For years, Lisa Davis worked long days at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. As manager of the pharmacy department at the Egleston campus, she was in charge of a 70-plus size staff, and she often logged back on the computer after she got home to squeeze in a few more hours. And then there were those Saturday mornings, being on call and filling in for pharmacists out sick.
But it was a job she loved. As far back as she can remember, she wanted to use her pharmacy degree to work with children.
But once her own daughter came along, something changed. It started from the moment she first dropped off her 3-month-old baby at day care and returned to work.
“It was the worst day of my life,” said Davis, who lives in Suwanee, Ga. “I told my boss, ‘I am here, but I am going to have to cry in my office.’” Over time, Davis felt better about being a working mom. Still, that feeling of being torn between the responsibilities of her job and wanting to spend more time with her daughter lingered.
She faced too little time, as well as too little sleep.
“If I was going to make it work and be what I considered to be a good mom, something had to change,” said Davis.
Two years later a new medication safety officer job opened up, a job that promised more regular hours and would make it easier to use flex time. It came with a 10 percent pay cut.
She jumped at the chance. Her daughter, Maggie, is now 7. Davis chaperones at every field trip, attends every class party and doesn’t have to sweat about making it to her daughter’s swim meets.
Blending family and work life is an ongoing challenge for working mothers everywhere. Just how to make it work is a topic of conversation between husbands and wives, on mommy blogs, in office cubicles and around the coffee pot at work.
An article in The Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, recently reignited the debate about juggling work and family life. Slaughter stepped down from her job as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. She left partly because she needed to return to her job at Princeton University once her two-year public service leave was over. But she also left because she missed her spouse and two teenage sons, and they needed her.
The magazine article went viral; it reportedly had nearly a million views online within a week. Responses ran the gamut: Some welcomed a conversation about more flexibility in the workplace, some saw the piece as whiny and still others lambasted her for equating feminist success with “having it all.” So can women really have it all?
“I think it’s still possible to have it all, but I think you might have to alter what your ‘all’ means,” said Davis. “For me, my all changed when Maggie came into the equation.” For Davis, she has maintained what’s most important – a fulfilling job and time with her family. Other aspects of her life – a perfectly neat house, free time to enjoy her hobby of decorating – fell down the priority list.
“My friends used to say, ‘We love coming to your house; it’s like a Southern Living model home,’” Davis said. “Now, the hearth has a mountain of Barbies. There is nothing perfect about my house anymore. It’s a house with a child.”
It’s all about managing expectations, experts say.
Working mothers who expect the need for trade-offs and understand the challenges tend to fare better than those who expect it to be relatively easy, according to researchers.
“Employed women who expected that work/life balance was going to be hard are probably more likely to accept that they can’t do it all,” said Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology Ph.D. student who also teaches at the university.
Leupp, who is analyzing survey responses from 1,600 women – first interviewed in their late 20s and then again as 40-year-old mothers – said women who expect some challenges are more likely to be comfortable making sacrifices, such as cutting back on work hours and getting husbands to help more. Those expecting to be “super mom” are more likely to face depression, she said.
Despite the sharp growth of dual-career households and a more egalitarian division of family labor over the past several decades, women typically still take on most of the child care responsibilities. (And fathers typically do more paid hours on the job).
But mothers are more likely to feel guilty when work spills into home life. A 2011 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found women, particularly those with young children, were far more likely than working fathers to be distressed by a BlackBerry buzzing during nonworking hours at home.
Leupp believes the conversation over work/life balance circles like a merry-go-round because it’s still an ongoing challenge and, in some cases, an ongoing struggle.
“We have to figure this out,” said Leupp. “Mothers’ employment rates have been high now for several decades. Instead of asking whether it should work, it’s time to figure out how to make it work.”
Just how women combine work and family varies greatly. Some women decide to leave the workforce to be stay-at-home moms. Others switch to part-time employment. Some seize on the life change as an opportunity to try something new. Some hold on to their job and do their best to make it work.
Samantha McInturff of Acworth, Ga., didn’t even try keeping her director of marketing job at WellStar Health System after giving birth to twin boys in 2009. McInturff’s husband, who works as a physical therapist from noon to 8 p.m., often doesn’t get home until 9 p.m.
“It would have been extremely hectic and crazy if I had come back,” said McInturff. “That said, staying home was difficult and it was such a transition. I love my boys but it’s a different world. I missed using my education and working on projects. Instead, I found myself trying to stay ahead of tantrums and on diaper schedules.” After a couple of years, she went to lunch with former colleague Amy Adams, who was pregnant with her third child and not so sure her job would jibe with being a mom to a growing family.
The two hashed out a plan over lunch – to job share. McInturff works two days; Adams works three.
WellStar, one of three employers in Georgia named among Working Mother’s 100 best companies to work for, accepted the plan.
It has worked out phenomenally well, the women said.
McInturff said someday down the road, she may seek full-time work. But for now, this fits her – as well as her husband and children.
Susie Fell Ehlen, creative services manager for Shaw Industries’ commercial division, said a work/life balance doesn’t mean an even seesaw, but rather that the reality of life requires her to swing her attention at different times, different places.
As a mother of three children ages 7 and under, telecommuting has helped. While she does not do it regularly, the option of telecommuting has helped her better manage her work and family life. Without the 35-minute drive from Marietta to Cartersville, she has more time for both her job and her family.
“There’s never going to be a perfect balance,” said Ehlen, who is 42 . “There may be a week my kids have different things I need to be at and the balance is off, and there will be weeks when I have three or four late nights when I have to depend on the support of my husband. But having the flexibility to do that, and the fact I don’t have a set schedule and (have an employer who) trusts me really helps lessen the stress.”
Carla Gunnin, a partner with Constangy, Brooks & Smith, a labor and employment company headquartered in Atlanta, said her company encourages employers to be proactive in trying to give employees a work/life balance by offering opportunities such as flex time, telecommuting options and a wellness program. Her company penned a blog item on the subject after Slaughter’s article came out encouraging employers to consider offering more flexibility, particularly among office jobs that “can be performed virtually anywhere anytime, thanks to the magic of the computer and the telephone.”
“If you have unhappy employees, that’s when you can have trouble,” she said. “The incentive for employers is that it certainly makes the employees think better of the company and helps retain talent and gives the company a good public perception.”
And Gunnin said it’s not just women who are looking for more balance in their lives. Working fathers, especially the younger Generation X- and Y-ers, are not willing to be slaves to their jobs. And ultimately, Gunnin said, it may be men’s demands for more flexibility in the workplace that tip the scales.
Susan Shapiro Barash, author of 12 books on women’s issues and professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College, noted that the man’s role in successful family life is often missing from discussions about the mother’s quest for work/family balance.
“They can really make the difference. Some women I interviewed will say, ‘My husband is fantastic. He’s on board.’ Others will say, ‘This has all fallen on my shoulders,’” she said.
Also complicating the issue is women getting mixed messages about being a career woman and mother.
“Women are told of course you can have it all, and really, what does that mean?” Barash asked. “Does it mean having a job or a private office with a window? … Does it mean being happy all the time?” Meanwhile, Lisa Davis, who is 48, has her own version of “having it all.” It’s not about having everything, it’s about having what you hold most dear, she said.
It’s enjoying the little things, like when she recently went to work early so she could be back at home – and at the pool with her daughter, Maggie, by 4 p.m.
It’s about not fretting about too little free time and enjoying a once-a-month scrapbooking session with a good friend. And it’s working hard but keeping a career in its place.
The family now goes twice a year to Disney World for a week: In December to celebrate Maggie’s birthday and in early June to celebrate “Gotcha Day,” the day Maggie’s adoption was finalized.
“We do nothing but get lost in the magic of Disney and work is not allowed to creep in via any smartphone method,” Davis said.
By HELENA OLIVIERO