A few months ago, a girlfriend of mine was on the phone with a bigwig exec from L.A. She was skilfully convincing him that he should fork over a very large sum of money to invest in a film her company was producing, when a low rumble turned into a startling roar. “What the hell was that?” asked the exec. “That” was a projectile spit-up from her baby, who she’d slung over her shoulder while trying to close the deal. Deflated, she suddenly found herself confessing that she was a mother of three, working part-time up in Duntroon, Ont. – realizing how embarrassingly un-legit it all sounded. Soothing both her baby and the potential investor, she was doing what all part-time working mothers do: gracefully teetering between triumph and disaster.
THE RIGHT-NOW ANSWER
When and how to layer work back into your life after having a baby can be one of life’s most agonizing decisions. There’s no “right” answer when you’re making a choice between leaving your child all day and possibly letting the career you’ve worked so hard for languish. Enter the part-time option. You scale back hours but still have the intellectual stimulation of work and a toehold in your career. You have more time with the family but not the potentially mind-numbing isolation of being at home full-time. On paper, it sounds ideal. So, it’s no wonder that when women tell their friends they’re returning to work these days, the first question they hear is, “Did you ask for a shorter work week?”
“There was never a question that I wasn’t going to go back,” says Rahat Pye, mother of three-year-old Ava and 13-month-old Inaya, of her job as a Toronto social worker. “It was just at what capacity.” And it’s not just her. After the valium-inducing monotony of the ’50s suburban stay-at-home-mom model, and manic “have-it-all” ’80s super-mom ideal, it’s no wonder we are trying to seek out an arrangement that’s more, well, sane when it comes to the balancing act between work and motherhood.
EASIER SAID THAN DONE
Still, attempting to cleave work and family into two neat halves can make even the most together woman feel wobbly with spent adrenaline. And trying to land the elusive, still-lucrative part-time work arrangement, in addition to the even more elusive part-time daycare spot, can make you feel like June Cleaver on crack. Not to mention the fact that most women can’t really afford to see their paycheques dwindle, let alone cut in half.
“If part-time becomes a schedule you can control, then it is the solution to all life’s problems,” says New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin, author of Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom (Simon & Schuster). “But if it becomes a place you’re put and you never get to leave, then it’s a disaster for women. And I don’t know which it is yet.” (Belkin spoke to me, in typical working-mother style, from a cell phone in a cab on the way home from the airport.) She insists that you have to be able to direct your own show, otherwise all part-time offers is a job with no benefits, no career track and a salary that sadly reflects this status.
In her cover story for The New York Times Magazine, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” Belkin proclaimed that mothers have begun to opt-out, ratchet back and redefine work. A mother of two, Belkin has been told that her own arrangement is “the goal.” “I work from home, theoretically part-time – in that I have three jobs that are each three-quarter time, so you do the math,” she says, referring to her column writing, magazine work and radio hosting. “But the trade-off is I get to do these jobs on my schedule.”
Of course, there are naysayers who don’t believe that tempering career and family is the answer. Take Bonnie Fuller, the manically chipper mother of four, high priestess of celebrity mags and author of The Joys of Much Too Much (Fireside). In her book, Fuller extols the pleasures of multitasking in a jam-packed schedule. “I take my son and daughter to karate class on Saturday mornings, for instance, and join the class myself,” she writes. “That way I am getting an additional workout, and spending time with my kids at the same time.”
But let’s face it: Fuller isn’t exactly your garden-variety mother. Most moms working full-time don’t have a stay-at-home partner to help or a $1.5-million salary to pay for club memberships and personal chefs. That’s why most part-time working moms can’t say enough about the stuff that even one extra day off work helps them achieve. Think laundry, grocery shopping, doctors’ appointments and real quality time with the kids that isn’t compromised by rushing through the daycare-to-dinner dash.
WOMEN WHO JUGGLE
She’s aware that it’s not easy to find, but Toronto design editor Sally Armstrong has secured a part-time arrangement where she works two days one week and three the next. “I was lucky in that they were able to divide my responsibilities – I had to drop the creative side of things, and I primarily manage now.” Armstrong, mother of Luke, 5, Annie, 3, and five-month-old Holly, really wanted to keep her foot in there. “I remember when I had my first baby I thought, ‘I’m not really ready to walk away from this yet.”
Armstrong also admits that the shared nanny who comes to her home four days a week is the glue that holds everything together. If things get busy at work there’s flexibility. “I don’t have to pay $10 for every five minutes I’m late, which I’m sure would be pretty stressful,” she says. The other reason most women would kill for her arrangement? One day a week, she and her nanny overlap. “It gives me a day where I can do one-on-one things with the kids or I can get out and do some things for myself.”
For other women, pursuing the part-time option means going for a job that’s less than perfect but easier to leave behind at the end of the day – or simply more lucrative. Calgary-based Kate Pittman, mother of 19-month-old Lauren, decided to waitress part-time during her daughter’s first year rather than flex her hard-won social work degree. The only problem was that restaurant work offered anything but a fixed schedule, making daycare arrangements onerous. “A nanny would be ideal, but it’s just so expensive, especially if you are working shift work and you don’t know what days you’ll be working until the week before.” She’s since switched to part-time social work.
CHOOSE – AND SCHEDULE – YOUR CAREER WISELY
Women have come a long way in the corporate world, but mothers still have a long way to go, especially in more traditional fields. Melissa Jones’s experience as a part-time lawyer was so toxic that she asked that her name be changed for this article. Mother to three-year-old David, she found practising part-time so unbearable that she ended up on a sick leave. Most women lawyers don’t take a full mat leave or work reduced hours, because it looks like they have a lessened level of commitment to their job, she explains. And the high-wire act of part-time can take on nightmarish proportions in such a public role. “It makes it even more difficult to juggle all the balls, because you’re standing up there in front of a judge, looking like an idiot,” she says.
Even in more family-positive work environments, the transition from full-time to part-time can be difficult. As social worker Rahat Pye points out, “One of the hardest things is the time constraint at work.” Trying to hammer her workload into a fixed amount of time, Pye often ends up putting in more than four days a week. “It’s hard with my job, because it’s not like an ad won’t get put out or a deadline won’t be made: it’s someone’s life.” The unpaid overtime required to earn a part-time salary is a double whammy, adds Jones. Organization becomes critical. “The opening-mail time, the going-to-get-a-coffee time is more abundant when you work five days a week,” she says. “It’s a thief when you work three, because it takes up too much time.”
Freelancers and entrepreneurs who work from home require an especially strict work ethic, given constant interruptions and a nagging sense that they’re never fully “there” at work or with the kids. Lori Lansens, mother of six-year-old Max and four-year-old Natasha, and author of The Girls (Knopf), has carved out the perfect writing schedule. “I set myself up for four days a week, six hours a day, and I make very, very good use of my time.” But she had to stipulate that her caregiver take the children out, because she found it impossible to write with them at home. “I couldn’t focus: I wanted to laugh with them and comfort them.”
On the home front, relaxation time is typically the first thing to go, for any working mom. “I get about two minutes in the shower,” says Colleen Pielechaty with a laugh. But the half-time professor at Brock University and mother of a three-year-old (with another child on the way) is still adamant that women maintain their ground in carving out a bit of career time while raising a family. “The pressures of being a mom and a wife can be overwhelming, but it’s just not satisfying enough for me to be a full-time, stay-at-home power mom,” she says. She’s fully aware that it’s a privileged choice, considering that just 10 years ago, her friend was bullied into leaving her part-time university teaching job when her supervisor found out she was pregnant.
FOR LOVE OR MONEY
So how do you make the part-time option work for you? Advocating for yourself is critical, says Linda Duxbury, a Carleton University professor at the Sprott School of Business who explores work-life balance issues. “You’ve got to ask for pro-rated benefits and make sure you’re not put on the ‘mommy track.” But you also have to consider your employer’s perspective when developing a well-researched proposal, because the increasing popularity of the part-time set-up is becoming a logistical nightmare for many human resources departments.
There’s also the burning question of how to find the right balance between your partner’s career demands and your own. “We always have this conversation,” Pye says. “My husband makes a lot more money than I do, but my job has a different value than his. It becomes, whose job is more valuable? Who has more of a right to say, ‘I need to stay at the office until 10 o’clock tonight?” Despite her commitment to her professsion, Pye accepts that her part-time status means she’s the one less likely to advance: “In the long term, I don’t see myself as a supervisor, because it’s too much work for too little gain.”
RESPECTING OUR DECISIONS
Given the economic hit and the delicate balancing act that can make even the most together woman feel like a hopped-up circus performer, would any of these mothers change their part-time arrangement? “If I only got to see my son for two hours a day, I’d be suicidal,” says Melissa Jones, the Vancouver mother who used to practise part-time law. But while Lori Lansens feels she has the perfect marriage of career and mother time, she also believes in supporting every mom’s choice: “Whatever it is, there’s always going to be a challenge.”
Mothers who work full-time often worry about not being there for their kids, while many stay-at-home moms longingly recall the adult interaction of their former working life. The part-time working mothers are in such a constant whirr of movement that they barely know where they are. Each choice is fraught with challenges and indecision; each has its rewards. As Lisa Belkin sighed from her cell phone in New York, “We’ve identified that we’re all lost, but no one’s come up with a map.” But our work decisions aren’t set in stone, our partners are pitching more than ever before, and the options are many. “We’re past the stage of proving that we can do the job,” says Belkin. Now we just need to create the jobs that will respect our lives, too.