ParentMap | Work/Life Balance | Family Management

Riding the work-family carousel

"You can do anything you want when you grow up," my mother, an avowed feminist, used to tell me when I was a little girl. The mantra inspired visions of space shuttle rides, Broadway stardom and, of course, mothering a pride of six or eight children.

Decades later, the women's movement has dimmed, at least in most spheres. In its wake is a generation of mothers who are trying to do what we learned we could do: it all. But we can't.

The fact is, mothers today -- and fathers -- lack a social structure that helps them achieve all that they'd like. Those with higher education and promising careers are struggling to find a way to squeeze childrearing into the demanding mix of the 24/7 economy. Many are finding they can't do it all; so they're concocting temporary solutions, like this media favorite: carouseling.

Carouseling is more than a joy ride

What we call carouseling -- cycling in and out of full-time work -- appears to be a popular answer to the crunch. Thirty-seven percent of highly qualified women leave their jobs for a period, according to a 2005 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Also called off-ramping, pit-stopping or sequencing, carouseling makes sense for some professional women, at times. And they make the most of it, enjoying time with their children they haven't always had. But it also means sporadic unemployment.

"It's what women do to survive," says Alene H. Moris, a Seattle women's advocate who has consulted on workplace issues for more than 30 years. "The vast majority have to work full-time or not at all. Trying to work full-time and have a family, they just get exhausted."

According to Moris, off-rampers return to work because of ambition or a desire for camaraderie and recognition. Many are looking for grown-up intellectual stimulation and -- oh yeah -- money.

Sharon Redmon, a Des Moines, Wash. special education teacher and mother of three, is a classic carouseler. Redmon left a full-time job while pregnant with her third child, unable to find quality child care or a decent place to pump breast milk at work. Now five years later, she is beginning a new part-time job.

"I need to go back. I need to use what I have worked so hard to gain, in knowledge," she explains. "I enjoy working with a team, problem-solving and learning about what's new."

In her carved-out spare time, Redmon works as regional manager for Mothers & More, a national non-profit that connects sequencing mothers. She speaks openly about what some off-ramped mothers probably suppress: boredom. "Driving a minivan back and forth is not stimulating enough," she says. "I need to go back for my own well-being, for my sanity."

Redmon acknowledges that she is fortunate to have landed part-time work. "I'm lucky to be in high demand," she says. Many mothers have trouble finding part-time work in their fields, and others can't afford child care while earning a part-time salary, without benefits. For them, Redmon says, "It's all or nothing."

"You either stay home full-time with your kids or you work. Women are frustrated that they don't have any other options," she adds.

Frustration is apparently widespread. Look around. You can buy Mad Housewife wine (Bellevue-based, incidentally) at the local QFC. Then pour yourself a glass and pull up a chair to watch the ABC-TV show "Desperate Housewives".

According to Moris, today's highly qualified women who stay home express more dissatisfaction than did those of pre-women's liberation days. Back then, women were less aware of their capacities, she says.

"It was an easier unhappiness. Now, when women have capacities that are not exercised well in the domestic scene, they know what their frustrations are, and it's harder for them to accept that this is all there is," Moris says.

Are stay-at-home mothers sufficiently valued? Moris says no. Women receive little recognition for their work as mothers, she says, "unless they have partners who tell them how wonderful they are, all the time."

Are they adequately paid? says no, estimating the fair base salary for this unpaid job to be $131,471, to cover educating, leading, driving, housekeeping, cooking, nursing, accounting and general maintenance. Add to the job description a hiatus in career advancement, a halt to Social Security benefits that could hurt later, during old age, and forced acceptance of a situation they may or may not have chosen to begin with. Can you feel the frustration?

Women have the skills employers want

Meanwhile, in the professional arena, women are more valued than ever. The research firm Catalyst found in 2004 that companies with the most females in top management significantly outperformed those with fewer. Employers are catching on. They know that more than half of college graduates and nearly half of professional and graduate school graduates are female, and that women's education rates are quickly surpassing those of men.

They also know that women are adaptive and tend to work fluidly, in ways that fit today's dynamic, globalized economy.

"Women's capacities have suddenly become super-important," says Seattle's Susan Cannon, a developmental futurist who works for the Arlington Institute, a non-profit research firm. Corporate leadership styles have become more "female" -- less linear and more intuitive, collaborative and cooperative -- she says.

Coincidentally, bookstore shelves are crowded with works documenting mothers' strengths in the workplace. The Mommy Brain, by Katherine Ellison, chronicles neuroscientific studies showing how motherhood enhances creative problem-solving, patience, nurturing of others' strengths, managing complex logistics and overall emotional intelligence. Ann Crittendon's If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything adds the following to the skills list: careful listening, a sense of perspective and what she calls "habits of integrity."

Today's professional women are highly credentialed, valued by employers and wired to succeed. Yet the carousel keeps turning.

Employers need to adapt -- or do they?

For most mothers, the greatest hitch to maintaining steady, full-time employment is giving up time with their children. The sting is often exacerbated by a lack of adequate, affordable child care -- as was the case for Redmon -- as well as long work hours and tiring commutes. Many parents look to part-time work and flexible work arrangements, such as adjustable work schedules and locations, as realistic solutions to their work-life woes.

"But American corporations are so slow to change," Moris says. "They don't want to provide benefits [for part-time work]. In other countries, they've learned to prorate benefits."

The costs of flexible work arrangements seem all but universally feared. Lynn Hagerman, executive director for the Puget Sound affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, says flexibility "can scare human resources." A former sequencing mother, Hagerman left a Fortune 100 executive management position during the 1980s to take up more flexible work. She has since weaved in and out of leadership positions.

"People are afraid to open up Pandora's boxes in terms making special arrangements," Hagerman says. "The fear around what flexibility costs may be bigger than the reality."

Still, some employers are adopting work-life policies because they recognize it helps business. David Groff, managing partner of the Seattle law firm Groff Murphy Trachtenberg & Everard PLLC, has created individualized policies "to accommodate life choices," the attorney says. The firm offers three months of paid parental leave, then three months unpaid, followed by a return to optional part-time work. Providing these benefits has more to do with staying competitive than caving in to workers' demands, Groff explains.

"We've always wanted to attract the best people, gender-neutral," Groff says. "It seems there are at least as many or more women with good resumes than men, at least for hire."

Work-life-supportive benefits also make Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) famous. The national outdoor recreation cooperative, founded in Seattle, has been recognized for eight years as one of Fortune magazine's 100 best companies to work for. Beyond standard benefits, the company provides paid or partially paid salary continuation for family caregiving, for up to six months. It offers tuition assistance, public transit subsidies, sabbaticals and more -- all part of a flexible benefits program meant to meet the changing needs of full-time employees over the course of a lifetime.

Michelle Clements, vice president of human resources, says REI's benefits are structured around what she calls "the life-growth curve." This includes starting a family, adopting a child and taking care of elderly parents.

While helpful for employees, Clements says these benefits also bolster REI's success. "Our business model involves selling very complex products. Knowledge is a key component to our success, so we're looking at getting that employee to stay with us," Clements adds.

Government policy could help level the playing field

Few corporate or public sector employers bend for workers the way Groff and REI do. Marcia Meyers, an associate professor for the schools of Social Work and Public Affairs at the University of Washington, says employers don't do much because they lack legislative policy to back them up.

"It's tough for just one employer to [make changes]. We need collective solutions of public policies to spread the cost, across workers with children and across the life course, across employers. Collective solutions level the playing field."

Meyers points to other highly developed countries -- the capitalist market countries of Western Europe -- as standards for policy structure that supports dual-income families.

"At a much earlier time, these countries recognized that key points help families balance," Meyers says, with paid parenting leave, universal high-quality child care and working-time regulations topping the list.

The United States, Meyers notes, lags behind.

The good news is that some states are moving toward enacting basic work-life legislation. Washington, for example, is considering a bill that guarantees paid time off for new mothers who are eligible for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) benefits. California passed similar legislation a year ago.

"We need to have a value system that considers the family important," Cannon says. "Out of that, a lot of different policies fall out."

Looking beyond the status quo

The work of stay-at-home mothers may look a lot like it did in the past. Grueling -- although for many mothers immeasurably gratifying -- and unpaid. And then there's the nagging question of whether mothers' employed partners should do more to offset the workload, or if they should even swap roles for a while.

For Elizabeth Brecht, a mother of two preschoolers and a former import specialist for Mattel, tail-chasing-type questions don't lead anywhere. Her husband does plenty at home, she says.

"I have the more emotionally demanding job, the more stressful job," Brecht says. "But even before I quit my former full-time job, my husband had more earning power. It doesn't make sense for us to reverse roles."

While enjoying greater earning potential, men certainly face stresses of their own. Fathers commonly feel overworked and imbalanced, Meyers says. "Many are missing their families."

Men's challenges aside, professional women have serious work ahead of them -- not just at home and in the office but on the street. Moris, a veteran of 1970s feminism, claims we're riding the tail-end of the 1980s feminist backlash. If mothers want to see policy reform, they need to get political, she says -- for their kids' sake as much as their own.

Our daughters and sons deserve to lead balanced, fulfilling lives. Changes made now will serve them for a lifetime.

"The most important thing you can do for your children is work for a sustainable society, even if you can't get them to ballet class," Moris says.

This article reflects ParentMap's commitment to ongoing coverage of work/family issues. Look for further updates in ParentMap online and in ParentMap Magazine.

Natasha Petroff is a Puget Sound-based writer, marketing communications consultant, mother and stepmother.




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Ideas for riding out the carousel years

  • Form community. Initiate dialogue with other professional women who have children.
  • Want flexible work arrangements or part-time work? Ask for it.
  • Negotiate fair, prorated compensation for part-time work.
  • Hire help if you can afford it.
  • Devote child-rearing years to strategic voluntarism -- that is, tied to interests or long-term goals.
  • Get political: Contact legislators.

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