Moms, part-time work is overrated

(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.

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3 thoughts on “Moms, part-time work is overrated

  1. I just found this website through Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids, so please forgive the tardy posts.

    First, I think it’s great to hear a balanced view about how busy we all are — or think we are . I plan to wade through lots of these posts– especially the home economics ones! — to find some helpful tips.

    Although many of your points about part-time work are well taken, and backed up by scary data, I would like to present a voice from a slightly different front.

    I work in healthcare and have two children, 9 and 14. I went back to school after my children were born and chose a profession that’s challenging, that allows flexibility, and which would allow me to support my children on my own if I worked at least 30 hours/week.

    During the last several years I’ve worked anywhere from 20 to 50 or 60 hours/week — with no coffee or Facebook breaks, since emergency rooms are busy. The flexibility of working long shifts, then having entire days off has been perfect for our family: When I’m at work, I’m at work. Period. However, when I’m off, I’m off. If my kids are in school, I can exercise, do housework, garden, meet friends for lunch, do professional reading, or do nothing.

    I don’t think my career has been hampered by my flexibility, and I’ve really been surprised at the logistical challenges faced as children get older. Once they’re beyond daycare and into school, sports, and the desire for a social life of their own, the challenges shift. Which is not to say they’re unduly burdensome, just different.

    Not all careers are so scalable, but shutting the door to the opportunity for flexibility as children get a little older by committing to the full-time track would have been a mistake for me.

    Thanks for the blog — I’ll follow it, and learn!

  2. I would suggest for a few mohtns write down (I put it in excel) every single thing you spend even 50 cents on. Look at it and take out every single thing that you don’t have to have and things you can make less. Take out the random cup of coffee, the ice cream and cookies, the convience foods like individual pre bagged snack foods, candy bars, inpulse buys. Can you lower your cell bill by getting on a family plan with your or your hubby’s parents, or do you actually need two phones for your family, can you live w/o a smart phone. Could you cancel you trash service and drive your trash for free to a landfill? See what your actual expesnses are of things that you can’t survive without and can’t change. Then make your decision from there. It might take sacrifice and it might mean that you never eat out and that when asked what you want for Christmas you tell them things you need instead of want, but you might just be able to work it out. I’m not saying everyone can, sometimes you just have to work. When we surprisingly found out we were pregnant w/ our first I didn’t really make enough to cover day care, work expenses and gas for my commute so I pretty much had to stay home and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to pay rent. But once we looked at our budget we ended up actually buying a house that nexr year. God really provided! I cook (or we eat leftovers) every single night. And I don’t get frappacinos anymore, but I get to spend all day w/ my kids. Hope that helps! 0Was this answer helpful?

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