(From my USA Today column, 5/11/10)
For Mother’s Day this past weekend, families everywhere nabbed flowers and brunch reservations to celebrate. If you’d asked moms what they really wanted, though, here’s what many would answer: to work part-time.
Unlike in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated Mother’s Day, these days a majority of moms are in the paid workforce. But most don’t want to be in it too much. A 2009 Pew Foundation poll found that 62% of employed moms wanted to work part-time, up from 48% in 1997.A recent poll from DailyWorth (a financial website for women) found that a majority of moms who did work full time still thought part-time work was ideal.
This raises the question: Why? One answer is that our culture is obsessed with the notion of work-life balance. If we believe we’re overworked, then part-time work appears closer to this elusive goal. But the more I study how people actually spend their time, the more I find these surveys puzzling. On average, part-time work doesn’t help much on the life front, and it scars on the work front in a way that’s dangerous for women (few men work part-time by choice). In some cases, it may be the best option. But I’d argue that for many moms, work-life balance is best achieved by working more.
Creating family time
Here’s what we know on the “life” side of the equation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ American Time Use Survey, in two-income families, married moms who work part-time spend just 41 more minutes per day on child care as a primary activity than their full-time counterparts. They spend just 10 more minutes playing with their kids.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the average parent with a full-time job works roughly 35-44 hours per week. Not 80. It’s also impossible to interact with kids 24/7 because, past the baby stage, they have their own lives. They go to school. They watch TV, do activities and sleep.
Most important, though, moms with full-time jobs often go to great lengths to protect family time. Some work for themselves, or set their own hours. Those with traditional jobs or longer hours get creative. While her husband is in Iraq, Maureen Beddis of Alexandria, Va., combines her 50-hour-per-week job at The Vision Council, a non-profit, with single parenting by stopping work right at 5 p.m., spending a few hours with her baby and 2-year-old, then working more from home after they go to sleep. Kristen Burris, a licensed acupuncturist in Eagle, Idaho, opens her practice later so she can spend the early mornings with her 2- and 3-year-old sons. “I don’t cook, clean or talk on the phone” during that time, she says. “Every second is focused on hugging and loving and playing with them.”
These factors keep the interactive numbers close. But those 41 minutes come at a steep cost. Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More, crunched Census data and found that people working 45 hours per week earn more than double the wages of those logging 34 hours, even though they’re only working about a third more. The situation is worse as you move toward the 19 hours a week that the time use survey finds the average married mom with a part-time job works. Sure, some of this is discrimination, present everywhere fromGoldman Sachs (recently sued by an executive laid off from the part-time “mommy track”) to blue-collar outlets. But not all. I work for myself and can see returns to scale when I log additional hours. I go beyond current assignments and seek out opportunities. There is a point of diminishing returns, and sometimes life requires us to temporarily scale back, but in general, extra hours on the margins move a career forward toward more clout and control of time, in addition to more money.
168 hours, for starters
That’s why it’s worrying that so many moms — who can’t all have very young children — think part-time work is a great idea. Forgoing that additional income and advancement on a permanent basis might be OK if a mom is sure her family won’t someday depend, financially, on her. But how many modern women can say that? According to Maria Shriver‘s 2009 report, “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything,” moms are the primary or co-breadwinner in nearly two-thirds of families. The male unemployment rate is still in double digits. To be sure, moms of young kids who work full time often require more paid child care, but even here part-timers lose out: Center-based care is often proportionally more expensive for part-time vs. full-time.
More fundamentally, though, here’s a point seldom raised in this debate: There are 168 hours in a week. If you sleep 56 and work 40, that leaves 72 hours for other things. That’s a lot of time. It’s so much time it’s hard to see what’s balanced about working 19 hours and having 93 hours left over.
That’s what Rosemarie Buchanan is discovering. This Seattle-area mom of two started full-time work at an architecture firm after years of part-time freelancing. The “fabulous day care” she can now afford teaches her kids “things I was too burned out and exhausted to do,” she says. “Now I get better sleep and feel more able to have fun with them at dinner time, after dinner and getting them ready for bed, and enjoy the weekends with them so much more.” That sounds like a good balance to me.