Reconsidering Mommy-Track Jobs

Around December 15th, Ian was diagnosed with whooping cough and missed a week of school. Then schools closed for ten days after Christmas. Later, schools closed again for two snow days and one flood day. Since my kids go to school in different school districts, they always have different school holidays. Both boys were off for one week off in February. Jonah's school is closed this week. Ian will be home for a week later in the month. There were two parent-teacher conferences. And twice, I had to pick up a sick kid from school.

In the past, those school vacation and emergencies put me in a cold sweat. Steve would use a couple of weeks of his vacation time to watch the kids during the school breaks, but most of these childcare crises were my responsibilities for obvious reasons — if he loses his job, we're on food stamps.

The morning routine was also entirely on my plate. Steve boards his bus for the city before the kids even wake up in the morning. 

There were the expenses and headaches of hiring people to help us. We paid triple the costs at a daycare to cover a shadow for Ian. We had flaky babysitters who weren't patient with Ian or who forgot to show up. There were many times that I paid more to babysitters than I made from teaching.

I'm so lucky to not have to deal with those problems this year. It is such an enormous weight off my shoulders. 

Angie Kim explains that feminists are reconsidering Mommy Track jobs.

UPDATE: The White House is having a conference on work-place flexibility. I'm watching it online RIGHT NOW. (3/31/10 2:00PM) Dooce is there.

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29 thoughts on “Reconsidering Mommy-Track Jobs

  1. I think that advocating for women to have a choice concerning their careers entails accepting and celebrating women who make choices to make their lives better. It seems to me that you’ve made such a choice — good for you!

  2. I’m not sure how much choice I’ve had, PhilosopherP. Things just worked out this way. If some silly union rule hadn’t terminated my employment last year, I would probably still be working. There are no other employment opportunities, so I haven’t had to make any tough decisions. It’s just how things have worked out. At first, I was terribly pissed off about throwing away all those years of education and experience, but there have been some unexpected benefits. I feel ten years younger. My next job will be very, very low stress.

  3. I was about to say, Laura, there’s not much choice involved in having to step off the underpaid and overstressed treadmill that is working while care-giving.
    What gives me problems with the mommy-track is that women still struggle when they attempt to re-enter the working world in many situation (even in minimum-wage, retail jobs), that doesn’t give one interesting and challenging situations as Kim’s law-school classmates turned part-time lawyers can find.
    I don’t see this changing radically any time soon. The jobs that are out there, even for the entrepreneurial types, don’t flex easily. Retail outlets have to be staffed during business hours. Phones have to be answered and call centres don’t embrace flex-time (not at all).
    I embrace the concept that more people could have access to more caring and flexible work situations. Having fully portable health care really helps, too, (that’s one of the factors I love about living and working in Canada). But I don’t think that most people, especially women who step off the regular work track, are going to find it easy to build themselves a rewarding work life outside the normal structures. Not now and not anytime soon.

  4. I totally disagree that you can have only one parent with a consuming career. I just don’t think a consuming career has to be 60 hours a week. We seriously have to re-think work, not family.

  5. The problem with “Reconsidering Mommy-Track Jobs” is that you aren’t really “reconsidering” them — you are merely re-stating the good parts about them. More flexibility, good hours, more time with the kids . . .
    What is not being considered at all is the down-side. Put in starkest terms, it is “What if your husband dies/ gets laid off/ runs off with his secretary and you have no steady work history to get you a good job when you really need it?”
    Or, to get away from scare tactics to things you may find likely — what if your youngest reaches middle school/ high school/ college and doesn’t need you on a minute-to-minute basis? Now you are on the mommy track, but with less duties as a mommy. Will you be able to get off? Maybe you have a good chance if you are a Harvard Law Grad — but maybe not.
    Mommy track might be the best game in town — for 10 years of your 40+ year productive work life. (Which likely includes the period during your 10 year law school reunion.) But I’d like to see the longitudinal study here. Is the choice that leads to a happy mommy with the 7 year old going to be what leads to the happiest mommy with the 17 year old and 27 year old?
    I’m not sure.

  6. “What if your husband dies…”
    Life insurance is dirt cheap, considering the risks involved. If you are in a position to weight the pros and cons of the “mommy track,” you’re in a position to spend $50 a month on your future. (Add in caveat about major health issues, which is a very good reason to buy in before you get major health issues, if at all possible.)
    I would really miss my husband if he were to die, but dying is really the least bad bad thing an insured husband can do.

  7. If you are well enough to consider the mommy track, you should have robust life insurance and disability insurance, and probably/definitely a post-nup agreement providing for the non-working spouse’s support in the event of a divorce.
    We have two out of the three, and I’m seriously considering pushing for the third. It’s not romantic, but if we both benefit from the permanent hit I’ve taken to my private economic welfare (and we do), then making sure I have a settlement is the least spouse can do.
    I’m going to pretend I’m Harriet Vane, without the wit and writing career, and let my Lord Peter promise me money no matter what.

  8. How do these jobs affect retirement savings? Are we counting on one partner to save enough for two in his or her 401k? If a person spent 5-10 adult income-earning years in graduate school, then stayed at home for 10 years with a child or children, how will that affect the funds available at 65? It seems to me that many of the folks on the parent track will have to work at least through their 70s. At the very least, unpaid full-time caregivers should earn Social Security credits. This is the subject of H.R. 769: Social Security Caregiver Credit Act of 2009, which is currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee, I think.

  9. I hear you on the post-nup, Jody. We’ve talked about it, but haven’t done it. Yet.
    And yes to the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act, Christiana.
    There are definitely pros and cons to the mommy track life, just as they are for regular jobs. Actually, my regular job paid so badly that a mommy track job in another field will probably pay better. A mommy track job may not be as fulfilling as a full time job, but it gives you the time to do other things that are fulfilling.
    You are taking a risk of being screwed over by divorce, if you do the mommy-track route. But in our case, the risk of dying from a heart attack from all the stress was greater than the risk of divorce.
    My childcare needs are extreme: husband with a high pressure job and a long commute, 2 kids, 1 kid with special needs who requires therapy and attends school in another district, no after-school daycare available to the special needs kid, a low paying/high pressure career.
    As things stand right now, it’s a mommy-track job or nothing. Until the state magically provides wonderful, cheap childcare to all children, the workplace returns to the 35 hour model, schools stay open more often, special-needs kids receive proper therapy without mountains of paperwork, and jobs magically appear, then it’s a mommy-track world for me.

  10. It seems to me we have sort of smushed together several issues: how does a couple get the most money? how can partners be protected against betrayal by the other? how are kids most secure and happy? and by the way, I’d like a pony.
    I had a mom who worked mommy track – stayed home until I was well launched in grade school, then took librarian jobs which didn’t conflict much with being there for us. Dad was in the ‘calling’ job. In our house, I’m in the dependable-for-kids mode, generally, and my wife is the one who went for glory and 60-hour weeks. My parents retired with enough money, we kids have not had to kick in for them, and if my mother’s last illness is not wildly expensive, we will even inherit something. We seem on track for the same with our kids. Maybe that’s why I’m inclined to nod agreement with the Casnocha post I cited above.
    Is that dependable for the future? And, this is such a educated-class navel-gazing topic, anyhow! You invest your 401(k) in your company, and your company turns out to be Enron, you are so screwed. You have kids, and #1 and #2 are wonderful, and #3 is autistic and you spend your life scrabbling together enough to keep him going after your death, and #1 and 2 are forever resentful. You have everything arranged, and you get Lou Gehrig’s. The divorce courts can protect you when the mister goes off with a popsie with perky tits, but nothing can fix real calamity.

  11. I was a SAHM for 12 years, the last 6 of it being heavily involved as a volunteer at my kids’ school. That led to a mommy-track job at the school, which eventually led to a real job at the school- it’s professional responsibility but 3/4 time. Now that job has given me the skills and background to hopefully move into professional jobs with non-profits. I never would be here if I hadn’t been a mother with a flexible schedule. I networked and gained skills as a mom, and it served me as a professional.
    Since B was laid off twice in the last three years, my job has kept our heads above water. It looks like he may go to grad school in the fall, and I will remain the primary bread winner.
    Like Dave S said, you can plan all you want, but you can’t make contingencies for everything. We had one year’s income saved the first time my husband was out of work. It’s long gone. We’ve had to dip into retirement for emergencies. I’m fairly confident that 10 years from now we will have recovered- but our retirement will never be what if would have been had we not had this curve thrown at us in this awful economy.

  12. I’m a little (no, actually a lot) skeptical that prenuptial agreements can equitably cover all or even most of the financial eventualities (children, no children, bankruptcy, business success, disability, business failure, lengthy unemployment, substance abuse, gambling problems, failure to pay taxes, a lottery win, an inheritance, a real estate windfall or disaster). I suppose a prenuptial agreement makes more sense if you get married as a middle aged person with a well-established financial life or children, but in general, the worst marital failure scenarios are the ones where there is nothing to divvy up or where you would be happy if they just disappeared along with their creditors.
    Also, if you are Catholic, prenuptial agreements need to be looked at carefully during the marriage prep process, since some of them can canonically invalidate your marriage.
    http://www.diopitt.org/serves_tribunal_canon.php

  13. We didn’t do prenup, now we are 20 years in and my guess is we will be married til we die. A prenup seems like a bet against the marriage, bad luck. But, AmyP, I think you are right that if one partner has children or is well established, that’s when they can make sense. It kind of offends decency when the late second wife runs off with the swag and the kids from first wife are left with nothing.

  14. “We didn’t do prenup, now we are 20 years in and my guess is we will be married til we die. A prenup seems like a bet against the marriage, bad luck.”
    The only prenup that I know about personally was between an elderly and somewhat demented widowed farmer relative and his second wife, who made tracks about two years after they got married. The prenup did make a lot of sense, given all the farmland and equipment involved, on the one side, but his farming kids were really ticked off a number of years later when it turned out that the terms of the prenup were that the second wife would get $2,000 a month in support. I suppose that it could have been a lot worse for the kids, but they had been living on basically nothing their whole adult lives, so in their world $2,000 a month was huge. I think they may eventually have bought her out with some sort of annuity.

  15. A prenup can’t cover all the eventualities, but it can cover some of them. The most obvious would include a non-equal division of assets. That’s what people getting married who already come in with substantial assets often agree to. One could make the same agreement later in the marriage, to account for the weaker future earning capacity of the spouse who didn’t pursue a lucrative career. It allows a family to determine for themselves what an equitable distribution of assets would be, rather than living that up to the courts (and, trumps the community property divisions that see equal as the equitable distribution.)
    Prenups usually deal with premarital assets, but they could deal with post-marital assets. Prenups that try to dictate future behavior, though, seem to run into the problems people are describing. But, one could come up with financial ways of describing the obligations (i.e. a loan, payable over time).
    We’re going on 22 years of marriage (26+ years of relationship). We’ve lived apart, in 6 different places and I expect that we will be married forever, as well. But, I don’t regard a prenup a bet against marriage anymore than a will is a bet against life. They’re a way of codifying financial relationships, and when those relationships are complicated they need to be codified, even between people who love and are committed to one another.
    (and, what would the consequences of canonically invalidating one’s marriage be?)

  16. I think there’s a lot of conflation between (a) given the world as it is, what’s the best choice?, and (b) given a realistic but more ideal world, what choice would you like to have?
    In a world with a Soc.-Sec. funded “parent track” with equal mommy and daddy participation where it is easy to jump on and off as needed — Yey, Parent Track!
    In the “real world,” where mommies need to be available at all times, and it’s really a choice of not being able to work, and being able to work in a Mommy Track job — Yey, Mommy Track!
    I was largely responding to Angie Kim’s article, where she surveys a bunch of female lawyers 10 years after graduation, and finds a lot of them on the mommy track — many of them (self-reportingly) claiming they chose it because it is ideal for them. Maybe so, but . . . How many of them would have preferred to work full-time while daddy got “tracked,” but didn’t find it a realistic option? How many of the happy mommy-trackers with 5 year olds will be miserable mommy-trackers with 15 year olds at the 20-year reunion?
    Only the most politically-oriented feminist will make a choice that is bad for her personally because she believes that it is good for women overall. And given the current range of options, mommy-tracking makes tons and tons of sense for many women personally.
    My concern is that these sorts of “revealed preferences” from a compilation of dozens of New-Yorker-Magazine-style articles lead to the conclusion that “This is what women want.” Well, maybe kinda sorta. But maybe not really.

  17. “(and, what would the consequences of canonically invalidating one’s marriage be?)”
    That the couple didn’t actually enter into a Christian marriage, so that each could be free to marry somebody else in the Church at some later date. A canonically invalid marriage could be fixed afterwards, but it would be a weird thing for a Catholic to go into a marriage, knowing that it was invalid. Here are a couple other acts that (while fortunately rare) traditionally also invalidate a marriage:
    1. kidnapping your intended and coercing them into marriage
    2. killing a spouse with the purpose of entering into a second marriage (the second marriage doesn’t canonically take)
    The list of reasons for annulments has gotten a lot longer and fuzzier over the years, but I’ve always thought those two items very sensible.
    “In a world with a Soc.-Sec. funded “parent track” with equal mommy and daddy participation where it is easy to jump on and off as needed — Yey, Parent Track!”
    Even hypothetically, I don’t think it is a good idea to make personal plans based on the idea that a government agency is going to send me a check every month 30 years from now until I die. I think we really have to bracket Social Security out of this discussion.
    “I was largely responding to Angie Kim’s article, where she surveys a bunch of female lawyers 10 years after graduation, and finds a lot of them on the mommy track — many of them (self-reportingly) claiming they chose it because it is ideal for them.”
    Aren’t lawyers generally miserable?

  18. I think people often talk about mommy’s mommy-tracking while their children are young, but not older. As a mom (and, Laura – at Geeky, it’d be interesting to hear your take on this), I’ve found my mom responsibilities increasing as I got older (not decreasing). Of course, that’s in the context of having child care available — when my kids were little, of course they needed nearly 24 hour care (remember, my kids don’t sleep), but I could have other trusted people take on that care (paid & unpaid).
    Now, I find my children often need a parent, and that it’s difficult to delegate the responsibilities that a parent does from ones a nanny/caretaker does. Some responsibilities simply can’t be transferred to others (and I have a broad relative based support network nearby). Some responsibilities can be transferred, and some of the parents I know do, and some of them I hate to do (driving, I hate driving my kids around). And, it’s difficult to separate these from the other ones (the long car-based conversation I had with my daughter about how she’s grown in the last year).
    I personally, have not found it any easier to have both my kids in school. I don’t know what it’ll be like when they’re 15, but I suspect there will be plenty of responsibilities stretching my time then, too. When they’re actually in college — well then, I see that I won’t have responsibility for them any more. But until then, I expect them to be a huge time commitment.

  19. One of my aunts returned to work after her six-week maternity leave after each birth, but she and her spouse saved like fiends to enable her to quit her job when their kids hit middle school. Finding someone to care for infants is incredibly difficult, but finding someone to supervise teenage boys is not any easier.
    In my extended family, most women work because they have to. They’d quit their non-creative, non-personal-growth jobs in a minute, if they could afford to. As would the men.
    But there’s no question that most of the men don’t really even consider the issue of job satisfaction an issue. They just know: of course they’ll work.

  20. “When they’re actually in college — well then, I see that I won’t have responsibility for them any more.”
    My youngest cousins (9 years younger, so in their mid-20s right now) were having their moms proofread college essays. Email makes this more feasible than it would have been in past years.
    “One of my aunts returned to work after her six-week maternity leave after each birth, but she and her spouse saved like fiends to enable her to quit her job when their kids hit middle school.”
    I’ve heard of something similar being the pattern among some Asian families.

  21. Many professors would consider it academically dishonest to have a parent proofread a college essay. Just sayin’

  22. “Many professors would consider it academically dishonest to have a parent proofread a college essay.”
    I just asked my husband the professor his opinion, and he disagrees, saying that he always asks his students to have someone proofread their papers. He adds that it is a nice touch to add acknowledgements, something along the lines of “I would like to thank XYZ for their proofreading and helpful suggestions.”

  23. Like pretty much everything in education, I’d say it depends on context. Considering that I have others proofread my writing, I think it’s wrong to have a blanket rule against allowing students to have their papers proofread. We want to have students see themselves as writers, of course.
    The problem is the level of work that goes into the writing before it is proofread. When I give my work to someone to look at, I have myself looked at it numerous times and am sure I’m giving my best to someone else to read.
    Too often, students write crap, know it’s crap, and give it to their parents to “proofread.” What they’re really doing is handing off half the work of writing to someone else with more experience. (Worse is when they hand off the editing job to Microsoft Word.)
    We (in my department) have been talking about the need to teach effective editing to students. My students had a paper due this week, so I made them hold on to the papers while I taught a lesson in editing/proofreading. Then I told them to spend another 10 minutes looking at their papers again. I told them it was ok to make corrections. It’s kind of fun listening to the self-deprecating groans and ahas. 🙂

  24. Speaking of parental overreach, one of my relatives once spotted a label on a science fair project that thanked “my graduate students.”

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