Exclusive: Excerpt from “Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All”

Need a pep talk for why being a working mom pretty much rocks? Here’s a bite-sized excerpt from the new book Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober. If this leaves you hungry for more, I highly recommend you get the whole enchilada. Kudos to Meers and Strober for publishing this important, much-needed book.

What Working Women Gain from Motherhood

“I truly believe I’m a better mom because I work at a job I love,” says Celia, a public high school teacher in Los Angeles. “I feel stimulated and fulfilled.”

“The deeper I got into working,” says Tracy, who works for an energy firm and recently returned to work after five years at home, “the more I saw it was great for our family, both financially and emotionally. It even made me more appreciative of family time.”

Research says that employed women (whether or not they are wives or mothers) have greater well-being than their nonemployed peers. It also pays for women to keep their aspirations high—women who reach bigger jobs report the highest well-being of all.

quote-box-50-50But we all reap rewards from our work no matter where we are on the company ladder. Studies of women in blue-collar jobs say that in addition to the money, they enjoy working as a way to meet other people and lead “a less restricted life.”

A happy mother is a good mother, and if work makes you hum, your whole family sings along. By contrast, if staying home makes you miserable—well, fill in the blanks. For decades, Brandeis University psychology professor Rosalind Barnett and her colleagues have studied the relationship between employment and depression in women across many kinds of work and social circumstances. Like many other researchers, Barnett and Hyde found that employed women have a lower risk of depression than nonemployed women.

How much does it matter?

A 1989 study of 749 blue-collar and professional midwestern women found this: 30 percent more psychological distress among women who quit work after having a child compared to peers who returned to their jobs (women who cut back to part time show 10 percent more symptoms of distress).

It turns out that spending too much time caring for family members may not be good for you. How can people you love harm your health? University of California at San Francisco psychologist Elizabeth Ozer points out that in our society, families are expected to come up with individual solutions, and those solutions fall disproportionately on women—who are still raised to believe that the well-being of the family, particularly kids, is all on them. Yet no one truly has the ability to control the happiness of another person, so “mothers often experience self-blame whenever their children have any problems,” says Ozer.

Ozer concludes that work/family stress has less to do with work and more to do with excess responsibility for home life. The least happy mothers are those in her study who see running the family as their task alone. Solo parenting has the same occupational hazards as a bad factory job: “a low degree of decision latitude…time pressures and conflicting or heavy emotional demands.” In roles like these, workers tend to feel stressed out and inadequate and their health suffers. The same often happens from excess time on the parenting job.

This effect is not exclusive to mothers. Dads who leave jobs to focus exclusively  on kids suffer the same heightened risk of depression.

Sometimes, just a taste of staying home will set off your inner alarm and help you see work in a better light. Maya stayed home for six months between jobs, caring for her two daughters. “It taught me a lot,” she says. “At first, it was great. I saw friends for lunch, went to the girls’ soccer practice, did the family photo albums. But then I started getting obsessed with stupid things like thinking I had to make gourmet dinners and that I had to drive the girls to all their activities myself. I thought this was what I was ‘supposed’ to do if I wasn’t working. It made me irritable. I had less quality time with my daughters. I found myself snapping at them. I didn’t enjoy it because it wasn’t me.”

When we interviewed Ann, a political science professor, she had just devoted large chunks of time to finishing a book.

“I had all this pent-up mommy guilt.”

“I had a light teaching schedule after I finished my book so I thought, Great, I can spend lots of time with the kids.” But after just four days, she realized something—and so did her kids. “It was more about me and I was being lead by guilt. I had this sense of, ‘I must enrich my children.’” In a fit of quality-time-gone-wrong, she found the names of the world’s largest fish and created “the research project from hell,” thinking her kids would enjoy factoids about massive fins and gills. “The kids were like, ‘Who cares? Let’s go outside and play soccer.’ And I really didn’t want to play soccer myself.”

Wisely, Ann’s grade-school children and spouse did what amounted to an intervention. “The kids got together with their dad and said, ‘Mommy has to go back to the office.’ They took me for a walk around the block to break the news. ‘Come home at 5:30—that would be great. But you are not a happy parent spending this much time in the house.’”

Tracy stayed home much longer than Maya and Ann—she took a break from corporate life for five years while she raised her two children. “I was the 1950s mom extraordinaire,” she recalls. “My husband, Jeff, was working so hard—I did everything for our family so he wouldn’t have to. Buying and selling houses when we moved, meals, schools, playdates. I did all of it out of guilt. I just had this idea that I’d be betraying my children if I went back to work. But not working made me feel taken for granted and financially dependent. I felt bad that only Jeff was working. And I just knew: This isn’t thirty years ago, jobs aren’t stable, and it felt really risky to rely on one income.”

Sharing the load, it’s much easier to clear hurdles.

Men who do more relative to their spouses have wives who experience greater well-being—even if they don’t reach 50/50. One surprising discovery in Ozer’s research: Even if their husbands did not share in child care equally, women who believed they could count on their spouses enjoyed the best psychological health. A dad who is willing to help when called gives his wife a safety valve—and greater well-being.

Psychologists Vanessa McGann and Janice Steil make a related point: When women see that they matter as much as men do (and feel men are no more deserving of respect or resources), many good things happen: They achieve better jobs and pay compared with women who compared themselves only with other females. Steil has measured female attitudes on a scale of self-reliance and self-assurance (SRSA) and found that high levels of these qualities predict less depression for women and more say in their relationships. And among married women, higher SRSA is “associated with higher levels of sexual assertiveness and sexual satisfaction.”

Lest we pretend that only Prince Charming will be pleased with this by-product of wives’ self-assurance, guess what women rate as their leading source of happiness? Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked 909 Texas women to record their daily activities and score how they felt during each of them. Sex was the standout favorite, scoring 5.10 on a 6-point scale. Interacting with spouses outside the bedroom rated 4.11, beating out time with the kids at 4.04. Unsurprisingly, moms enjoyed their time with children more when they didn’t feel rushed. Put it all together and 50/50 is a formula for giving women a lot more of what we really want—sex, time with our husbands, and help with our kids.

As we discussed in Chapter 2, when women (and men) play multiple roles—worker, spouse, parent—they enjoy higher self-esteem, too.

“My mother’s always told me you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” a female college student told the New York Times in 2005, explaining why she intended to be a stay-at-home mom by the time she was thirty. Comments like these reflect a sad misperception. And as we’ll show you, rewards are big when you escape this either/or mentality. “When people are psychologically at the top of their game, feeling good about themselves, they perform better,” says Laura, who has spent her career in technology. Recalling the year when she both got promoted and had a baby, she adds,  “When you’re really feeling confident, you can perform really well and do lots of different things.”

Having more roles is good for you.

If it’s making you sweat, don’t worry. Working motherhood is a workout that makes you stronger.

Click to order your copy of Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober. Learn more about the book and the movement on the Getting to 50/50 website.

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