Friday, February 29, 2008

Imperfect Mom

One of the biggest struggles for me as a working mom is getting past the image of ‘super mom’ that we feel pressure to achieve. Most of the stress I feel about my work/life harmony is with things I am not doing on the home front.

So I am just going to throw it out on the table, admit a few things that I feel I am not doing well. So here goes…

Why I am an imperfect mom:

  • My three-year old makes semi-regular trips down the hall at 2am to crawl into bed with me and my husband. Everything I read says this is not a good thing, we are not teaching her good sleep habits, she is interrupting our sleep etc. I’ve read that with some strict persistence, she will stop after a few nights or weeks of us saying no. But I am just too tired to battle her. She’s had bad sleep habits since she was born, and at this point I am counting on the physical exhaustion of her teen years to get her to stay in her own bed.
  • My kids do not eat as well as they could. Thank goodness for the great pre-school they go to that serves them a well-balanced meal each day. I work in some fruit and veggies hear and there, but I know they eat too much pizza and chicken nuggets.
  • I don’t know that I’ve given them the opportunity to participate in all of the sports/activities that they should. They are only 5 and 3, but every time I talk to another mom, I learn of yet another activity that my kids aren’t involved in. Maybe my daughter is going to miss her opportunity to be a world famous dancer because she didn’t start when she was born??? Will my son miss out on his chance to be a starter on the high school soccer team because I didn’t sign him up last season??? Who knows what all they are missing out on.

So these are a few of the things that keep me up at night. There are more, but I can only confess to so much at once. It feels good to admit my failings. Or better yet, to consider that maybe these aren't so bad anyway.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Social Responsibility

Something I always emphasize is that your work and family decisions are personal. That is, only you can decide what is best for your own arrangement in caring for your family and providing financially.

But, as I have continued reading Leslie Bennett’s "The Feminine Mistake", a more public aspect of this decision becomes clear. As I have said many times, change in the workplace will only come about when parents begin to demand change. While an individual who gets the work arrangement that he or she needs will advance the cause, it is only through a collective effort that we will see real change

As we know (and I will talk more about this week), workplace flexibility has been primarily a women’s issue. After reading Bennett’s book, I have started to thing more about my obligation to the women who came before me to continue advancing womens’ place in the work world. If not for ourselves, but for our daughters so that they don’t need books about work/life balance when they are old enough to pursue a career?

Here is an excerpt from Bennett’s book that is directed at women who chose to opt out instead of demanding the work arrangement they need:

“So here’s one message a lot of successful women would like to pass on to those who think that opting out is the answer: If you don’t like the way things are set up, work to change them. If you have problems with the way your job is structured, figure out some creative alternatives. If you just walk away from paid employment, you will not only have cheated yourself of the opportunities that might have come your way but you will also have forfeited your chance to have an impact for the better. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.””

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jon & Kate Plus Eight

Let me just admit it, I am a reality TV junkie. I don't know what the attraction is, I am an just drawn to reality shows. I particularly like those on TLC, as they seem to be a little more interesting and less dramatic.

So another one that has me thinking about family friendly work is the one I am watching while I type, "Jon & Kate Plus Eight." It is about a young couple that has twin daughters who I think are now 6 or 7 years old, along with six three-year olds. (learn more about the show here) I enjoy it becasue their kids are about the same age as mine, there are just many more. It makes my life seem easy.

The first year I watched it Jon worked full-time and Kate had cut back to just a day or so a week as a nurse. This season, they say that Kate quit her job as a nurse to stay home with her kids. So how do you support a family of ten on one salary? Well, you do a reality TV show! You then become a celebrity and get paid big bucks to do speaking engagements.

I have no idea how much Kate and Jon make to film this show, but you have to believe that TLC makes it worthwhile for them. Further, they are constantly getting free trips and products from companies that want to be featured on the show. Some people may criticize them, suggesting that they are exploiting their children. But I don't see it that way, and I am sure that Jon and Kate don't see it that way either. In fact, they mentioned at one point that they are excited to have their kids' young lives on tape. With eight kids, who has time to pull out a video camera?

In addition to the revenue from the show, Jon and Kate are also paid to speak at events. I checked out their website and see they have a fairly active speaking schedule. It seems like they mostly speak at religous events, and they pretty much seem to just be sharing their story. But, they are paid to do so.

If you have eight young children, working outside of the house would be close to impossible. How much money would you have to make to offset daycare costs? And how exhausted would you be trying to get out of the house each day? I am pretty much exhausted from just trying to get two ready to go.

Now obviously not everyone can get a reality show, or get paying speaking engagements, but there are ways to get work in around your kids lives. Or better yet, you can integrate your work into your kids lives as Kate and Jon have done.

For me, it involves sometimes grading papers while the kids draw pictures. I read about a florist mom who took her daughter to the flower wholesales shops with her each day to pick up flowers. Or my friend Jill who flips houses. She often takes the kids along to see houses or has them around while she works on the properties she owns. Other ideas?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Secret Life of a Soccer Mom

The Learning Channel (TLC) debuts a new reality show next week that gives a stay-at-home mom a glimpse at the career she dreamed of before making the choice to stay home. (Read more here, airs on Monday, March 3 at 10pm).

I'm planning to watch as I am curious where they are going with the show. Is it to show us that no career matches the joy of staying at home? Or to allow those at home to think about what they might be missing from a career standpoint? Or is it just another reality show that will find the drama where it can?

They report that at the end of the show the featured mom will make a decision as to whether she will begin her new 'dual' life as a working mom, or if she will return home. There are so many issues related to this decision, I am curious to see how they address it. Will they explore the financial impact of the decision? Look at self-esteem issues? Explore the kids' reactions?

I guess they have at least lured me to watch it. Will let you know what I think once I see it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For

Generally you will find that if a company has good, solid management practices, they often also have family friendly practices and policies. Good managment practices often create an environment where people want to work.

One of the most well recognized lists of good companies to work for is the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Wor For. Companies are rated on a variety of aspects including benefits offered, turnover rates, job growth and number of women. Fortune has recently relaeased their 2008 list.

While one of these 100 companies may not be near you, you can first learn more about good management practices by learning about the types of benefits and policies that these companies provide for their employees. Further, many local organizations create lists similar to Fortune's which recognize good management practices at companies near you. For example, I am in Northeast Ohio and a local organization here sponsors the Northcoast 99 which showcases the top 99 local employers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Military Sacrifice

If you felt your maternity leave was too short, and feel that your work doesn't allow you to spend enough time with your family, you should feel fortunate that you aren't in the Army. A recent article in the Washington Post (here) details some of the challenges parents that are deployed in Iraq are facing.

Those on active duty now serve 15 months overseas, and then 12 months at home. Army women who want to start families must time their pregancies to coincide with the 12 months at home, which doesn't leave much time to spend with your baby before another deployment. If you have a baby, you can only delay your deployment for 4 months.

The article shares the story of Amy Shaw who spent just 4 months with her newborn, and then was deployed to Iraq. Other than a tw0-week visit halfway through, she won't see her son again until he is 19 months old.

So beyond the poor benefits our country has for working parents across the country, it seems that our government treats those who sacrifice the most for our country even worse. Leave your baby, or leave your job.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Does the U.S. Fall Behind?

The U.S. falls behind pretty much every other industrialized nation when it comes to supporting working families. The Project on Global Working Families released a report last year that provides some surprising facts about the shortcomings in U.S. policy (see full report here).

Here are a few:
- Out of 173 countries studied, 168 countries offer guaranteed leave with income to women in connection with childbirth; 98 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks paid leave. The U.S. offers none (the other four countries that offer none are Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland)
- At least 107 countries protect working women’s right to breastfeed; in at least 73 of these the breaks are paid. The U.S. provides no protection.
- We know that time off benefits are important to families, however the U.S. is not one of the 137 countries mandate paid annual leave.
- At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 providing a week or more annually. More than 79 countries provide sickness benefits for at least 26 weeks or until recovery. The U.S. provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the FMLA, which does not cover all workers.

Why are these things important? According to the report paid leave and other family benefits are important because:

- Improve children’s health outcomes by making more time available to parents to provide essential care for children, by facilitating breastfeeding which reduces the risk of infections,. More time for parents also allows for the formation of bonds between parents and children, fostering positive emotional development of children.
- Improves economic conditions of families by increasing the long-term employment and earning prospects of working parents, especially by eliminating the wage "child penalty" mothers often pay, thereby increasing job security and ensuring consistent income.
- Benefits employers by reducing staff turnover, which can lower recruitment and training costs and improve workers’ productivity. When workers feel supported, they have higher levels of job satisfaction that, in turn, increase their commitment to their company’s success.

So it would appear that the U.S. which seems to be a successful nation lags dramatically in the area of supporting working families. While I have become a little more politically active over the last few years, I don't know enough about national policy setting to really understand the root of this lag. This is, however, one of the reasons I think we should pay close attention to who we are electing to lead the country this year.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Financial Dependence

So yesterday I caught an episode of Oprah. I like Oprah, but often find that she wastes time on trivial issues. (I caught one episode dedicated to how to find a pair of jeans that fit you- now I know that this is an important issue to many women- but it seems odd that the next day the show would be dedicated to something as diametric as child molestation).

Yesterday's show caught my attention as it focused on a stay-at-home mom whose world was turned upside down. (This link should take you to the story). The episode shared the story of Sylvia who had been in an abusive marriage for more than 15 years that produced four children. She stayed because she didn't think she could make it on her own. Her family lived a luxurious lifestyle that she later found was beyond their means.

It all came to an end when her husband committed suicide. As a final gesture of abuse, three months prior to his death her husband stopped paying the bills including the mortgage and his life insurance. So upon his death, she had nearly $500,000 in debt, and less than $100 in her savings account. She also had no job and had not worked in more than 12 years.

This is a tragic story, but the good thing of Sylvia sharing her story with Oprah is that she was given the assitance of the well-known financial advisor Suze Orman who seemed to have a plan to help her. That plan involved moving from her huge 5 bedroom home into a one bedroom apartment. It also resulted in asking family and friends for help both financially and taking care of her children.

But there are many other Sylvias out there who don't get the help. Most relationships don't end in this manner, but I would guess that this was not Sylvia's plan when she decided to stay home with her kids. An extreme? Yes, but even a less tragic version of these events could create a lot of trauma for a mom forced to provide for her children without the skills and experience to do so.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Flexibility is Top Need

Yet another survey points out the importance of offering flexibility to workers. According to a recent survey by Hudson (a professional staffing firm), 29% of workers surveyed consider work-life balance and flexibility as the most important factor in deciding on a job. Second place goes to compensation at 23%. (See details here)

Unfortunately, most employers still think pay is the most important factor. What companies don't understand is that most people are willing to forgo a higher paycheck if they can have some control over their lives instead. And interestingly, offering flexibility is less costly than increasing employees' pay.

So what is it going to take to get companies to start offering more flexibility to employees? Surveys and other data such as this certainly can help employers see the benefits of flexibility. But often companies only see the need if they feel it directly. That is, company management will see the need for flexibility when they begin to receive multiple requests for flexibility.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why Not?

When asking for flexibility at work, the most important thing is to focus on the needs of your company. By positioning your alternate work arrangement as a good business decision that saves your company money or benefits your customers, you are more likely going to get your request granted.

However, the first response of many company managers is "No." The no is not always because the manager is not open to something different. It is usually because the idea of flexible work is something new, and the manager is not sure about how it will work. When change is feared, it is just easier to say no.

The next step in the negotiation process after a no response is to ask questions to try to figure out what additional information you need to provide to convince your manager that your arrangement will work. And the most simple question you can ask is, "why not? "

If you challenge your manager to see beyond their immediate resistance to change by asking him and her why your arrangement won't work, you will either find that there is no reason it won't work, or you will get more information to restructure your proposal.

The hardest part is asking. Many fear that their manager will think less of them if they ask for flexibility. But, if you approach your request conveying your interest in helping the company succeed, you will more likely impress your boss.

Friday, February 8, 2008

How Working Moms are Portrayed

Last night I caught a preview of a new show on NBC, "The Lipstick Jungle." Another series based on a book by Candace Bushnell of "Sex and the City" fame, the story follows the lives of three women in New York. Brooke Sheilds plays the role of the working mom, as a busy movie executive with two young children. I didn't watch the show as I generally try to avoid TV, but the story of Brooke's character has me a bit intrigued. The preview clips I did catch show her struggling to be a mom while keeping up with her 'extreme' job. One scene has her narrating her day, talking about dropping her son off at school and then coming home at night after he is already in bed. Another scene shows her providing advice to her daughter who responds that she can't just pick and choose when she is going to be a good mom.

Again, I did not watch the show, but I wonder if this show will truly portray the struggles of a working mom, or if it will overdramatize the stress providing an unrealistic picture that might influence the impression young women have of managing work and family. I know, it is just a TV show and shouldn't really matter.

But, images of women on TV do influence society's general perceptions of moms. For a more detailed discussion on culture's influence on us, check out "The Mommy Myth" by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. Great book, and it makes you think about how you've come to have unrealistic expectations for yourself based on what you learn in the world around you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

At the end of life...

We always hear that as people near the end of their life, they never say "I wish I would have spent more time at work." This is true for many who later in life regret spending too much time at work, and very little with their family. Who can really argue with such a thought?

But a friend shared some comments of an older colleauge with me the other day which made me think, maybe some people will regret spending less time at work as they near life's end. I know I don't have all the details of the story exact, but basically my friend was talking with an older woman who had moved in and out of the workforce in order to make her family her priority. While she accomplished moderate success in her field, for the most part her life was devoted to family.

She loved her family, and was proud of her efforts, but questioned if she missed out on something by not putting more effort in advancing on the career front. And I think this is a justifyable concern. While I respect those who forgo career in favor of parenthood, I wonder how many stay-at-home parents are also giving up a dream? A feeling of accomplishment that is different that child-rearing? An opportunity to contribute to the greater good of society?

The fact is, you can be a great parent and also have a successful career. While most parents will agree that their children are their biggest accomplishment, you could argue that some parents contribute more to the world through their work. For example, my OB/GYN is the proud mom of four growing children. But she also brought my daughter safely into the world (in spite of a power outage in the middle of my c-section!), along with hundreds of other infants. Is this any less of an accomplishment than being a mom?

As I near the end of my life, I hope I can say that I gave my best to my family, and also to my career.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Parenting in the Workplace

As I mentioned earlier this week, "balance" is a misnomer. One way to acheive harmony in your work and life may be to find ways to better integrate your family into your life. If your family involves a new baby, you could integrate your family with your work by bringing the baby with you. I've shared articles before with stories of companies that welcome babies in the workplace. Again this evening I came across such a story, this time on the national evening news.

Tonight's news highlighted the Parenting in the Workplace Institute which is working to encourage more companies to embrace infant at work programs. The Institute provides resources to both parents and companies. The site includes success stories, sample policies and also a listing of several companies that already have infant at work policies in place.

I do think this model can work, however, I also believe working parents do need a chance to focus on work without a child around. Even if you can get a lot of work done with your baby around, sometimes it can become stressful. I speak from experience! While I have always had a childcare provider available to me, there have been many days over the last few years when I have needed to get some work done while I have the kids with me.

I probably did it more often when they were babies, but it was something that was still a bit challenging. I found that having at least a day or two to concentrate on work while the kids were in capable hands allowed me to stay on top of what I needed to get done, without stressing too much. On the flip side, the opportunity to spend more time with my kids made it much easier to be a working mom.

But I work for myself, so creating this work arrangement was easier for me. If you work for a company, it will be more challenging to convince your employer to allow you to bring your baby to work. As with any family friendly work arrangement, it is unlikely that your company will put an infant at work policy on the books unless they see a demand for it. And they will only see that demand once you ask. The Parenting in the Workplace Institute is a great place to get started in preparing your proposal.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Value of Other Parents

One of the best resources for working parents are other parents. Other parents can help watch your kids in a bind, or give you advice on dealing with your kids. Other parents also can help keep you informed about community happenings. I wouldn't know when kindergarten registration is, or which soccer league has the best schedule without my network of other moms.

But, it takes some effort to build a network of other parents. This is especially true if you are a transplant in a new community. These days most people don't live in the same neighborhood where they grew up. Further, even if you've lived in a community for some time, your circle of establsihed friends may not have kids in the same stages as yours.

Once your kids are in school, there are many opportunities to meet other parents. But, it is a little more challenging when your kids are young. Often a walk through the neighborhood with your kids will help you find other families nearby. There also may be some organized opportunities such as MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers, or there may be a local group in your area. In my community we have a "pre-school PTA" which is affliated with our school system, but is just for parents with children not in school yet.

As I have been considering our options for kindergarten for my son, discussions with other local moms have been invaluable in understanding the pros and cons of our different options. The insight from other parents goes well beyond any booklet that a school provides.