I haven’t written about this in a long time, but it’s something I think about constantly. I am a working mom in America, a country where working mothers comprise half the workforce and yet earn not only less than men in their same positions but also less than women who don’t have kids. I am a working mom in America, one of the only developed nations without a national paid maternity leave. I am a working mom in America, where quality childcare is difficult to find, where most employers do not support flexible schedules and where women with children are frequently pushed onto the “mommy track” where they will get less responsibility and fewer promotions.
I will be the first to admit that, as far as working mothers go, I have it pretty darn good. As a teacher in a public school my salary is dependent on my level of education and my years of service in the district; there are no men (or childless women) at my level making more than me, and I don’t have to worry about men or younger, childless women getting promotions that I feel I deserve. While it can feel stifling to only take a miniscule step on the pay scale every year (I’m actually approaching the place where I no longer move up on the pay scale, I’ve been working in my district for so long), at least I know what I should be making and that no one is paying me less than anyone else.
There are other benefits to being a teacher, the obvious being the (cumulative) month off of school during the year and the eight weeks off during the summer. The hours are a double edged sword, I have to be in so early that I don’t see my kids in the morning (and my husband has to managed them without my help) but I’m also home earlier, so my kids aren’t in daycare until dinner time (yes, teachers work a full eight hour day, plus all the extra time they spend in meetings, planning and grading papers).
Being a teacher can also be restrictive. The nature of my job means there is very little flexibility when it comes to schedule. I have been lucky enough to have accommodating administrators and was able to create schedules that provided the wiggle room my family has needed over the years. But that has also meant that I have had to move to part-time (80%) which affects my financial security, especially my retirement. My family never once discussed if Mi.Vida should be the one to take the cut, even when we made exactly the same amount of money (I actually made marginally more than him for many years), and I imagine that is the case in many families. For most Americans, it’s the woman who leaves her job, or reduces her hours, when kids come.
Being a working mom is hard. Really hard. (And I know being a SAHM is hard too–I’m not trying to compare the two, I’m only speaking about my own experience here.) You constantly feel pulled in a million directions, with your job, your children, your partner, your friends, and your chores all vying for your attention. There is never enough time for any one thing and there is a constant awareness of how much you are failing everyone. You’re exhausted and behind at work, thinking about your kids and then you’re overwhelmed at home, distracted by work. You are plagued by guilt, judging yourself for the ways you’re not being the employee you want to be and deriding yourself all the ways you’re short-changing your children. (If you had time, you’d also beat yourself up for what a shitty wife you’ve become.) And if you weren’t judging yourself enough, you’re aware of others judging you too. Your co-workers question your commitment when you have to leave early to pick up your sick kid and other moms ask you what it’s like for someone else to raise your children for you. My in-laws favorite jab is the timeless, “We didn’t raise our kids that way,” with which they mean, “we raised our kids ourselves, we didn’t ask family, or pay strangers, to do it for us.”
There are some days when it feels like entirely too much, like I’m drowning in a pool of ever deepening expectation. Some days it feels like a rat race, like I’m just racing from one of my many personas to another, never inhabiting any of them fully. Sometimes my alarm goes off at 5:30am and I’m literally moving non-stop until 11:30 at night. During those 18 hours I transition from one identity to the another over a dozen times. It’s exhausting.
I recently read Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink and seethed with rage at how difficult mothers have in America today. While I don’t have as stressful a job as the author, I could relate to so much of her experience. Reading the statistics she listed about working moms in America left me feeling incredibly depressed. It shouldn’t have to be this hard. When the majority of families need two earners just to get by, it shouldn’t feel so impossible to make it work.
Mi.Vida and I live in the most expensive city in the United States (yes, both San Francisco’s rents and home prices (this is average dollars per square foot of living space) have surpassed New York City, and childcare also costs more here than anywhere in the country). With the current tech boom, the difference between the rich and the poor is greater than anywhere in the country. The middle class is being pushed out, and for a public school teacher and city employee, just making ends meet is a Sisyphus-ian endeavour. I know we could choose to live somewhere else, but this is our home. Mi.Vida grew up here and my family has been in the Bay Area for 20 years. Both sets of parents live nearby, and if we want to have them in our lives, we have to spend a lot of money to stay here.
Some days I wish Mi.Vida made enough for me to stay home (he’d have to make at least TWICE as much as he makes now). Some days I wish that there were other options, that I could stop working if it became too much. But I must also admit that most days I’m relieved that I don’t have a choice, because honestly, I don’t know how I’d make that choice. The unknowns of leaving my job, even for only 2-3 years, are so debilitating. What if I couldn’t find a job when I was ready to go back? What if I were only able to find a job that paid significantly less than my current job? What if I weren’t working and my husband lost his job and we lost our house? What if I hated being home full time? What if I loved it and never wanted to go back? I don’t know if I would have the courage to make those sacrifices, if the choice were available to me. I know the choice would torment me, no matter what I decision I made.
Being a working mom is hard, whether you have a choice or not, but it doesn’t have to be. There are lots of ways our government, and our employers, can make it easier. In fact, it benefits individual business, and the nation as a whole, when dual earner families are supported. Flexible work schedules, production-based expectations (where employees are paid for what they produce and not how much face time they put in at the office) and increased sick leave all increase not only morale but creativity and productivity. Caring for children hones many valuable skills that are transferable in the workplace. If we valued care giving, and recognized how difficult it is and the skills necessary to do it well, maybe women wouldn’t be so afraid to leave a gaping hole in their resume when they stay home for several years. If part-time positions or job shares were more accepted and available, women wouldn’t have to make the definitive choice between working outside of the home or being confined to it.
I am a WOHM, and I don’t have any choice in the matter, but I wish I did. I wish other women, who do have choices, had more and better ones to choose from. I wish it weren’t such an all or nothing game, where striking a balance feels all but impossible not matter what you choose. I wish the work mothers do was valued and appreciated. I wish that systems were in place so that even if I couldn’t afford to leave my job completely, I still might spend more time with my family, and that I wouldn’t have to be terrified of the ramifications of doing that. I wish it were all just so very, very different.
If you are a working mom, what is the experience like for you? If you’re currently a stay at home mom, how did you make that choice? Do you think the US should do more to support dual earner families? Why or why not?