Every working mom I know has done the math: “If I weigh the costs of just going to work—parking, gas, daycare—versus the costs of staying home with my kids, is it even worth it?”
For some women, it’s a no-brainer; their salaries are too important to the family finances, or they just plain like working—they enjoy the break from their households and feel like they’re contributing to something significant enough that balancing work and home is a given. For others, the math is enough to prompt a career change to a work-at-home or stay-at-home situation, saving money on daily expenses and childcare and getting more time with their broods.
But the more I talk this issue over with my friends, the more I realize it’s almost a lose-lose scenario. The guilt eats us up, no matter the choice. In this day and age, where women are challenged to lean further and further in, those who want their kids to be their work—at least in the short term—may feel like they’re not living up to their own potential, while those planted firmly in the workforce feel like their kids are getting the short shrift.
Last Tuesday, a piece by video producer Solana Pyne (with an accompanying video created by Pyne and her husband Erik German) published on digital news site Quartz called bullshit on a major piece of evidentiary science previously provided in the stay-at-home versus working mother debate. A major, eye-popping stat, supplied by analyst William Mattox of the Family Research Council in the US in the early 1990s, claimed that parents were spending 40 per cent less time with their children than their counterparts in previous generations.
Naturally (eye-roll), the fallout was a call for women to return home to their kids. But Mattox was using 1965 numbers of time spent with children in comparison with what he thought would be 1985 estimates, without proper analysis. Other sociologists, including the sociologist who published the 1965 data, felt Mattox’s mid-’80s estimate of hours spent with kids was strangely low, and that working mothers paid the price of the oversight.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is an appearance in the video by Melissa Milkie, a sociologist from the University of Toronto, who goes on camera to say that today, parents may be spending less time in the presence of their children but more time actually parenting. This means that while the hours may be fewer, the time we’re engaging with our children is greater. We’re playing with, reading to, changing and feeding and spending time with our kids, rather than just being in the same room, or the same house, as them. This is particularly true for mothers. (Hey, Mattox, do you hear that? Particularly true for mothers.) In fact, by the year 2000, working mothers were spending more active time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did in 1975. This means that we’re giving up other things—time with friends, time exercising, time with our partners—to be present with our children. Milkie calls it an amazing feat, and I agree.
A huge percentage of Canadian mothers work outside the home—depending on the year, it’s anywhere from 58 to 65 per cent; this stat is 70 per cent for our American counterparts. That’s an awful lot of guilt. And I’d say it’s equally an awful lot of sacrifice.
I’m still muddling my way through this: I left my corporate job in March to start a small business with my brother, who is also a parent. Neither one of us liked spending hours commuting, shuttling our daughters to and from childcare and school. We hated the time spent away from our kids. But does that mean that we’re working any less? No. Absolutely not. In fact, I’d say we’re working more.
But it’s a flexible arrangement that allows us to work at a time that’s better for our respective family dynamics. I work from 9:30 to 2:30 flat out, with nary a break, before getting my four-year-old from school. In the hours between 3:00 and 7:30, I do all the parenting I used to try to squeeze into an hour or two each evening: swimming lessons, practising letters, gardening in the summer, making snowmen in the winter, prepping dinner and picking up my youngest at daycare around 5:30.
One source in the video says, “The fact that so many people are combining work and family is a real testament to individual families and their ingenuity.” I’m not sure I’d call it ingenuity, because I have to finish my workday after bedtime, but it’s a way to “have it all”— despite the fact that I hate that term and our constant pursuit to achieve the impossible—at different times.
I realize this isn’t an option for everyone. I’m lucky to have a profession that doesn’t require me to be in an office, or working on a specific piece of equipment (other than my trusty laptop). But no matter what the workplace scenario, I do worry about the guilt we pile on. If you love going to work everyday, stop feeling bad about it. If you’d rather stay home with your kiddos, that’s cool, too. The stats show that we’re all doing better than the generations before us, in terms of being present and actively parenting. So let’s ease up on ourselves and each other, because seriously, if my daughters and nieces, and their friends, are still talking about this in 30 years, I’m going to burn my bra in protest.