Children, Careers and Choices

By Jennifer Frey and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Popular culture of late argues that modern motherhood is fraught with worry, stress and perfectionism. Mothers are overwhelmed. Kids are overscheduled. The institution itself is a mess.

Or is it? Washington area mothers are a lot more satisfied with their roles -- and a lot less likely to second-guess their choices as mothers -- than the recent national dialogue may suggest, according to a new Washington Post poll. Yes, they're stressed. Yes, they worry. But they're really happy, too. Only, to get to that place, they've had to channel a lot of energy and ingenuity into shaping and reshaping their work-life balance to meet their families' changing needs.

Modern-day mothers have shifted from trying to be the mythical "Supermom" to a more up-to-date version of the superhero Elastigirl, aka the mom in the hit film "The Incredibles," whose superhuman talent is the ability to stretch and twist and contort herself into whatever form it takes to keep her family sheltered and safe.

In a telephone survey conducted April 14-23, The Washington Post asked 603 women to evaluate how they were managing motherhood and rate their satisfaction with their roles working in and outside the home.

More than nine in 10 said they were satisfied with the arrangements they had made to care for their children, with seven in 10 describing themselves as "very satisfied." The majority of moms don't spend much time second-guessing their decision whether to work for a paycheck. And three in four feel that, given their financial situation, the work-home balance they have constructed is the best they could do both for their children and for themselves.

"It's a juggling act, there's no doubt about it," says 40-year-old Diesa Paris of the District, a working mother who raised three grown children and has a teenager at home. "I learned to find the balance. But it's a hard thing to do -- to juggle between kids and career. It's hard if you're a stay-at-home mom just to manage the household."

Many working moms do wish they could spend fewer hours in the workplace, or, to a lesser extent, stay home full time. Fifty-one percent think it's better for the child if one parent stays home (but 44 percent say their families could not survive financially if they did so). And, on the flip side, 52 percent of those who stay at home think a mother should be allowed to work for pay if it makes her happier.

In other words, it's not all black-and-white. Mothers are miserable? Given a list of eight emotions, moms overwhelmingly said they most often feel loved and happy. Guilty came in last. Stressed-out? Not nearly as often as moms reported feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Author Allison Pearson raised the omnipresent question about work-life balance in the title of her 2002 best-selling novel "I Don't Know How She Does It," a tongue-in-cheek tale of a power mommy with a major job, two little kids and a mountain of angst. According to the Washington area moms polled, this is how it's done:

· Eight in 10 working mothers reported having shifted the hours they work, to be more family-friendly;

· Five in 10 have cut back their hours;

· About 4 in 10 have changed jobs, and a similar proportion have turned down a promotion or new responsibilities to spend more time with their children;

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