The Rest of Us

There are supermoms. There are superwomen. And then there's us.

(Illustration by Greg Mably)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rebecca Steinitz
June 1, 2008

Summer vacation looms large among the specters that haunt the 2 a.m. anxiety fests of the working mother. While corporate titans turn to their nannies, and stay-at-home moms schedule swimming-lesson car pools, the rest of us lie awake, trying to figure it out.

Of course, you might be forgiven for thinking there aren't many of the rest of us left out there. On the one hand, the media offer us profiles of executives who manage billion-dollar budgets alongside their babies. My personal favorite is Aerin Lauder, senior vice president and creative director at Estee Lauder, who juggles the daily office grind, two sons, and regular appearances in ball gowns and the pages of Vogue.

On the other hand, a constant stream of articles and books suggests that everyone else is choosing home and hearth over BlackBerry, business attire, and bank account. In 2003, Lisa Belkin, in a New York Times Magazine cover article, named this apparent phenomenon "The Opt-Out Revolution," claiming that women don't run the world "because they don't want to," at least according to a book club's worth of stay-at-home Princeton grads. The New York Times struck again in 2005, in a front-page article about undergraduate women at Yale who were already planning to forsake careers for children. Linda Hirshman, in a 2005 article in The American Prospect (expanded into a 2006 book, Get to Work), and Leslie Bennetts, in The Feminine Mistake (2007), exhorted what seemed like an entire country full of non-working women to return to their desks (they hardly made mention of checkout counters or factory lines) if they wanted to preserve their power and purse strings.

But it's neither superwomen nor supermoms that I see when I drop my younger daughter off at school. While the first-graders zoom around us, I strategize about summer vacation with the preschool teacher and the nurse, the freelance film producer and the nutritionist who's currently managing her husband's plumbing business, the law professor and the stay-at-home moms - not to mention the dads. And, tales of mommy wars notwithstanding, we're all talking to one another.

DO I LIVE IN SOME ANOMALOUS CORNER OF WORKING MOTHERHOOD? I don't think so. Despite frequent sightings of weekday-morning stroller-pushing moms and the much-ballyhooed dip of about a percentage point in the rate of women in the workforce between 2000 and 2004, statistics show that more than two-thirds of mothers work.

Single mother Colleen Lofgren of East Bridgewater is one of them. Lofgren works full time as the administrative coordinator for the office of UMass Boston's division of government relations and public affairs. Her job has "so many opportunities," she says. "I'm learning something new every day." She also works two nights a week at the Ashmont Grill in Dorchester. "I'd like to get to a point where I don't have to do that any more," she says, but "that money is soccer money, grocery money, movie money, pocket money." Family members and a baby sitter help out with 11-year-old Madeleine, but Lofgren admits, "It's a struggle sometimes."

In 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 66.8 percent of married mothers with children under 18 were employed, as were 72 percent of single moms. Just over three-fourths of those mothers worked full time. While women with children under 5 were on the job at slightly lower rates, they still clocked in at a solid 65 percent. In fact, the percentage of women and mothers who work outside the home has been rising steadily not only since the women's movement burst forth in the 1960s, but as far back as 1890, the heyday of 19-century industrialism.

Why, then, are Americans still inclined to see working mothers as an issue rather than a fact? Rosalind Barnett, research director of the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis, suggests that we're still attached to old stereotypes in which "notions about mothers include things like `relational,' `caring,' `selfless,' `warm,' `submissive,' not words like `ambitious' and `careerist.' In periods of dramatic social change, people cling to these ideas as an anchor." If those ideas still serve as anchors, working mothers are society's lightning rods, attracting our ambivalences and anxieties about economic instability, competition, and child rearing, not to mention changing gender roles.

Although women are firmly ensconced in the workplace, the glass ceiling remains a reality. Higherpaying construction and manufacturing industries are still largely the province of men, while women remain concentrated in retail and service jobs. Though the number of women in college, law school, and medical school is coming to equal or even exceed the number of men, women's progress slows as they move along professional career paths.

In 2003's "The Opt-Out Revolution," Belkin wrote: "Despite all those women graduating from law school, they comprise only 16 percent of partners in law firms. Although men and women enter corporate training programs in equal numbers, just 16 percent of corporate officers are women, and only eight companies in the Fortune 500 have female CEOs. Of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 62 are women; there are 14 women in the 100-member Senate." In 2007, the numbers weren't very different: Women were still just 16 percent of equity partners in law firms; 13 Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs (compared with 10 in 2006 and nine in 2005); and there were 16 female US senators and 74 women in the House of Representatives.

Wait - that's not very different, but it's a little different, and over only four years. Could it be that the glass ceiling is cracking, rather than shattering, as dramatic breakthroughs give way to the often frustrating slog of complicated, incremental change?

CERTAINLY THE 93 PERCENT OF LAW FIRMS WITH initiatives that provide women with professional development, mentoring, and networking opportunities hope so. And accounting firm Deloitte LLP is sure of it, with more women in senior management than any other major accounting firm, 14 years into its Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women, which has focused not just on mentoring and leadership development but also on creating a more flexible workplace for all employees.

Outside of traditional corporate pathways, there are other positive signs. Women own 46 percent of businesses in the United States. The number of businesses owned by women has been growing at twice the rate of all businesses, while women of color have been buying or starting their own businesses at the striking rate of nearly five times that of all privately owned companies. And let's not forget that in 2006, the United States got its first female speaker of the House, and 2008 saw the first viable female presidential candidate. Meanwhile, four Ivy League universities as well as MIT have female presidents.

Still, the United States has never seen anything like Norway's 2003 law requiring corporate boards to be 40 percent female. Indeed, in April, the US Senate shot down the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would have made it easier for women and minorities to sue over pay discrimination. Did I mention that women still make about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men?

All this good news/bad news might cause whiplash, but regardless of statistics and stories, women keep working and keep trying to make work work, as suggested by a spate of 2007 titles like Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers and Comeback Moms: How to Leave Work, Raise Children, and Restart Your Career Even If You Haven't Had a Job in Years. The biggest challenge? Taking care of the kids. The biggest need? Flexibility.

EVELYNE DELORI OF ARLINGTON SEEMS TO have it all worked out. As a nurse practitioner at a community health center in Lowell, Delori sees patients three days a week and loves her job. Though her husband, John Riley, often works nights and weekends (he is a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital), he has a flexible schedule and can usually arrange his shifts to meet the family's needs. Their older son is in first grade at the neighborhood public school, and their younger son goes three days a week to a nearby day-care center. With the help of Delori's mother, the couple have managed to have someone at home with the boys every afternoon.

Then came the morning a toilet exploded and flooded the day-care center, just as Delori was dropping off her son. Riley was already at work, she couldn't reach her mother or cousin, her usual backups, and she was left scrambling for a solution. "You're going through your Rolodex: Who's off on Wednesday? Who do your kids know?" she says.

But it's not just the emergencies. Academic studies and books, like " `Opt Out' or Pushed Out," a 2006 analysis of press coverage of working women by Joan Williams and colleagues at the Hastings College of Law's Center for WorkLife Law, and Pamela Stone's Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007), make it clear that inflexible workplaces are the greatest obstacles to women's success. If a management consultant is expected to travel three weeks a month, or a factory hand is required to work overtime, or a waitress is not allowed to trade shifts, the difficulty of balancing children and work heads toward impossibility.

Refusing to claim the superwoman cape, Debora Spar - Harvard Business School professor, author of six books, mother of three school-age children, and incoming president of Barnard College - gets straight to the point, naming "the world's best child care" as a primary factor in her success. Spar says the women she knows "who have thrown in the towel couldn't find child care."

Princeton professor Katherine Newman, author of several books on the working poor, says that poor women work for the same reasons as middle-class women: "to be autonomous, independent, and stable." "Working is very important for their identities and being able to care for their children," she argues, but poor families spend an average of 29 percent of their income on child care, low-income communities often have low-quality day-care options, and all bets are off if the kids get sick.

These challenges are a major reason why some women who can afford it stop working. But lots of women can't afford it, and lots of women want to work for reasons other than financial necessity. So while we're waiting for laws and employers to catch up with us, we do what we can. Some of us stay home when our children are younger, some of us work part time, some work from home one or two days a week, and everyone who is able to depends on a safety net of child-care providers, relatives, and friends. "We all rely on each other," says Delori. "We build up our networks."

Barbara Thornton, owner of the Boston specialty shoe-salon website, has done it all at one point or another. After starting out in city planning and then consulting while staying home with her children, she got her MBA from Harvard Business School in her mid-40s, decided the corporate life was not for her, and started her own business. Thornton cautions women who leave the workforce not to expect simply to return to jobs they left behind, especially if they were on a corporate track where employees are expected to reach certain professional benchmarks at certain ages and stages of their careers.

Instead, to younger women who hope to be moms one day, Thornton says, "the most important thing is to train yourself for a career that will enable you to work flexibly. Get the skills, and use those skills to get the flexible position you need and want. I absolutely believe you can do it all; you just can't do it all at once." And Spar says, "I love seeing young women who really do believe they can have it all." She wants to make sure her Barnard students "don't lose that can-do attitude, while letting them know that life will be complicated, and they need to start thinking about how they will do the juggling that is going to confront them."

That's what life is like for me and my friends in the schoolyard. Neither starry-eyed optimists who believe it will just work out, nor doomsayers convinced that we and our children will suffer unto eternity, we simply want to find the perfect combination of camps, sitters, grandparents, and vacations that will get us through the summer.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington. Her essay “A Great Place to Have a Baby” appears in Mama PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, due out this summer. Send comments to

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