Children, Careers and Choices
Most Area Moms Revel in Role, Even Challenges

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;

· Three in 10 have worked from home on a regular basis.

Overall, nearly half of the working mothers in the area have done at least three of these things, according to the poll.

And that doesn't include the mothers who have taken the most dramatic option: quitting their jobs altogether.

"It's this fluid situation, with women opting out for a short amount of time, or taking a scenic route," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, who researches this particular issue.

Hewlett also said women may not be as satisfied as some survey findings suggest. "There is a huge human need to feel good about what you chose," she said.

Whatever choice a mother makes, the overwhelming majority believe it's harder to do the mom job these days. Mothers may insist that their lives are not out of control, as suggested by several recent books, most notably "Perfect Madness" by local author Judith Warner, but they do agree that they are under a great deal of pressure, both internal and external.

Two in three mothers interviewed believe society sets expectations for modern motherhood too high, and a similarly large majority think mothers themselves had raised the standards compared with the previous generation. And those feelings cut across class lines: Three in four low-income mothers sometimes feel pressure to be "the perfect mom," a breakdown that matched the poll results for upper-income mothers, who were the predominant demographic in Warner's book.

Public opinion doesn't seem to make it any easier. Although 68 percent of Americans in a recent Post-ABC News national survey agreed that motherhood is more demanding today than it was a generation ago, 48 percent think mothers are doing a worse job, compared with 12 percent who feel they were doing better.

As for the media fixation on what has been dubbed the "mommy wars" -- the suggested divide between working and stay-at-home moms -- the differences turn out to be much more nuanced. Sixty-three percent of mothers polled identified themselves as working mothers, compared with 36 percent who saw themselves primarily as stay-at-home moms. But nearly one in four of the working moms worked less than the classic 40-hour work week. And half of those who considered themselves stay-at-home moms have been employed at some point since the birth of their first child. In fact, one in four stay-at-home moms currently do some work for pay.

Take Cindy Forrest, for example. She quit her job with Marriott when her now-8-year-old son was born. But Forrest, of New Market, currently works 24 hours a week, in two 12-hour weekend shifts at an emergency animal hospital.

"My career is Andrew and being a part of his life," she says.

Both sets of moms are also almost indistinguishable when it comes to feelings about motherhood. Levels of satisfaction, stress, tiredness and accomplishment were all similar. And they were equally likely to report being challenged by the many responsibilities that come with the role.

"You can't really judge anybody else," says Julie Kotler, a Clarksville mother of three who works 35 hours a week, many of them from home. "You don't know what's going on in someone else's house."

And across all lines, mothers had another thing in common: They overwhelmingly agreed that they don't have second thoughts about their decision to have children.

Director of polling Richard Morin contributed to this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company