically. 

The “ambition” conversation drives me nuts. Bottom line, I am not interested in being a clone of a man. I am interested in being fully valued, not in spite of my mothering, but because of it. Part of that responsibility rests with the language mothers use about themselves. And of course the other part is the blank stares from corporate leaders that Cynthia mentioned in her comment above.

Michelle November 16, 2011 at 2:22 am

One of the things that fascinates me about this, Cynthia, is that it seems that the field of computers should be all the more in sync with the concept of telecommuting, etc. since, well, computers are what make that all possible!

That said, I started out as a CS major and decided it might be hard to keep up with the changes in technology as a SAHM, so maybe it’s some of that? 

Lori Harris-Height November 16, 2011 at 1:14 am

I absolutely opted out, leaving a corporate company that I had worked at for almost 15 years. I had plenty of personal growth and success, but was having a hard time justifying the 45 minute it would have taken me to get to my 5-year-old twins if an emergency occurred. Single motherhood and an ailing parent were also factors in my decision to leave. I just could not see how I was going to be the mother I wanted to be with my time consumed with commuting, household chores, and mothering tasks.
During this hiatus, I harnessed the one thing that was lacking during my corporate work/ life balance dance, “time”. Time was so abundant that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, and that is when it hit me. How many others are in the position I was in, putting off goals and dreams, because daily life is hectic, chaotic and energy draining; probably most right.  Therefore, with my time off, I started a Lifestyle Concierge service to assist professionals by relieving and eliminating some of those daily tedious household chores and tasks that prevent most of us from reaching the personal satisfaction we all desire.  Not only has my business produced balance, comfort, satisfaction and success for clients, I am also able to enjoy the same benefits, while being the full-time mother I always wanted to be.  
We cannot continue to wait for or employers to give us what we want, need, and opting out may not be an option, so looking for other ways to find that balance is necessary. Thanks for letting me share may story.

Chrysula November 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Lori, I am honored you’d share your story here. Thank you so much for taking the time. And warmest congrats on your business. So here’s my big question. If you’d sat down with your management with a “wish-list” that honored both their bottom line and business interests and your ideal family scenario, what would it have looked like?

Lori Harris-Height November 17, 2011 at 11:45 pm

With that company; nothing, 45 minutes just was not justifiable in my eyes.
Because starting a business doesn’t happen overnight, I took a few temp positions, until I landed a fulltime position. It was a great hospitality company with all the basic perks, and some luxurious ones too, close to home and only few extra minutes to my children’s school. Although I disliked the overall work duties, the great things were, being able to leave when work was complete, and start times allowed for dropping the kids off at school. I could have lasted there until I had everything ready to branch out on my own, but when you get that telephone call on your day off, telling you to CALL IN before you COME IN….yeah, that pretty much solidified my thinking. I need to be in business for myself. Two weeks later I enrolled myself in Heald college attending during the day, while simultaneously attending an eleven week simple steps to business course at night.
The thought and uncertainty of working for someone one day and then be gone the next, is much more terrifying to me, than starting a business, and nothing can really be said when you get laid off on your anniversary, while out spending money.


Chrysula November 18, 2011 at 10:07 am

Lori, I have absolutely followed the same path. It’s not perfect, and I work longer hours and harder than I did in corporate life, but it’s the hours I choose that work best for my family. As for being laid off on your anniversary, all I can say is “ouch”. 

kkmeister November 18, 2011 at 12:35 am

I find it ironic that society often pushes mothers into “opting out” (which, as Pamela Stone discusses in her book of the same name, is really not a choice at all), then punishes them for doing so by discriminating against them in the workplace, not offering flexibility, and excluding them from the social safety net.
I admire forward-thinking companies that actively recruit mothers who have taken a career break. Sara Lee’s “returnships” program comes to mind. I wish more companies recruited from this labor market.
I think that as the economy improves and more baby boomers retire, employers will have to be more creative in order to hire the qualified workers they need. 

Chrysula November 18, 2011 at 10:15 am

I agree. It’s IS the ultimate irony. And I have enormous frustrations with the corporate structures that drive this binary. But I also think the lack of programs like Sara Lee’s and the need for a book like Stones, is connected to mothers not valuing our mothering enough either. Something I’ll be addressing in the next post is our own self-talk and self-image surrounding “just” being a mother. It’s a powerful component of this discussion. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

kkmeister November 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Yes, I think that’s a huge problem. If it doesn’t have money attached to it, sometimes we don’t value it, and this is a huge problem among women, who often undervalue themselves and their accomplishments.

Ricalinda January 16, 2014 at 7:23 am

I would love to be there, if only I could , but Dubai is a little far , Oh I just reemmber on the 24 I will be in England. never mind maybe on day…I will be thinking of you all I am sure that you will have a great time,if possible share some photos , so we can see you all having fun.Hugs Laura

Heather November 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Thank you for your article and addressing the elephant in the room! I have yet to opt out, but I think about it often and although it feels right to continue my corporate path for now with two small children, I do wonder how to take that leap of faith when the time comes and what is next.

Chrysula November 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

Loyalty is a powerful thing. Appreciate you taking the time to follow-up here for other interested readers. Thank you!

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