For many parents, striking a healthy balance between professional and personal lives poses a serious challenge, as mothers and fathers strive to be involved and available to their children while also achieving success and fulfillment through their work. Women in particular struggle to “have it all,” often finding it difficult to reconcile the expectations of motherhood with career-related pressures.

Recently, as the gap between the number of women and men who attend university and subsequently enter the workforce has continued to shrink and almost disappear, women in elite fields trying to balance careers and families have shared their experiences, offering strategies for achieving the elusive “work-life balance.” Books like Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg offer advice and encouragement to working mothers, while articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All have received attention for shedding light on the obstacles that continue to confront them. Women have emphasized the incompatibility of achieving professional success and fulfilling traditional expectations of parental roles, which tend to place the mother as the caretaker and the father as the breadwinner. Sexism in the workplace, furthermore, has played a major role in instilling a sense of frustration among many working mothers. Given these challenges, questions of having, doing, and being it all are ubiquitous for working mothers.

Much of this discussion of the tension between motherhood and professional success, though, comes from women leading a certain lifestyle—one that is far from universal. Sandberg’s perspective is rooted in her experience as chief operating officer of Facebook; when Slaughter wrote her Atlantic article, her career included leadership at elite institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, and as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. Both women, as well as the many others with impressive credentials and resumes who have contributed to this conversation, have undoubtedly grappled with difficult questions regarding the balance between work and family. But this perspective, while important, isn’t the whole picture, and the reflections they offer do not apply to every working mother.

Unfortunately, discussions about work-life balance too-often prioritize the voices of relatively wealthy, privileged women with elite professions, leaving out the perspectives of the majority of working mothers. The reality is that, whether or not any woman can “have it all,” some women will have a harder time in that pursuit than others, and many of the things that make being a working mother so difficult for some are linked to experiences that women like Sandberg and Slaughter cannot fully understand. In an interview with the HPR, Ellen Kossek, a professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, emphasized that “every person faces societal pressure and different demands and stresses, but these female professionals aren’t facing the same challenges as a low-income person faces, and recently, in particular, we have left out this most vulnerable population.”

A key factor determining the extent to which women feel pulled away from their families by their careers has to do with the nature of their jobs; those with intense, rigid schedules tend to have a more difficult time than those with more flexible ones. This isn’t something that breaks down clearly along lines of wealth or status—some elite professions have incredibly grueling schedules, involving considerable travel and long work days, while others are far more flexible. Slaughter herself describes the noticeable difference between her time in academia and her time in the State Department; while the first allowed her to largely set her own schedule, when she began working in government, she found herself “working long hours on someone else’s schedule,” and “could no longer be both the parent and the professional [she] wanted to be.” But flexibility is something that, despite some obvious exceptions, tends to come as you move up the professional ladder—women high up in companies, particularly relatively new ones based in places like Silicon Valley, may have some ability to complete tasks remotely and exert greater control over when and where they work. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women in the workplace, who occupy more traditional jobs, have little control over their work schedules. Furthermore, the threat of losing a job may be more daunting to women who live paycheck to paycheck, who are the sole provider for their children, or for whom the prospect of finding a new job is more challenging than it is for more high-profile professionals.

The extent to which women have assistance with their children, furthermore, can change the level of individual burden they feel in striking a balance between work and family. “We’ve underestimated the power of community social support,” Kossek said. “When people feel alone, it’s harder. If you’re a working mother, yes, you need resources, but you also need social mechanisms that help you feel like you’re not alone.” Women with involved spouses and extended families or who have enough expendable income to hire babysitters and nannies have a level of flexibility not available to single, poor mothers. Given that the rate of poverty is three times higher for children living with only one parent than for children living with two, many women face intense challenges as they struggle to be the sole provider for their children both emotionally and financially. Ultimately, class and gender intersect catalytically to make the obstacles that confront poor mothers even more daunting.

Thus, while elite, professional women have been publicly pondering questions about whether they should continue to work after having kids and how to find both professional and personal fulfillment without sacrificing too much of either, some women do not have the luxury of seeing work as optional or as having the primary purpose of personal fulfillment. Unfortunately, it tends to be these very women who do not have the time to write books and articles reflecting on the challenges of being a working mother. And the danger of forgetting or ignoring these voices is not just that the conversation is incomplete—by failing to acknowledge the nuance within the entire population of working mothers, this conversation can leave women feeling as though their inability to strike the healthy balance celebrated by these elite professional women is a personal failing and not a symptom of more systemic obstacles. Furthermore, it ignores the need to design policies and programs that work for all women, not just those with the largest platforms through which to share their perspectives. These policies and programs must be multifaceted. Kossek believes the process will require societal change, employment change, and policy change but argues that governments should take the lead where companies won’t.

“If we want to focus on welfare for caretakers, I don’t see companies leading on this, and I would not hold [my] breath,” Kossek said. “Share value doesn’t include investment in families and workers.” For working women, questions of “having it all” and of balancing the professional with the personal are difficult, and each woman has a set of experiences and realities that help to determine what decisions are most pressing and what the stakes of those decisions are. To create a holistic, honest perspective on the experience of being a working mother, though, it is crucial to broaden the scope of which voices are elevated in this discussion and to acknowledge the ways in which these experiences and tensions differ from person to person.   

Image Credit: JD Lasica/Flickr

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