We Mommies Aren’t Warring or Opting. We’re Too Busy Making Lunch

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blogs by SAHMs. This is in part for a story I’m working on, but also because I wanted to see how the issues of stay-at-home moms differed from those of us who can escape to an office.

You can’t cover the workplace beat without reporting on women at work, and that road leads inexorably to the subject of work-family balance. Not only is the term clunky, the topic itself is just pocked with misnomers and politically weighted phrases. Take the so-called Mommy Wars. Lots and lots of ink has been spilled on these imaginary battles, which for me evoke armies of crazy-eyed mamas hurling poopy diapers over dissimilarities in potty training techniques.

If anyone actually asked us, we’d tell you we barely have time to groom our eyebrows let alone critique each other’s choices. We’ve got lunches to pack and socks to match and deadlines to meet. And don’t for a moment think the SAHM is exempt from deadlines; she might be filling out 1040s and managing her husband’s client gift list and applying for a reverse mortgage–she just ain’t getting paid.

Then there’s the whole “opt-out revolution” thing. I hate that phrase, mainly because I didn’t come up with it. When I dropped mention of it over a year ago in a story meeting at work, I was met with a row of blank stares from the editors. Since then it’s become a rallying cry for those who want to believe women are opting out of the workforce in droves as well as for those who want to believe the opposite.

The fact is that 59% of women work. We work for a lot of reasons, but mostly because we have to.

It’s never easy, even for those few of us who have the supposedly ideal option of working from home. As Amy Green wrote recently in the Orlando Sentinel,

Four years ago I launched a home-based freelance business in part because since college I’d always envisioned myself doing it with a family. Today that family probably isn’t too far off, but like many women I worry about whether the workplace ever will want me back. I don’t believe it’s very easy for women who take time off for family, as noble as their decision may be, to return to the workplace without consequences. I worry about providing for my family. But the tug of a mother’s responsibility is strong.

I know what she means. I took time out of the office for different reasons, but the consequences are somewhat similar. When I returned for the first time in three months this week, I felt like a Cylon on the Galactica. People stared at me when I entered the conference room; I missed a regular meeting because I didn’t know it had been rescheduled; there were strangers in the cubicles. I have a couple of supervisors who keep me tethered with projects, but without them I might be shuffling toward the air lock.

Even stars have these troubles. Katie Holmes is reportedly struggling to find her way back into a Hollywood career after a baby-making hiatus. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Resuming a movie career is sometimes difficult in Hollywood, where a break can turn into a permanent vacation from the fast-moving business if an actor isn’t careful. Stars of much bigger stature than Ms. Holmes, including Meg Ryan and Demi Moore, have found it tough to regain their momentum after taking time off.

We’d like to think it would help if more of our bosses were women. But our march to the corner office has stalled somewhat. There’s much fingerpointing in academic and HR circles over whose fault this is, but it seems more productive to me to applaud and emulate the employers who have figured out how best to retain and promote its female workers. Catalyst, the research group, is doing that with its annual awards; this year, for instance, it’s toasting PricewaterhouseCoopers for its programs to “reduce turnover, maximize value for PwC’s clients, and increase the productivity of the firm’s staff” and Goldman Sachs for “supporting women in their career growth through recruitment, engagement, advancement, and retention.”

Parents in China
should be so lucky. No opt-out options or work-from-home arrangements for them. Again from the WSJ:

Chinese authorities estimate that 22 million youngsters in China have been left at home while their parents migrate to cities to find work. The numbers of the so-called liushou ertong, or “left behind children,” are growing steadily in China’s vast rural areas. They represent a personal toll of China’s explosive growth.

Whether we stay at home, work from home or commute to an office, we American moms typically get to tuck our kids in at night. And for that we should be grateful.