MOMS IN THE WORKPLACE: Fighting the Big Five Fears

Over the past 50 years, there has been a quiet revolution in this country as more mothers have entered the workplace. While the ideal family may still be conceptualized in many quarters as the father as sole-breadwinner, with mom staying at home, real life is very different for a growing number of American families. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the participation rate of mothers with children under the age of 18 in the overall labor force was 70 percent. Furthermore, 53 percent of married women with a child under a year old were employed, and 62 percent of women with a child under 6 were in the workforce. In other words, if you are a mother currently re-entering the workplace, or thinking of re-entering the workplace, you are far from alone.

However, this is not a decision taken lightly by mothers. It is a landmine full of emotions ready to explode. In the workshops I run on helping stay-at-home mothers return to work, I ask women, "What are your worst fears about returning to the workplace?" It is often by voicing and clarifying these fears and sharing them with other mothers that solutions are found. Each mother's fears are unique, and are dependent on many variables — the age of her children, her spouse’s attitude, and the way she, herself, was parented as a child. Nonetheless, some definite themes are evident.

Mothers are worried about how they’re going to make things work for themselves and their families. As one mother said, "I was worried about getting everything done. I wanted enough time with my son, to get my hair cut, get food on the table, clothes for my son, and clothes for me — and I didn't want to get fired!" Under the pressure of all of these demands, women are afraid they will fall apart. As another mother said, "I won't have a second to myself and I'll be constantly pressured." Some mothers feel pulled in two directions. One mother reported, "I'm a teacher and my work includes spending time on the weekends grading papers. So, when I'm working, I feel like I'm not spending enough time with my son, and when I'm with my son, I feel as though I'm not spending enough time working."

However, it is possible, if not to do it all, then at least to do those things that are most important to you. Susan Ginsberg, editor of the monthly newsletter, Work & Family Life says, "Finding time is the willingness to set priorities. It is not rocket science. So set realistic expectations and if it doesn't work one way; try it another, be flexible." It is hard to manage so many different tasks, but certainly, if women choose to, they can do it.

FEAR #2:

Many women feel that if they go to work and are not on top of things, nothing will go right in the house, with their children, neighbors or schools. They worry about, "Who will help my daughter with her homework?" "Who is going to put clean shirts in my son's closet?" They are scared, "The house will fall apart!" For some women, their sense of self comes from their maternal identity. As a result, they feel as though they are the only ones who can do these tasks. At a workshop I recently gave, one woman expressed how important it was to her that she made dinner for her family every night with "my own hands". Giving up these tasks becomes tantamount, for some women, to giving up their identity.

However, if you are planning on going back to work, whether part-time or full-time, again there is no way you can do it all. Solutions are as varied as the women who return to work. One woman at the same workshop, who was committed to working full-time in her home office, employed a housekeeper who made dinner for the family most nights. Another woman with four children, the youngest a one-year-old, worked part-time as a physical therapist which allowed her flexible hours so she could work and care for her children and home. In her case, the family had no choice — they needed her income.

From a psychological perspective, there can be an unconscious wish that the house disintegrates into chaos without the mother’s full-time presence. The mom might not be able to say that out loud, but nonetheless the sentiment exists and they may even thwart their own efforts in order to ensure failure. Why would a woman do something that on the surface seems so crazy? In this way, the importance of her stay-at-home role is confirmed; there is no doubt that the sacrifices she has made for her children and family have meaning.

Almost all women worry about how their absence from home will affect their children. The research shows that children of working parents do very well, however. Kids of working parents tend to be more independent and self-reliant. When they grow up, these children tend to be more open-minded when it comes to gender roles. There is even evidence of increased academic achievement, especially when the mother wants to work and has adequate support at home and in the workplace. However, some women fear they will become obsolete if not controlling their child's every movement. Their children won't need them any more — while they continue to need their children. Rest assured: Nobody ever replaces mommy. She remains the irreplaceable and central figure in her child's life.

Some mothers also fear that without being present constantly, their child is not safe and will be hurt, either emotionally or physically. It is only their presence that can protect their child. These kinds of fears are usually a result of the mother's own upbringing where somehow it was communicated to her that the world was not a safe place and that danger lurked everywhere. There is no way any mother can protect her child from every hurt in growing up. Indeed, in allowing children to handle some of these challenges on their own, resiliency and a sense of their own competency are promoted. That's a good thing!

FEAR # 4:
The other big fear is about finding a job. For some women, their concerns have to do with self-confidence. What am I going to do? I've been out of the workplace for so long. Does anybody want or need me? For other women, it means finding the "right" job. This can mean a part-time position that will allow them to drop off and pick up their children from school; or compromising by returning to a junior position — compared to where they were before they left the workplace to have children. As one mother who was looking to return to work reported, "I'm concerned about returning at the same level, status, salary and compensation package."

FEAR # 5:

Women also express other concerns. Some are fearful of being judged a "bad mother" for having interests and ambitions of their own — and having a desire to give voice to them. As one mother said, "I love my daughter, but when I'm not working I feel as though a part of me is sleeping." Women tend to still judge themselves by the standards of the 1950s, with the stay-at-home mother caring full-time for her family.

But women need to remember that they can create meaning and value through their own efforts, independent of their children. Not only is it good for them, it’s good for their children to see their mothers as interesting, talented people, excited and enthusiastic about their own interests and actively pursuing them. Indeed, some women hide through stay-at-home mothering their feelings of being somehow inadequate, incompetent or even damaged. They are fearful to test their abilities in the world.

Returning to the workplace can be hard, fraught with conflicts and fears and real-life difficulties. However, if you set your mind to it, it can be done. Look around you. Millions of women are doing it right now, and millions more will do it in the future. All it takes is some planning, prioritizing and looking at a return as a positive in your life and your family's life. As my own mother said, "If you want to do something, there are a thousand reasons to do it, and if you don't want to do something, there are a thousand reasons why not."

LAUREL S. SCHWARTZ, Ph.D. is a featured speaker on helping mothers re-enter the workplace. Dr. Schwartz is in private practice in New York City, where she focuses on interpersonal and work issues. She can be reached at (212) 439-8898.

Ways to Ease the Transition
By Susan Hodara

While the decision to return to the workforce can be rife with conflict and doubt, there are many ways to change your perspective, open your mind to the possibilities, and thereby facilitate your transition, according to Linsey Levine, M.S., a career counselor and professional resume writer who is the owner of CareerCounsel in White Plains. “People, especially women who’ve been out of the working world raising children, get stuck inside their fears,” she says. “They worry that they won’t be able to juggle work and family, that their lives will overwhelm them, or that no one will want to hire them.”

Levine calls these “limiting assumptions”, then goes on to suggest ways to overcome them. One, for example, is communicating to others. “Talk to as many people as you can about your fears,” she says. “Articulating your thoughts helps you challenge them. And other people are sure to respond with lots of great ideas and solutions.”

She also notes that simply changing your vocabulary has the power to change your attitude. “Instead of facing the day with dread, if you say to yourself: ‘I will be able to handle the challenges I might face,’ or, ‘I will find the resources I need to make things work,’ things start to look more manageable, more encouraging,” explains Levine, who estimates between 40 and 50 percent of her clientele are mothers returning to work.

Before starting their job search, Levine urges women to think carefully about their goals. “Write a list of the most important qualities you want in an employment situation,” she says. “They could range from proximity to home, to opportunity for advancement, to flexibility of hours. The more you can envision yourself in a position, the more likely you’ll be to find it.”

In her practice, Levine encounters women who do not want to return to their more labor intensive, high powered, pre-children careers, but are unsure of what else they want or are qualified to do. “They don’t know how to transfer their skills,” she says. “They underestimate the value of the volunteer work they might have been doing. They have no idea what’s possible.” To counteract this, Levine turns to course catalogs for Continuing Education programs at local universities. “They can be great idea generators,” she says. “Even reading the list is inspiring, but you can often find a weekend or a night course that can get you moving in a new direction.”

For women entering a new field, salary can be another sticking point, especially if you were earning a large income in your previous work. “It may be unrealistic to expect to earn the same salary as you did before you had children,” Levine says. Instead, she continues, “Be flexible and look at different options. You might have to start at a lower amount, but you can build into your agreement an evaluation after a set period of time. Once they see your performance, they may be willing to raise your pay.”

Women who’ve waited until their children are off to college have the added concern that they are too old for some jobs, but Levine insists that there are many opportunities for all ages. “Don’t forget,” she says, “you have years of decision-making and management skills.”

Regardless of age, identifying your passions is a critical part of succeeding in the workforce, Levine believes. “You stand the best chance of success when you’re doing something you’re interested in and enthusiastic about,” she maintains.

Need more help?

Having a baby can throw a wrench in your career, even if you plan to return to work immediately. You can get helpful, sisterly advice from Paige Hobey, in The Work Gal’s Guide to Babyville: Your Must-have Manual for Life with Baby (to be published next month by Da Capo Press, $14.95). Hobey, a mother of two kids under age 3, addresses full-time, part-time, freelancing, job sharing and flextime, along with child care logistics. The book’s even longer subtitle, “How to nurture a super sleeper, enthusiastic eater and all-around contented child while managing your life and career with wildly unexpected, Zen-like control”, gives an idea of the scope of the book, which is both practical and funny. Dr. Allison Nied, a NYC pediatrician and working mom, offers tips on breastfeeding, pacifier use, napping and developmental milestones. — J. A.

Top 10 for Working Moms

Each year, Working Mother magazine announces their 100 Best Companies for women to work at. “We consider all areas of work/life, including a company's culture, family-friendly policies and compensation,” explain the editors. Here’s their latest top 10 list:

Bristol-Myers Squibb
Eli Lilly
General Mills
JFK Medical Center (Atlantis, FL.)
Price Waterhouse Coopers
Prudential Financial
S.C. Johnson

The complete list, with descriptions, can be viewed at:

The Mommy Wars By Madeline Bodin

The Yankees and the Red Sox. Cowboys and Indians. Mommies who work . . . and mommies who stay home. Why do people who have so much in common despise each other so much?

Because I work part-time, I am a double agent in The Mommy Wars. Sometimes I get mistaken for the enemy. No harm there. In this war, we are extremely polite to the enemy, or at least extremely polite in the face of the enemy. Often enough, though, I’m mistaken for a true believer. I get to hear things I’m not supposed to, and things I wish I never did.

I get to hear that working moms are selfish and greedy. That they value the growth of their careers, of their unshared goals, more than they value the emotional and physical (because we know how kids pick up germs in day care) health of their children. They have an almost infinite amount of time to themselves while commuting and in their cubicles. They have an entire lunch hour in which to pursue their most selfish desires.

I also get to hear that stay-at-home moms are rich and lazy. That they use taking care of their children as an excuse to do whatever they please (if watching a soap opera while gabbing with your friends benefits children, please tell me how that works). They have an almost infinite amount of time to do anything, from cleaning their houses to cooking dinner to volunteering at school. Who wouldn’t stay home if they didn’t need the money?

Because I am selfish and greedy as well as rich and lazy, I can tell you both sides of the story.

Stay-at-home moms see working as a land of designer business suits, catered lunches, hushed conference rooms, top salaries, complete fulfillment and intelligent, witty co-workers. Makes me wonder where they worked before they had kids — and if they're hiring.

The weirdest concept in that weird package of concepts is that time at work is time to yourself. Sure, there is no one tugging at your skirt or throwing up on you (unless, of course, you work at Hooters), but time at work is your boss’s time. If you are self-employed, it is your clients’ time. In my experience, those bosses and clients are demanding — not quite as demanding as a 3-year-old, but demanding nonetheless.

But what about those mostly mythical stay-at-home moms whose houses are clean and who have time to watch daytime television? What about those largely legendary working moms who always look like a million bucks and have time for step-aerobics class on the way home?

These too-good-to-be-true moms make us feel bad about ourselves, so we seek revenge by declaring that what they are doing is all wrong. It's the fine art of turning jealousy into schadenfreude. Maybe their neglected children will turn their living rooms into crack dens.

Imagine, instead of thinking of a stay-at-home mom as lazy and stupid, you could admire her shiny floors and seek to emulate her relaxed attitude. Instead of thinking of a working mom as a selfish child neglecter, you can admire her shiny hair and ask for tips on time management.

Yeah, you're right. It wouldn't work. Almost every mom I've asked for her secret to success denies the success adamantly. They'll accept your praise for the most beautiful and tasty cookies at the bake sale, but then confess that their answering machine is buried under piles of children's pictures and they haven't seen it in years. Or they'll accept your congratulations on their promotion, but in the course of the conversation they'll admit that they keep their children up late at night, just so they can spend more time with them.

In The Mommy Wars, we are the enemy, but no one seems to know this. Double agents like me are few. I've watched women quit their jobs or go back to work and change their opinion of those on the other side as if their memories were erased when they crossed the threshold and an airtight door had snapped shut behind them. Women on either side of that door believe that there is a window in it. I go through that door every day, and I'm willing to tell you now that there is no window offering a glimpse of the mommies on the other side. There is only a mirror.