I just found out the other day that one of my dearest friends is expecting her second child. There was a note of fear in her voice when she told me, and when I asked her what that was about, she told me she didn’t think she could keep working with a toddler and a newborn.
One of my other friends at work often comes into my classroom and tells me she thinks she could definitely be happy leaving her job and staying home with her year-old son.
Another work friend of mine is expecting twins in October — her third and fourth children — and has decided to take the rest of next school year off to care for her growing family.
I had to pause after hearing all of this and ask myself, is this the Twilight Zone? Don’t we live in an era of feminist reforms and famous working moms (Marissa Mayer, anyone?) that have allowed mothers to stay at work without the stigma associated with being a bad mom?
That might be so, but my friends are not alone. The Atlantic reported recently that 43% of women with children leave their jobs. This statistic was featured in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” but was unfortunately not accompanied by any advice or wisdom about how these women could re-enter the workforce when their children were grown up. With almost half of working women leaving the traditional workforce to become stay-at-home or work-at-home moms, and women making up about half of the population, we’re talking about a quarter of America’s workforce here. Why are they leaving en masse, and how can we get them to re-enter the workforce when they are ready to do so?
The story of the working mom is not a new one. As a teacher, I have the unique opportunity to work with teachers who are moms and to see parents of my students who are working night and day to make ends meet. On both sides of that spectrum, I have seen haggard women walk into my classroom after a long night with a sick child. I’ve seen the strongest women I know reduced to tears because they just don’t have time to breastfeed and work. Our generation has been told that we can do anything and that we can have it all — we can choose whatever career we want and have a family, as well. Of course we can! But maybe we can’t do all of that at one time. One of the most powerful things a woman can know about herself is where her limits are, and if she knows that taking time off to raise her children is what she needs to do — not only for her family, but for her own sanity — then we, as a society, should make it possible for her to do that.
The problem is, we don’t. Once women leave the workforce, it’s difficult to get them back. The bottom line is that companies are not very family-friendly. Of the top 2012 “Working Mother” family-friendly companies, only one offers telecommuting as an option. Hardly any offer flex time, and many of those might require new training for someone who already has a lot of experience in the workforce. Top this off with the fact that we already live in a sexist world where employers hire men strictly because they believe men will not take as much time off and can work longer hours even if they have children at home, and we have a situation in which it is incredibly hard for moms to re-enter the workforce.
Some moms, like Paulette Light, are able to start their own business or find freelance work that allows them to work from home or create their own hours, essentially giving them the best of both worlds. However, this isn’t always an option, and certainly won’t make ends meet in the first few years if she has become the sole breadwinner in the house.
The bottom line is that our nation needs more comprehensive maternity leaves that would allow women to stay at home during those all-important first years of the baby’s life. We also need better flextime options and a workforce that encourages women to take time off to deal with family emergencies rather than punishes them for it. I, myself, don’t have children yet, but I hope to in the future. While I doubt that, by then, these policies will be in place, I hope to see some improvement very soon.
Photo Credit: rankun76