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Making work work for moms

When you become a mother, you have your choice of umpteen how-to books to guide you on everything from when to change a diaper to how to say goodbye outside your firstborn's college dorm. But try to find guidance on how to blend motherhood with a career, and you're likely to come up short. The workplace certainly doesn't offer any solutions. It's no wonder, then, that Anne-Marie Slaughter's words of wisdom on the topic have been devoured by thousands.

First came Ms. Slaughter's wildly popular 2012 essay in The Atlantic: Why Women Still Can't Have it All. Expanding on that essay's premise, Ms. Slaughter last month released a book, "Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family." She tackles, head on, what most working mothers are afraid to say and what non-mothers seem oblivious to: Balancing motherhood and (paid) work is hard.

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To the outside world, Ms. Slaughter seems more than capable of maintaining professional success as a mother; she is, after all, a law professor, author, Princeton University dean and president of a think tank. And yet, Ms. Slaughter once stood before a roomful of 20-something ambitious Rhodes Scholars and acknowledged her personal struggles balancing public service work and parenthood.

"What poured out of me was not really a talk, but more a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children," she wrote in her book. "It may have been naive of me not to expect this tension, given my commute, but I simply assumed my family and I would make it work the way we always had."

Coincidentally, Ms. Slaughter's two children were teenagers, like mine.

Recently, I told myself that when my children were a little older — both in high school, perhaps — I definitely would feel ready to return to full-time work. Before that, I believed middle school was the magical time to move from part-time consulting to a more grueling work schedule. And while motherhood may have muddled my memory, there probably was a time, maybe when my children were infants, I thought I'd be prepared to go back to the corporate grind when they entered grade school.

I'm still waiting.

How can someone whose children are teenagers not be able to manage a full-time job? The short answer: I work hard to "achieve balance in my life," which is code for trying to do it all.

The boring details? As a "default" parent, I handle the bulk of my children's doctors' appointments, cover most school-related transportation and juggle last-minute schedule changes. I also manage our family's finances and do the majority of household chores, save for seasonal lawn care. And I consider myself fortunate: I have an incredibly supportive husband who takes an active interest in our children's academic and extra-curricular activities.

My situation is not unique. According to a recent survey by Working Mother Research Institute, mothers — even moms-slash-breadwinners — shoulder the majority of household and child-care-related chores.

Needless to say, working mothers are busy. Before I joined the ranks of motherhood, I had no idea just how busy. Consequently, I didn't understand why a working mother would request a flexible job situation. I frowned upon women who managed to obtain one.

About 20 years ago, before seriously considered having children, I was part of a group of employees interviewing a prospective job candidate about joining our team of writers at a start-up health communications firm. We were all female. None had children at home. (Two children and two decades later, I would realize that this was not a coincidence.) The candidate in question had a solid resume. Impressive writing clips. Good ideas. But we couldn't get beyond what seemed to us a ridiculous request.

She asked if she could work part of the time from home. She was the mother and primary caregiver of a young child. After the candidate left, we — her interviewers — exchanged flabbergasted reactions. Her application immediately went into the "no" bin.

Then there was the woman I knew only from a distance, at another job. She left work at 3:30 p.m. every day. I found it mysterious and unfair. Little did I know that this working mother's schedule, after 3:30 p.m., likely included hours' worth of chauffeuring, cooking, homework help and household errands.

Twenty years and two children later, I know that mothers aren't the workplace pariahs they're too often made out to be. Rather, we're some of the most committed, organized, fast-on-your-feet thinkers you'll ever meet. No wonder, given our experience managing a family's complex schedules, interpersonal conflicts, and decisions big and small.

To quote Ms. Slaughter: "Perhaps the problem is not with women, but with work."

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Elizabeth Heubeck is a freelance writer based in Towson. Her email is eheubeck@gmail.com.

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