I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the employability of mothers*.

Mothers Today

Most of the mothers I know are highly educated, with bachelor, master, doctorate degrees.  They have been successful in their fields and then they marry the man of their dreams and start having children.
Great!  Wonderful!  The beginning of a new era!  And the end of an old one.
Fetus at 21 weeks.
Image courtesy of abbybatchelder via Flickr.

Motherhood is so filled with love and tenderness and finding your emotional limits.  It's being overwhelmed and learning what to let go of.  It's 24/7.  Whether you're at dinner or at church or sleeping at night, you must be on duty: watching, teaching, refereeing, policing.

Of course, the working mothers I know beg not to be envied.  Every moment they are not focused on their job, there is guilt.  Every time they miss a school presentation or the chance to kiss and nurse a skinned knee, every time they don’t hear what their children are telling them because they’re on a call or desperately trying to take care of the home as well, there is sadness.

Some women start by believing they can have it all and are disappointed that they end up with neither a rewarding career nor a strong relationship with their children.

Problem #1: many women relinquish their careers or their career aspirations when they have children, because there are only so many hours in a day.

I decided at the age of eight to be an architect.  It wasn’t until college that I decided I wanted to be a mother.  I figured that I was smart enough to intermingle them.  At the very least I could teach a college class or two to keep my sanity.
Fast-forward ten years.  I’m done with school, close to finishing my internship, will be licensed as soon as I can finish the exams, and I’ve married the most wonderful guy.  Exactly one year after getting married, we find out that we're going to have a baby!

I had every intention of completing my maternity leave and then returning to work.  It was just a matter of finding a good daycare.  Some of the quite expensive daycares I visited were so terrible that I cried when I got back in my car.  I tried a part-time nanny for awhile, but she merely kept my sweet baby safe and fed: she spent the rest of the time texting and reading.  I loved that little guy so much it broke my heart that he was ignored.

Problem #2: a lack of affordable, caring, daycare for infants and preschool children

My employer encouraged me to return to work part time, but I found I could not do it.

My baby is now eight, and we have two more who are six and five.  I couldn’t be happier with my decision to stay home with them.  And yet… I miss architecture desperately.  More basically, I miss adult interaction during the day.  I miss the clear-headedness that comes with leaving the home, accomplishing defined projects, and being rewarded with verbal and financial praise.  I miss “going home” at the end of a day and leaving my work at work.

Do I just need to get a hobby?  Take a cooking class or start playing tennis?  What's the difference between a hobby and employment (not necessarily according to the IRS)?

Problem #3: even if they don’t need the money, mothers could use a break from the home.

1950s Housewife at the dairy counter.
Image courtesy of Tetra Pak via Flickr.

Eight years into the experiment, I find that elementary school (at least where I live) is not a sufficient daycare either.  The older kids get out at 2:30 daily and 12:30 on Fridays.  The kindergarteners get out at the same time but don’t go until 11:30 in the morning.  That’s a total of just more than 13 hours a week.  If you take out travel time, that leaves about 12 hours a week that can be spent at work, roughly twice that if all children are above kindergarten age.  But did I forget to mention all the holidays, teacher in-service days and sick days?  What about summertime and the two-week winter break?

And to be perfectly frank, I don't want to put my kids in "aftercare," the public school system's daily babysitting program. Thirty hours a week is enough for them to be away from home, and it's enough for me, too.

Problem #4: elementary school is not meant to be daycare either

Taranaki St. Free Kindergarten, Wellington -
Teacher with children  (Ref#AAQT 6539 A1524)
Image courtesy of Archives New Zealand via Flickr.
Some “family-friendly” employers have introduced flex-time for mothers and even fathers, the idea being that want the job done, and they don’t mind what time you do it.  Revolutionary!  Of course, this comes with the unwritten caveat that if you choose flex-time, you clearly just have a “job” and not a career.

Employers, to a certain extent, want to own you.  They want to depend on their employees to work when contracted (the standard 40), work when expected (the unpaid overtime), and work when demanded (urgent matters after hours).  They want employees to go where they say when they say to do what they say in exchange for compensation.   They don’t want the employee telling them when and where they will get the work done.  That’s a challenge to authority and ownership.

Problem #4: employers want to own you

Oh, and don’t get me started on the stigma of part-time work, which is obviously for high-school students and people who are too uneducated for a real job.

Problem #5: part-time work is perceived as being for the unqualified

I keep thinking that some forward-thinking corporation will wake up and smell the hugely undervalued, overqualified workforce that are mothers.   Provide quality part-time, flex-time, work-from-home-over-the-summer positions, and you get people who are more than capable and yet completely grateful.  No benefits necessary.  No commitment to provide a certain number of hours.

But with the economy & unemployment where it is now, I doubt anyone is even interested in being creative about finding workforce solutions.

Problem #6: it’s an Employer’s market

One possible provider is entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs make their own hours and thrive on flex-time.  They don’t typically have the funds for benefits or the consistent income to guaranteed a certain amount of work.  A sole-proprietor friend of mine who is a lawyer got stars in his eyes when we talked about the possibility of him hiring some knowledgeable part-time help.  Everyone’s got ebbs and flows of work: what if you could have professional help when you needed it, but not when you didn’t?

Solution #1: be a resource for entrepreneurs

I haven’t entirely forgotten the option of teaching a college class!

Solution #2: teach

Why not become an entrepreneur yourself?  No one cares if you get all your work done at midnight, and you set your own hours.  Of course, most people imagine a more-than-40-hours scenario rather than a less-than-40-hours one when it comes to entrepreneurial ventures.  But it’s still an option.  Just ask Timothy Ferriss .

Solution #3: become an entrepreneur

Laundress mural dated 1958, Wien.
Image courtesy of Metro Centric via Flickr.
I know several mothers who work part-time outside of their home.  Most of them have menial jobs that give them a mental break from the stresses of motherhood, but is completely unrelated to their field and is barely compensatory.

So why isn't someone totally excited to be offering that kind of work for women ON A CAREER TRACK?  The last time someone really tried it was Avon, but who wants to sell makeup door to door, really?  Better than doing laundry professionally (like they did in the 19th century), but not by much.

Solution #4: get a menial job

J.K. Rowling has shown us that even single mothers on welfare can write.  They can write books that change the way publishing works.  They have always written romance novels, but the options are so much greater now.
I may not be a huge fan of Twilight, but I still find Stephanie Meyer to be inspiring because she wrote in the middle of the night and then published when she had small children.  She persevered.

brion tomb, san vito d'altivole cemetery, italy, 1969-1978
by Carlo Scarpa. Image courtesy of seier+seier via Flickr.

Solution #5: write

Are there more solutions that I haven’t thought of?  What makes me sad about this list is that it’s a list that has not changed since the 19th century.  In 1850, women could teach, become entrepreneurs, get menial jobs and write books.  All the progress in the direction of "equality" has been to give women the opportunity to have careers like men.  Women who are mothers need something different.

Question #1: is feminism only for women without children?

According to one journalist, modern Parisian mothers appear to have a better handle on balancing motherhood with other aspects of womanhood/humanness.  See Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.  

Question #2: is it imperative or only because of cultural assumptions that a woman cannot be both a mother and a part-time career woman?

Question #3: who decided 40 hours a week was a good standard to apply across the board? Is it possible for employees to be incredibly contributory at a lesser number of hours?  

*Any part of this could just as easily apply to fathers as mothers: whoever is the primary caretaker.

update 2/12/14:


  1. I can't imagine working and being a mom the way I want to be. I do take an hour here and there to volunteer, plus I guess there's nap times when I can pursue my interests, but mostly they are spent catching up on sleep and/or chores. I don't want to stay up late writing an award winning novel - I want to sleep or talk to my husband. I don't know how single full time working mothers do it. I just don't. I would be at my wits end and my children would be lucky to have clean diapers on.

    1. Wait a minute: you have one infant and another on the way. How do you even have "an hour" to yourself?
      I'm currently at 5 hours/week and spend most of it with housework; next fall I'll have about 14/week; the following year all three will be in "all day" school and I'll be staring at about 28 hours every week. I'm hoping to employ myself with something I'm passionate about! :)

  2. Just out of curiosity, why not aftercare? They have outside time and homework time, which is really what afternoons seem to be filled with anyway, and having kids home in time for dinner with homework done is a win in my experience.

    Given the scenarios you've laid out as solutions, once the kids are all in school or preschool and enrolled in aftercare a mother could use the extra time consulting or developing project or business ideas. In summer or non school days I work 4 hours a day by doing one hour before they wake up, 2 during nap time (or quiet time as we call it here), and 1 hour after they go to bed. I do this a.) because I have to, since I'm the primary breadwinner for 3 kids, and b.) because I enjoy working, and this frees up most of my day for kid time while still maintaining 20 hours a week at home.

    Someday I'll probably need to go full time, but I am fortunate to be able to choose when that day will be. My house is never clean, I spend less than 30 minutes a day cooking, but as many contemporary feminists point out, why expend all that energy trying to have it all? Contemporary feminism is about taking what you want the most, guilt free! :)

    1. Perhaps because I've never tried it... I do like the idea of outside time and homework time. :) Love your comments, thank you!

  3. Scattered thoughts:

    I would expand writing to include all of the arts. Most of my listening time is devoted to women musicians. But speaking of writing, women bloggers are the best. From the Pioneer Woman (http://thepioneerwoman.com/) to Rants from Mommyland (http://www.rantsfrommommyland.com/) to Your Cup of Cake (http://www.yourcupofcake.com/), women have the upper hand in online writing and presentation. Speaking of which, can't someone figure out how to monetize all of their hard work on Pinterest? There's some compelling stuff there (http://www.pinterest.com/allydrinkjohn/, http://www.pinterest.com/susanaud/, http://www.pinterest.com/rageflower/).

    It would be neat to have a recruiting firm that was focused on people with refined skills, education, and experience that were seeking opportunities that are not the standard 40 hours/week (even better if it were started by a woman).

    One area that comes to mind is specialized business consultation. Specifically, search engine optimization would be an interesting area. Most businesses don't require a full-time SEO expert. It requires some initial studying to understand how search engines work and what traditional visibility campaigns involve (how to make a website show up high in the search engine results for certain keyword phrases).

    I have a friend that is a real estate agent (http://www.nakedhomeowner.com/). And yes, there is a story behind her business name (http://www.nakedhomeowner.com/2012/02/the-naked-homeowner.html).

    Those are my disjointed ramblings. Enjoy.

  4. Thank you, Wendy, for sending a link to this wonderful article about "Leaning Out." http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/02/21/recline_why_leaning_in_is_killing_us_sheryl_sandberg

    "Here's the thing: We've managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you're not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you're not checking email 24/7, you're not a reliable colleague.
    "But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out."

  5. An amazing woman and mother at the dawn of filmmaking: Alice Guy Blache

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  7. A great discussion with Michelle Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families. (June 23 2014)



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