Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A friend of mine wrote an essay that was published in the book Torn. I bought the book and buzzed through it. Many different moms contributed but the vast majority were women of educational privileges (read: ivy league college graduates) and who were either stay-at-home moms or moms who worked but didn't really have to. That is a very sweeping generalization but not inaccurate. I'm sure from the title you can tell what the editors thought the theme was.

I ended up commenting on the Motherlode about the book and I wanted to expand on my comments in my blog. I usually avoid controversy by posting cute kid stories but I feel riled up.

In books like this one I think there is often a missed opportunity to examine the economic realities of SAHMs whose children grow up or whose circumstances change. There was one essay that spoke to me - a woman who was divorced and with two almost grown kids and she was trying to work to pay the bills after being out of the workforce for a long time.

This story probably struck me because as a child I worried that my parents would get divorced (they are happily married 38 years today) and then what would happen to my mom? Even with alimony and child support it is expensive to pay for TWO households on one salary. What would she do for a job? I don't think this is the only reason that my sisters and I are all working moms but I think it is a contributing factor.

I often mentor associates considering the "balance" of work and family and ask them to consider what the implications are for relying on a spouse with a JD/MD/MBA to provide for you - not just the economic realities but contingency planning. What if your spouse is laid off, disabled or what if you get divorced? No one wants to talk about the last one but honestly, if half of marriages end in divorce, shouldn't one contingency plan?

And what about the "balance" in your spousal relationship? For all that Husband and I do to play to our strengths in household duties neither one of us feels like we have to do things because it is our "job". Are SAHM ever held hostage by their unpaid "job"? That they have to cook dinner every night or do all the errands because they are "home"? Do SAHMs ever feel like they might have to suck up a bad event (infidelity, abuse, etc.) because they wouldn't be able to have another option? I am not saying these are realities for my friends that are SAHMs but it is something I've thought of in those moments when I've considered ditching my job for the joys of "fulltime parenthood" (don't get me started on that term).

Consider also the the lost earnings for the period of time that a SAHM is out of the workplace and the missed advancements that won't be made up when you try to come back full time in your 50s. It may be expensive to think of daycare for 2 or more kids but that is not a forever proposition and despite so many SAHM's thinking that they will "find something" after the kids are in school that is not what usually happens - certainly not at the income levels that they were at pre-kids.

Consider how hard it is to opt back in or try to spin volunteer work into something employers consider relevant. Consider how hard it would be to go back to work "fulltime" - 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year and probably a commute.

Yes, it is crazy working and trying to do what is right for your kids. As a working mom I do "miss" little moments of joy but I have no problem savoring those that I have in the morning or on the weekends (my memory isn't long enough for that many anyway). Our kids are only young for a short period of time - and while there are precious moments missed there is also valuable career development time and opportunities that are missed. Opportunities that will need to support you in your old age when your kids are starting families and working about saving for their kids' college educations.

I respect my friends who are SAHMs and I KNOW how hard a job it is. Part of my ability to work is because I truly feel like being around kids 24/7 doesn't meant that they will turn out any better (absent disabilities and other particuarly high needs kids). The SAHM phenomenon did not start until the 20th century and only for middleclass people who could afford it. I had a SAHM and I was grateful for what she did but she also encouraged (through her philosophy of benign neglect) us to figure everything out on our own - breakfasts, lunches, walking to school, homework.

With young kids they love me unconditionally. I know that one day I'll deal with a kid (or two or all three) yelling about how I missed some event or could take care of something for them. I have consciously given up going to a million school events (and my kids aren't even in school yet), a neat house, laundry that doesn't pile up, scrapbooks and photo albums and thank you notes and a million other things. I don't punish myself for my choices.

I love my kids and I work. I have a healthy relationship with my spouse who respects me more and co-parents equally because we both work. I am paying for my retirement so I won't have to rely on the government or my kids to do so.

One day my kids will join the working world and I am just as much a role model for that future as my husband.

Why should I feel guilty (or "torn") for taking care of them and taking care of myself?


LauraC said...

Right there with you. The whole freaking point of women's lib was to get women to a place where they could do what they WANTED rather than what society say they SHOULD WANT.

I never had the dream to stay home and raise babies. I thought that would change when I got pregnant but instead I found I even more strongly believed the best way to parent my kids was to have someone else care for them during the day.

I just hate the idea that "leaving" our kids means we must be torn about it. Nope, made that decision consciously and am very happy with it, thanks.

Marcia (123 blog) said...

I love when you get riled up! Please do it more often :)

But yes, I was not in the slightest bit torn about leaving my kids :)

Kathryn said...

You articulated this beautifully -- it was the underlying point of my essay (which I tried to make humorous by talking about being able to afford Starbucks but now I'm probably one of the people all the book's critics are calling elitist and entitled. Ah, well...). I did see my parents get divorced. Guess what my SAHM did? Went to law school. That was a HUGE influence on me. Then my father died, so all remaining child support, etc. was gone. Thank god she had already become a lawyer. Unless I were honestly, truly, independently wealthy with a huge trust fund and a rock solid prenup, I would work because of that underlying fear. And the point of my essay is that I'll take the trade off of school events and scrapbooks for the peace of mind that being able to support my family gives me -- peace of mind which also supports my relationship with my husband. My mother told me that when my parents were married my dad would come home from his long long days as an M&A attorney and she would be SO FOCUSED on his career ("Did you get the deal done? What did so-and-so say") both because: what else was there to talk about and because he was supporting us. I have to think that affected their relationship. Whoa -- too long a reply but you wrote this so eloquently and yet clearly. Like a lawyer. :)

ElizabethEK said...

Great post! LauraC recommended a great book that I LOVED on this topic -- what was it Laura?

Something about "How She REALLY Does It: Stay at Work Moms"....

Debt-Free said...

Thank you so much for posting this! My mom is a lawyer and I am headed off to law school in less than two months.

I get a lot of guff from friends and colleagues wondering how it felt to not have a mom at home to greet me after school with homemade brownies. Yes, there were lots of missed events throughout my childhood and right up to today.

However, I also had an awesomely powerful female role model who showed me that a woman truly can do anything. It never once occured to me that I couldn't do whatever I set my mind to. And I would not trade that for her staying home with me.

Heather said...

I completely agree with you. What I'm torn with these days is if I want to stay in the corporate world or go out on my own with a business. I'm working on building that business while I work full-time corporately, but I need to have that knowing that I bring money into our household and can support myself. I have friends that are SAHMs and some of them have a great marriage and are happy, but I know of one situation where they are getting divorced and she's trying to figure out how to support herself, so she doesn't have to move out of her current area to keep consistency of schools for her two autistic boys. Rough.

Nicole S. said...

I have been thinking about this all afternoon, since I read this post and the comments over at motherlode. You bring up so many good points, points that often get left out of the discussion.

I can say, now that I am a mom and know so many other moms, that taking care of your own young children, 24/7/365 is not all its cracked up to be. And while I am (pretty) sure I would rather be at home for now than working, I can easily see others feeling 100% comfortable at work. It's not like you are less of a mom to your kids. And I hate when SAHM act like staying home is the only good way to be a mom - they give the rest of us a bad name.

As for the sacrifice aspect of staying home, that's what really has my head spinning. Financially, it made more sense for me to stay home, no matter what measure I used. My job when we first started "trying" to have kids was awful, the hours were awful - most of the year being in the office from 9am - Midnight M-F, plus weekend work for a few months during the busy season. With Billy traveling, I could not have kept that job and had kids. And the pay was shit. I would definitely have been net negative. Also, it was not a great career - it would not have made sense sacrificing then for something greater down the line.

When I got pregnant, I had been accepted into a Teaching Residency program in Boston public schools. The hours would have been also crazy the pay was just enough to feed yourself. So I declined. I figured, if I really want to do this in a few years, they'll probably take me back.

But like you said, what's the likelihood of me going back to work for 40+ hours a week, plus a killer commute? Slim to none. And I don't know what to think about that.

Yikes, I should have just written my own post...

Nicole said...

I have a different perspective, largely influenced by the fact that my mom did work. She worked a demanding professional job and she traveled. She was a great mom when she was home, but she was always tired, which made it hard to take full advantage of our time together. I really missed having her around, and I still miss the close relationship that I know we could have had if we'd just had more TIME. Yes, I have enormous respect for what she did to achieve her goals and to support our family. I couldn't ask for a stronger role model. I'm sure I owe a lot of my academic and professional success to the example she set. Still, I made the decision to leave my career as a lawyer in part so that I could give my daughter something I never had: a fully present and involved mother. I also left because I am much happier at home - and happiness, I think, is a really important factor that you haven't addressed. (Whether it be the happiness that some women derive from excelling in their careers or that some find in being home with their children fulltime.) Yes, the financial implications of dropping down to a single-income household are significant (and trust me, no educated, Type-A, formerly professional woman has made the decision without fully considering all the points you make about finances/retirement/etc.). But at the end of the day, for me, it was a leap of faith: I chose the path that makes me and my family happiest right now and hopefully, for the next several years.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you! A woman on one of my boards asked if the working moms felt guilty all the time, or just some of the time? My response was - feel guilty about what?? I work because I love my job, and because it's the best thing I can do for my kids.

Unknown said...

Amen sister. Love your post!

Abby G. said...

Working with battered women, I do see the problem you mentioned all the time -- if I woman has not been in the workforce for years, it makes it extremely difficult (more than it is usually, which is to say SUPER difficult) to leave an abusive relationship, because options are very limited. The flip side of this, though, is that abusive husbands have often undermined the woman's desire/intent to work all along. It's tricky. I do agree that the point of feminism is that we get to choose what we want, so therefore being a SAHM is a respectable choice. But I agree that it might not always be the most forward-thinking choice in terms of contingency planning. I've chosen to work part-time in order to have a little bit more flexibility to be there for my daughter, but to ensure that I also achieve my career goals and set myself up to eventually get where I want to go (starting my own practice). I realize that the tiny years for kids are fleeting. And all that said, I think there's also an existential side of this issue that is not often talked about. My work is truly meaningful to me, and I love it. It makes me a better, more fully-rounded person and it makes me feel like I have purpose in this world on more than one level (as a mom, yes, but also as a therapist). I think that sometimes this argument for working gets overlooked in an effort to focus on the financial benefits/security aspect only. Of course, I might be lucky in loving my work and I know it's not the case for everyone -- but if/when it's the case, it's a valid reason to work as well. Hopefully feeling purposeful and well-rounded will only help me be a better parent.

Anonymous said...

I think economics plays such a large role in this debate. I am the breadwinner in our family, so I have to work. Would I like to work part time, maybe, but I can't. It's reality and it's what I've chosen (I knew going into my marriage that my husband was never going to make lots of dough and we're not willing to move to the boonies to be able to live on his salary - a choice we've made). However, whether I'm just trying to make the best out of what our economic realities are, or whether I'm genetically engineered a certain way, I think that I am a better mom to my kids not staying at home full time. I'm certainly more patient, more energetic, and I savor moments - I take nothing for granted. But that's just me. I am friends with plenty of SAHM who just do a better job than I would being home full time. Seriously. It's a compliment. That said, would I like to work less maybe 25-30 hours per week, perhaps, still a "successful lawyer", absolutely (let's face it, my career as a lawyer is without doubt an important compnent of my identity, and one that I'm not willing to give up). This debate will go on forever, because no two families are the same. And who would want us all to be the same? How boring.

Apologies for the ramble, I'm trying to squeeze in thoughts before a 9am call. :)

Elizabeth said...

I think it is an individuals choice and just reading the (awesome) comments on this post you can see how some Mum's are happiest (fulfilled) in the paid work force and some are happiest at home. I think every Mum should be able to do what is in her heart (whilst still considering the practicalities like ... being able to afford to eat;-) .
I found part time work after I had my children and this worked well for us but now they are older I am facing the difficulties you mentioned getting back into a full time career. This was a thoughtful and considered post and thanks for sharing.
PS I am a lurker (who loves your blog) and I have a private blog but if you want an invite please feel free to let me know. (

Elizabeth said...

oops that would be

jerseygirl77 said...

I don't know anything about the book, but the whole idea of feeling "torn" between career and childrearing is a little bit silly. It is, in fact, a dilemma of privilege. For the majority of mothers in this country, there is no choice. They work because they have to for economic reasons, and earn, what? 70% of what men earn?

Work, don't work, either one is fine and there's no need for mommy guilt. But appreciate HAVING the choice, where so many others do not.

Anonymous said...

Amend, jerseygirl77.

Drew said...

Wow. Quite timely for me actually. Now is the time for me to consider going back to work. I have three awesome opportunities in front of me that I am sadly ignoring. I do not talk about this on my blog because my colleagues read it...

My old job, and the one I went back to part-time, wants me back again. But the problem is it is for a full-time really awesome position that will be much more than the 9-5. It would be an excellent career move. But, can I handle it? I am not sure. Husband and family are saying not to do it. They would be supportive whatever I choose, but I do not know what to choose. I miss working, but I will also miss being at home. I can't make a decision. I guess I am like the book mentions, Torn. Educated, do not have to work, but do not know what to do. What if I took this job? Now Joel Andrew is finally old enough to bring to zoos, to have fun with, to teach him things, to be there and have him maybe remember a few things - also, if I went back to work with James, he would be in day care so early, but Joel Andrew wasn't... Hmm.

Second opportunity is working for an art organization, as their CEO. Awesome! This is my passion, what I went to school for, what I love. But it involves travel, and lots of it. And, all future summers in Italy. Think of how much everyone would freak out. But old me would have loved this and thought it the best, the kids can learn italian while I work. We can see so many things. Do so many things. We would be that worldly family I always dreamed of! But the realities of homeownership and two boys have lead me to believe this is not possible. Is it? My dream! Handed to me if I want it, and right now I am saying no.

The third, is an in-between, but would involve me traveling a lot. To Costa Rica, LA, Galapagos, Africa, DC, NY... I would love it. But could I handle being away? Could my family? Would that be selfish? Again, another great career move, a huge salary (for a non-profit worker), but what would I be "missing out on?"

As the day care Joel Andrew is in is calling me constantly trying to figure out what we are doing... I am trying to figure out what we are doing... If I do not go back to work, I totally worry what you mention, how can I go back to work? These opportunities will be gone and will not come back, I know. Then will I resent my kids and my family in four years when they are not there and I so desparately need them?

Almostima said...

Great post! It's funny, there's so much judgment involved when a mother says that a day care provider can do a better job of raising her child during the day. We wouldn't say a mom is automatically a better dental hygenist, or mechanic than those educated in those fields. I know what my core competencies are and I can be a more present mom for my kids when I am not burned out from being with them 24/7/365.