What Moms Choose: Stay at Home or Work? | Working Mother

What Moms Choose: Stay at Home or Work?

There isn’t a mom around who hasn’t looked at someone else’s work life choices and questioned her own decisions. "What Moms Choose," a major new study from the Working Mother Research Institute, sheds light on how moms feel—and the paths they pick—today.

What Moms Choose Pic

What Moms Choose Pic

Like any mother, Rita Ross has her share of tough moments. There’s the morning scramble to get to her New York City classroom, the multiplying piles of student essays to grade, the desire to make the most of the hours she spends with her 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, and the nagging worry that her husband, Steve Bruner, is getting lost in the shuffle.

“I do feel guilty,” says the 35-year-old Brooklyn, NY, mom. “I love my work and I adore my family, but I have these sudden moments of feeling incredibly ill-fit for all of this.” guilt? Oh yes, Rita’s friend Jen Posner, a fellow working mom, can relate. The toughest moment of the 36-year-old urban planner’s morning, predictably, is when she has to peel Ascher, 2, off her leg and hand him to the nanny.

Both women admit to occasionally coveting the schedule of their friend Rachel Tsutsumi, who stays home with her 2-year-old son, Masa. She’s got it made, right? Not so fast, says Rachel, 38. Full-time motherhood gives her virtually no downtime and hasn’t made her immune from insecurity—the lingering thought Am I doing this right?—that her friends feel. “I certainly don’t think I do my job well every day,” Rachel says. She also worries about the difficulty of getting back into filmmaking when she’s ready to resume her career.

These women are far from alone in having days when they feel conflicted about their choices, according to What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report, a new study of more than 3,700 mothers prepared by Ernst & Young for the Working Mother Research Institute. Our survey shows that moms who work and moms who stay home aren’t so different—at least, not when it comes to guilt and worry. Roughly one third of all mothers, working or at home, say they often feel guilty about their contribution to the household. And nearly half (49 percent of working and 47 percent of stay-at-home moms) admit they are their own toughest critics.**[

Download a pdf of the entire report](http://www.wmmsurveys.com/WhatMomsChoose.pdf)**

“We see women struggling with guilt so often,” says life coach Shannon Kelley, who interviewed dozens of women for her book Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career—and Life—That’s Right for You. “The message women, particularly younger women, have been raised on is that we can be anything we want,” she says. “It leaves them with the feeling that they can—and should—be trying to do everything at once.”

Our brains know that’s impossible, but our hearts are a different matter—and the resulting angst wastes a lot of energy, says Karen Wilhelm Buckley, a management consultant who has worked with Clorox, Genentech and other companies and is the co-author of Savvy Leadership Strategies for Women. “I see guilt as one of the top limiters of success for women in any area,” she says. “It’s like putting one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake and trying to drive.”

Behind the stats, of course, are real women. For instance, this particular trio of Brooklyn moms—Rita, Jen and Rachel—who met at a prenatal yoga class when each was expecting her first child. They were candid with Working Mother about their moments of guilt and stress in the journey so far, as well as what’s working for them. here are their stories.

Feelings of Guilt
Rita, a high school english teacher in New York City, is the first to say she loves her job. But for nine months of the year, the load is heavy. Not only is she responsible for Sophie—an outspoken preschooler with a passion for chicken curry, Sesame Street’s Ernie and her scooter—Rita also has 120 juniors and seniors under her wing. On weekdays, she grabs the train at 7:30 a.m., returns home by 4:30 p.m., then goes back to work grading papers and planning lessons for an hour or more each night after Sophie goes to bed.

“I love the engagement with the students,” she says. “But the downside is I always bring the job home. I have kids emailing and texting me and asking for college recommendation letters.” In a perfect world, Rita admits, she’d love to cut her workload in half, but since she holds down the family’s health insurance coverage, part-time isn’t viable right now.

What Hurts
Not enough time with her husband or even a little “me time.” For Rita, even the occasional foray to the nail salon feels like she’s playing hooky, but skipping personal time altogether makes her feel like she’s lost a part of herself. (Turns out, this issue is universally rough for mothers. our study found 48 percent of working mothers and 42 percent of those at home say they feel guilty about not taking care of themselves.) “Working moms feel pressure to fill every nonworking hour with ‘quality’ time even though you know they’d like to squeeze in a workout or a solo trip to the bathroom,” says Meagan Francis, a blogger, mom of four and author of The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood.

Actually, says Francis, kids don’t need us to be perfect—or perfectly present. “Our ‘parenting’ matters less than being comfortable and happy being the people we are, because that’s what kids will learn from and emulate.” As for Rita’s worry about whether she and her husband are getting enough couple time, the data on dual-earning marriage is reassuring. “States that have the highest proportion of working wives also have the lowest divorce rates,” notes Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, who has studied the impact of women’s employment on society. Nevertheless, Rita’s concern is real (and shared: 39 percent of working moms surveyed say they feel guilty about the lack of time spent with their significant other). Coontz notes, too, that as the time parents spend with their children has risen—we’re at a historical high now, she says—adult couple time has declined. “It’s very important for marital quality to have adult time with your spouse,” says Coontz. “It doesn’t need to be solo time. It can be time out with another couple, but leave the kids behind.”
What Helps**
Seasonal balance. Rita relishes the work life inversion she has in the summer. She writes for a few hours in the morning but spends most of the day with Sophie. During the hectic school year, the Ross-Bruner home has a “blackout” between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. each night. “We turn everything electrical off—TV, computers, phones,” she says. “We’ll cook dinner and make it Sophie time.”

Kathy McDonald, a former Kraft executive and author of Creating Your Life Collage: Strategies for Solving the Work/Life Dilemma, says Rita is right on track. “We need an end-of-day ritual to signal the brain that it’s time to stop work and move into a role where we’re present for our children,” she says. “I advise people to set a series of steps they do each time. Organize the desk, write out a short list of the top three priorities they want to do tomorrow, and shut off the computer.”

Stick to the steps, even if you’re planning to fire up the laptop after your child’s bedtime, McDonald says. Many women—66 percent of working moms and a whopping 83 percent of those at home, according to our survey—believe the start and end of the day are crucial times to connect with children.

Rita’s Aha Moment
The very structure of work—being required to be up, dressed and on the train with thousands of other commuters each morning—helps engage her sense of purpose and make her free time more meaningful. But the flexibility of the teacher’s schedule, which allows a summer interlude, is what Rita really treasures. (Cue lots of moms nodding in agreement: in Working Mother’s survey, flexible work hours ranked no. 1, at 57 percent, when moms were asked to choose the benefits they considered most important.)
Under Pressure**
Rachel never leaves the house unprepared (with diapers, wipes, sippy cup and snacks in tow), but she didn’t set out to be a stay-at-home mother. When her son, Masa, was 6 months old, she took a part-time job producing an educational video series. In hindsight, the timing was terrible. Her husband, Mark, who works in the outsourcing industry, was in an intensive work cycle and traveling overseas regularly. Rachel would put in a long day, pump breast milk in a supply closet, then rush home to a babysitter anxious to leave, a clingy child and no food in the house. On her days off, she’d get sucked into answering emails and taking calls. Although her employer was supportive, Rachel still pushed herself to log extra hours, knowing there was a deadline to meet and a team waiting on her contributions. Once the project wrapped, she opted to stay home.

What Helps
Where Rachel once felt she couldn’t catch her breath, now she can see and appreciate her contribution—in a well-run household that eases the whole family’s stress and a happy toddler who comes home full of playground stories to share with Dad. Because she was there, too, mom can translate the nuances, leading to richer dinnertime conversations. (The primary reason—according to 44 percent of respondents in our survey—that moms stay home is to be with our children. And the pull is strong during the preschool years, with three quarters of stay-at-home and working mothers saying that “spending the majority of time with my preschooler on nights and weekends” is part of being a good mother.) “I don’t feel torn in a million directions anymore,” she says. “That’s a huge relief.”

That sensation—feeling splintered by a million priorities and worrying that you’re not succeeding in either arena—is all too familiar to many working moms, says consultant Karen Buckley. “Women are so tough on ourselves. We have a tendency to focus on the twenty percent of what’s lacking in life rather than the eighty percent that’s right.” Buckley advises moms to try a daily habit of writing down five times that they gave their children exactly what they needed in a given day (from a packed lunch to a moment of listening) and five times that they were effective at work. That breaks the habit of obsessing on the negative and creates a virtuous cycle of being aware of your best habits, making it more likely you’ll repeat them.

What Hurts
Career uncertainty. Though it doesn’t cause daily angst, “I miss working on my own projects and using my brain in a different way,” says Rachel. “I do have moments when I think a lot about my career and wonder what I’m doing.” According to What Moms Choose, more than half—55 percent—of career-oriented stay-at-home moms say they would prefer to work, although most aren’t interested in a traditional full-time arrangement. Rachel says she’s considered picking up freelance work, but the economics of child care versus uncertain hours make it difficult. In our study, 35 percent of career-oriented stay-at-home moms say the cost of child care is a barrier to returning to work.

Rachel’s Aha Moment
To balance the long hours and precious little downtime, Rachel needs adult interaction—particularly in winter. Dinners with Jen, Rita and a few other mutual friends from prenatal yoga are a huge source of connection. “It’s great to share the things that are really difficult, that maybe you don’t want to talk to your spouse about,” she says. “There are lots of things that are funny about motherhood—funny and sometimes depressing.” What Rachel would like is a regular, affordable babysitter who could give her a handful of free hours each week, to network and explore how she might create a family-friendly career when Masa is older.

Always on the Go
Jen is at a crossroads. When she spoke to Working Mother, she was on maternity leave with her second son, Henry, now 4 months old, but intending to return to full-time work. It’s ingrained, she says. Jen’s mom worked throughout her childhood, providing a model of how the pieces—with a lot of hustle—can fit. “It’s good for kids to see both of their parents working,” Jen asserts. “I think it’s an important statement of what people can do.” (Her views are shared: in our survey, 81 percent of working moms and 66 percent of stay-at-home moms say one of the ingredients of being a good mother is showing your children that women can succeed professionally.) Jen’s day hinges on teamwork. She’s got a nanny, a husband who cooks dinner and a supportive workplace where several co-workers also have young children. Her manager, a fellow working mom, also allows Jen the flexibility to occasionally work from home.

What Hurts
Morning goodbyes. “Ascher’s clinging to me, pulling the bag off my shoulder, and I think, Oh, I should be home with him,” she says. Jen feels wistful when she signs him up for art and music classes—sessions he’ll attend with his nanny. “He’s at such a critical stage in his development and he’s learning all these new things,” she says. “He’ll come home saying new things and I have no idea where he learned them.” (Roughly a third of working mothers surveyed say missing their child’s events regularly makes them feel guilty.) But instead of feeling resentful of his widening world, Jen tries to reframe it as an inevitable part of his growing up. “I think of it as he has his workday, and I have mine,” she says.

What Helps
When she feels overwhelmed by the sheer work of a two-child, two-career household, Jen keeps perspective by knowing that family life evolves quickly. The childcare slog (diapers, bottles, constant supervision) doesn’t last forever, just like the hectic stage of pumping at work and dashing to the freezer every night to store milk didn’t. “I look at friends with older children who actually go on sleepovers and I see how they’ve gotten their adulthood back to some degree,” she says. (While our survey didn’t weigh in on sleepovers, women at least seem to be optimistic about the prospects of having time to pursue a career as children get older: 74 percent of career-oriented moms say working full-time after children are school-aged is desirable.)

Jen’s Aha Moment
Eighty percent is okay. It really is. “There aren’t enough hours in the day,” she says. “Things that used to get a hundred percent effort, now if they are getting eighty percent that seems like a good day.” no berating herself over a frozen pizza, a messy living room or an extra session of Dora the Explorer. (Jen’s beating some steep odds here. Household cleanliness is a nemesis for many working moms: 55 percent feel guilty about it, and 42 percent worry they’re being judged by others over it. But the experts advise doing what Jen does: Just let it roll off.)

Making Peace With Our Choices
Guilt and worry are human—no one can ditch them altogether. “We aren’t going to find a perfect ‘balance’ between home and life,” Buckley says. “Nor should you measure what you do based on what others do. I encourage women to ask themselves about the wise decisions they make on a daily basis and to find the integrity to say, ‘I’m standing inside being the kind of professional and the kind of mom I want to be.’ ”

After obsessing about being a “perfect mom,” Rita says, she had to learn “I am doing an okay job as me.” the best days, she adds, are “when I am at peace with the laundry piled up, my papers not graded and maybe dinner not made. I know I’m giving Sophie the one thing she needs more than anything—a mom who loves herself and who can teach her daughter how to love herself as well.”


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