On Flexibility

Apr 02

4068093834_09723560bb_bAnyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m a big fan of KJ Dell’Antonia’s Motherlode blog at the New York Times. And it was with particular interest that I read last week’s post in which she addressed a reader’s question asking her whether, in hindsight, she would advise a new mom to stay at home with her kids or return to work after her kids were born.

While acknowledging that most women don’t have a choice in such matters – and that, as I’ve long thought, even for women who do, decisions are more often fait accompli than the product of real choice – KJ took the question to her Facebook page to elicit the opinions and experiences of her friends and readers and “was surprised by the general honesty of the necessarily non-anonymous responses — which is to say I was surprised by the number of people who would have done something differently. But here’s the thing: It was almost exactly equal. Facebook friends who had stayed home were just as likely to harbor some regret as those who had returned to work.”

The women who were most satisfied? The ones whose careers allowed for flexibility and the ones who took advantage of that flexibility: “[T]he more common refrain…was one of lauding flexibility and gratitude for the ability to make use of it, and the most common regret was the lack of flexibility in a given career or job or the decision to leave without ‘keeping a hand in’ in some way. If they regretted anything (and many didn’t), both people who stayed home and people who worked full time seemed most likely to regret not having a more flexible option available.”

This question has been coming up more and more among my friends lately. Of the women with whom I was friends before having kids, all but one work full time, mostly in the fields of law and education. Most returned to work after brief maternity leaves, never taking off enough time to feel like they were at risk of being left behind professionally. While none express an interest in not working, all of them struggle with making everything work, especially when the unexpected – a snow day, a sick kid, a changed deadline – arises.

Of the women with whom I’ve become friends since becoming a mom, most stay at home with their kids. Of those, several have recently expressed an interest in going back to work part-time. But this, of course, is tricky. Finding a part-time job during school hours is one hurdle. Re-entering the work force after a long break is another.

And so it is once again that I count my blessings. I stopped teaching when my oldest son was born and I didn’t keep a foot, or even a toe, in the door. And there are ways in which that choice wasn’t exactly a choice: A move precipitated by my husband’s job made my working outside the home in my chosen profession a virtual impossibility because I wasn’t certified to teach in our new state and there weren’t any positions available even if I had been. But we were fortunate that my husband’s income was enough to allow me to stay at home with our son. And I was also very lucky to discover writing, a second career that I love and that gives me ultimate flexibility (if not a particularly large paycheck). We’re even more fortunate that my husband made his own career shifts that give him a job with a lot of flexibility.

Sure, there are trade-offs. Like, say, subsidized healthcare. And a steady income. And prestige. In a society that measures a not insignificant part of a person’s worth by what job they do, neither of us is doing particularly prestigious work. But it’s work we enjoy and work that gives us more flexibility than any other working family I know. And that’s something. It’s a lot, actually.

Even as I count my own blessings, I’m thinking of my friends and all the other parents out there whose work doesn’t give them either enjoyment or flexibility. And I’m wondering what we need to change as a culture to help with that second piece at the very least.

Are you satisfied with your current mix of career and family? Do you feel like you’ve arrived at where you are now through a series of choices or through matters beyond your control?

Image: Working mom by Ran Zwigenberg via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon April 2, 2014 at 8:31 am

I sit here with a fifteen year hole in my resumé, partly by choice and partly by circumstance, and I am choosing to be okay with it. Would I like to have a job? Possibly. But then enters the cost vs. value question. Is the kind of job that I could get now going to be worth (financially and emotionally) the extra stress it may bring to our family?
So, to answer you question, I am choosing to be satisfied with today, and tomorrow? Well, we’ll see what it brings.

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Kristen April 3, 2014 at 1:21 pm

“I am choosing to be okay with it.”

I think I would have a lot more contentment in my life if I could learn to choose to be okay with things. Thanks for modeling this wisdom for me, my friend.

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Andrea April 2, 2014 at 11:22 am

Wow, this is a huge topic, but I love how this is addressed in a way that diffuses the mommy wars–asked not to judge others’ choices, but evaluate our own. I “had” to keep working after having kids, because my job provides the health insurance and stability (my husband went from being a poorly-paid employee of a nonprofit to a self-employed contractor to the owner of his own business…none of which offered either the stability or benefits of my job with a state agency). But I was very fortunate in being able to take a full year off with each birth (unfortunately, they didn’t let me take two years with the twins!), and I worked part-time from the time my oldest son was one until the twins were 4 1/2, at which time I took a different job that was full time, but which I loved (my previous job was just meh, but I stuck with it for the flexibility to work part-time and meet my kid’s needs) for exactly one year, after which everything went horribly, horribly wrong (thanks to political changes). It’s been a nightmare (in the very privileged way that sitting in a cubicle hating your job and your employers is a nightmare, rather than the working as a virtual slave in a sweat shop or salt mine or worse is a nightmare). When I loved my job, even though it was full-time, I was a much more energetic, happy, enthusiastic person; when I was going through the worst of the changes, the stress and anger spilled over into my mothering. Now that the rage has dissipated and it’s settled to a basic soul-sucking affair, I’m tired and lackluster, and I would much rather be home when my kids get off the bus; I would even much rather do laundry and housework. Wow, that’s way more of an answer than I’m sure you were bargaining for, but I think it comes down to not only flexibility, but also job satisfaction–if you’re doing something you love and feel is worth while, it’s much easier to hand your kids over to someone else’s care than if you’re just pulling in a paycheck, let alone being actively persecuted on the job, and the kind of mom you are to your kids is heavily influenced by how happy you are with how you spend your time (whether that time is with them or not).

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ARC April 2, 2014 at 6:20 pm

YES. Job satisfaction is HUGE in whether you *feel* like you’re making it work. If it’s a great job with fun coworkers and good pay, I’m so much more able and resilient to work through any issues that arise.

I will say that I am really enjoying being home (it’s been about a year), though I am starting to look for part-time work again for financial reasons. But I am being really picky about it – ie “is this job worth giving up what I consider to be a pretty great life”. So far I’ve declined a couple of opportunities because they weren’t exactly what I’m looking for.

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Kristen April 3, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Such an important perspective, ladies. Thanks for adding it here.

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Nina April 9, 2014 at 2:27 pm

I love Andrea’s first few lines. It’s exactly what I was going to say about what a great discussion you and KJ have fostered without the war parts.

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Abby April 10, 2014 at 6:07 pm

This line rings so true to me: “… the kind of mom you are to your kids is heavily influenced by how happy you are with how you spend your time (whether that time is with them or not).”

Abby

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lisa April 2, 2014 at 1:25 pm

My daughter is returning to her job after maternity leave. Fortunately, she amassed enough overtime and vacation time to allow her to stay home for almost 3 months. I know she has treasured that extra time, but think she’s looking forward to going back to her job. I know she will be conflicted but…..Nana (moi) will be stepping in to work from home so she won’t need to worry about daycare while she is adjusting back into the work force. :-)

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Kristen April 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm

And I suspect that Nana does mind that arrangement so much? ;)

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Perfecting Motherhood April 2, 2014 at 9:08 pm

What an interesting topic, which can lead to many, many discussions… Not one family’s circumstances are alike, not all parents have the same needs, wants and desires, so there’s no magic solution that works for all. The American workplace is VERY inflexible and penalizes workers who are looking for part-time or flexible hours, whether they’re mothers or people who want to have the ability to maybe work on the side. I’m hoping as healthcare options become more available outside of the workplace, people will start designing a career that works for them, rather than their employers, but I think we’re a long way off. I do love the flexibility of working for myself but I haven’t been earning as much as I’d like yet. With the many distractions I’ve had to deal with in the past couple of years, it’s been really difficult. I’m hoping by the end of this year, things will be more stable so I can actively look for more work and actually be able to complete more projects. Or take on more tutoring/teaching than right now. That would be fun too.

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Perfecting Motherhood April 2, 2014 at 9:12 pm

I should add that once you leave the main workforce, even if you’re still working but for yourself and at home, employers cross you off their list of potential hires. They don’t think you’ll be able to fit in the corporate / office environment again once you’ve tasted “freedom”. I’ve been turned down for a few positions for this exact reason. That only reinforces my desire to work for myself, when I realize how ignorant, inflexible and cold employers can be out there.

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Kristen April 3, 2014 at 1:28 pm

I’ve had a few people recommend a new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Apparently the author addresses some of these issues – particularly the question of part-time work and flex-hours. I’d be interested to see why these solutions don’t seem to be catching on. It’s not like people who want or need flexibility are in the minority!

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D. A. Wolf April 8, 2014 at 1:47 am

I have also encountered what “Perfecting Motherhood” has experienced.

To your point, Kristen, organizations do not necessarily know how to divide up work that can be accomplished by part-timers. Salary structures and benefits are also not designed to accommodate the non full-time. Last, managers aren’t schooled in dealing with remote workers, which is ridiculous considering global organizations and the technology now available to collaborate and communicate. Nonetheless, there is still a tendency to look at “time at desk in cubicle” rather than results.

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Nina April 4, 2014 at 12:13 am

I am very much happy with my work family situation, namely for the main reason you stated: flexibility. Ever since I had my eldest, I’ve had a slew of schedules, from working part-time, then back to full time but working from home some days or some parts of the days, to now working in the office all five days but in a shorter shift, allowing me to spend the late afternoon and early evening with my kids.

It also helps that, like the previous commenters said, I have a good, non-toxic work environment. I get along with my boss and co-workers. The work is steady and challenging, and most importantly, not overly stressful.

I have a feeling I will look back on these years when my kids are off to college and feel no regret. If I had a terrible job, or crazy work hours, or hated my boss or hardly saw my kids, then I probably would.

But I very much like that I’m still making money and doing work outside of kids.

Such a great topic, Kristen. This is why I love your blog!

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Kristen April 4, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I thought of you while writing this, Nina, because I often think of you as someone who’s worked hard to find a livable balance that works for her and her family.

What really struck me about your comment was this line: “I have a feeling I will look back on these years when my kids are off to college and feel no regret.” What a wonderful feeling to have – and not a bad litmus test for major decision-making as a working parent!

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Nina April 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Thanks, Kristen :)

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Amanda April 4, 2014 at 7:48 am

The edges of all my choices are frayed from wondering, but these girls of ours and the Amanda that they introduced me to, they make me love the fray.

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Kristen April 4, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I love your fray because it seems to give you fodder for the beautiful stories that you, you smart, strong, wise Amanda, share so generously. xo

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Lindsey April 4, 2014 at 10:24 am

I too read KJ’s piece with eager interest. This is a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I “leaned out” early on, and from the very beginning of my career was focused on setting up a flexible work-life for myself. I went into consulting out of college, went to business school as early as I could, took a job that led me to career (executive search) that had always interested me AND which I knew could be fairly flexible. I actually work more now on an hours/week basis than I ever have before, but I retain a degree of control over my time and life which is incredibly important. I do wonder, I admit, what would have become of me career-wise if I had really “gone for it” and not “leaned out” but at the same time I’m grateful to have the flexibility I do now. And it makes me ballistic when people tell me how “lucky” I am because while I feel hugely fortunate I don’t think anything’s luck because I have been focused on this kind of career since day one. xox

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Kristen April 4, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Yes! Calling someone else’s hard-won choices “luck” is a pet peeve of mine as well, dismissing, as it does, the work and sacrifices she’s made to create her own luck. (I wonder if the people who do that recognize at all how frustrating it can be to hear their words?)

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thekitchwitch April 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm

I definitely think women who are part-timers remain the happiest. It’s a sliver of their lives that they still can keep as their own, and I wonder why more people don’t address the importance of this? Because once we give birth, our life is no longer our own. Motherhood turns us into human Twizzlers, and it’s beautiful and wrecking at the same time. I love coming here to read your words. You always make me think, Kristen.

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Kristen April 4, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Thank you, my dear friend. Right back atcha. xo

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slamdunks April 4, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Good topic Kristen. It is a challenge for each family with kids and parents going in different directions. And as to your question–I’d like to think that we planned everything this way (as things are great now, I mean other than the challenges that everyone faces), but certainly we caught several good breaks.

When our first child was born, I was able to work a day schedule and my wife was able to teach a late afternoon and evening schedule. It was tough, but certainly it was what was best for the little one. When the twins came along, we knew changes needed to be made–and since I had the more flexible career, I shifted to non-full time for a couple of years. When I needed to leave that job, it was obviously difficult to find one that was a perfect fit for the hours that I needed–but after a year of trying, I lucked into a teaching one.

For us, it was putting the children first, and making sacrifices financially to help when only one of us was working.

Enjoy your weekend.

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Kristen April 10, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for sharing your perspective here, slamdunks. I’m glad you and your wife have found a routine that work well for your family. I give both of you a lot of credit for what I know must have been some difficult choices along the way.

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Linda Pressman April 5, 2014 at 4:36 am

I had five months off work with each child when I was working full-time – 8 weeks for each c-section and 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. It was great to have that time and great to be back at work except for the nightmarish juggling was necessary for Jewish Holidays, other holidays, sick days and the fact that, once my husband went into business for himself, he had no flexibility. I went from part time to finally “no time” – quit, ten years ago. I can’t see myself returning to my former field in the insurance industry. What I didn’t anticipate is how busy life can be as the parent of teenagers, at least until they drive. Having an active, busy teen (or two) is surprisingly different than the parenting of the young years. Since I now work at home doing all admin work for our store, as a writer, editor and a sometime speaker on Holocaust topics, I’m glad I have some flexibility.

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Kristen April 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm

I’ve been warned by a few people that, schedule-wise, parenting only gets harder before it gets easier. I don’t doubt this. Right now we only let my kids each do one activity a week and none of those is particularly onerous in terms of driving. I can only imagine that my husband and I will be even more grateful for our flexible careers as our kids get older and interested in more and more things.

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D. A. Wolf April 8, 2014 at 1:39 am

This is such an important topic, Kristen. As you know, I’ve lived several variations of the working mother challenge. I was back at work “unofficially” by 3 weeks after my first son was born, and officially, back at the office full time, when he was 6 weeks old. Likewise my second son, born 18 months later.

By the time the elder was in elementary school, it had to change. I went into another full-time job that theoretically allowed for some flexibility, but in reality, it didn’t. I recall my (then 6 or 7-year old) son calling my boss and asking him to let mom be home more often.

Wrenching.

Two years later I was out of there and had a FT corporate job that was largely worked from a home office. I was one of the most productive people in the department, but I lost a lot of my “visibility capital.” I was FT employee and also FT mom, to my kids, and that lasted 4 years. Exhausting, but I was grateful. What followed, as you know, has been a hodge-podge of raising kids alone around freelance and contract work, mostly from a home office. What I call “the flexibility to work any 24 hours/day, every day of the week.”

While the time as an independent allowed me to pursue some other (non-paying or low-paying, no benefits) functions, the drain is enormous. By that I mean the financial, logistical, and emotional drain on mothers (especially) – not to mention the stress brought into the household (and to the kids) when the juggle is going on.

And for those who are out of the workforce for any period of time, if divorce hits, they may find getting back in all the more difficult.

I will add that fathers are looking for more flexibility as well. And some dads are fighting for it – with their employers. Anything that enables men and women to unshackle from work enough to parent in ways that make sense sounds good to me.

Why is it that other countries do so much better at this than we do? Oh yes. Education is considered a human right. Health is considered a human right. Families matter, and it isn’t just lip service.

(Off my soapbox.)

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Kristen April 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm

No need to get off your soapbox on my account. I’m always glad to hear your perspective, and especially on a topic that you have lived. As I think more about this question, I wonder whence a more effective solution could be launched: from corporations (from fed-up employees and enlightened leaders) or from the government. I suspect it may take a combination of the two. But when? What are we waiting for?

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