A Mother's Day Wish

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006

It being Mother's Day and all, I figured it was time for a wish list. The Working Mom's Wish List.

Oh, sure, I know all you moms are sitting there right now, looking at that carefully crafted Popsicle-stick card your little ones made you. But if those little ones had all the power in the world, I can guess what you, dear working mom, would ask that they give you.

In short: flexibility.

Most workers, but particularly working parents -- and even more particularly working moms -- thirst for, strive for and dream of a little flexibility. The chance to take your child to the speech therapist at 3 in the afternoon. Or to be able to run home for dinner, read a few stories, tuck the gang into bed and then log back on to the office from the kitchen table.

Is it a 9-to-5 world anymore? Should it be? Or could, maybe, possibly, all these new technologies and this global economy translate into a chance to have a little flexibility to help people be great moms and great workers all at once?

Of course, not every workplace can offer a scheduling free-for-all. But many could be, and should be, more flexible than they are now. Particularly as the number of dual-income families has increased in recent decades. The rules of the structured work world were created back when we lived in Ozzie-and-Harriet Land. Dad brought home the pay, then read the newspaper and drank a martini. Mom did the cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.

But today, it's a frantic juggle of day-care arrangements, pickups, drop-offs. Dad's day to drive. Mom's week at the faraway conference. And a phone ringing with the boss, the co-worker and the babysitter asking for everything all at once.

Among two-parent households with children under 18, 61.3 percent have two working parents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And 71.2 percent of single mothers with children under 18 are working.

"There has been a big change in the composition of the workforce, but the structure has not changed," said Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work-life programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "If there's any attention your family needs, all that has to happen outside of work hours."

For some, that is nearly impossible. Anne Ganten has two disabled sons. Her 5-year-old is autistic, and her 4-year-old is developmentally delayed. She moved from Belgium to Fairfax almost three years ago when she realized doing so would provide a better opportunity for her children's care.

Ganten found a job with a defense contractor in Bethesda as a business development analyst, knowing the pay would help cover the mind-blowing costs of doctors, teachers, therapies, child care and all that goes into helping children with disabilities.

But even good pay isn't enough. Any savings she once had are now depleted. Any sense of an easy balance between work and home is shattered.

A recent "bad" Monday, for example: Ganten's phone started to ring at noon and didn't stop. Her younger son's teacher called, saying the child had crawled under a table and was hissing. This was a new one. Ganten called home to ask the nanny what might have set him off. Nothing. So she called the teacher back to talk her through the hissing and explained that her son might be having adjustment issues because they had hired a new nanny.

Then her 5-year-old called, sobbing into the phone. Ganten finally figured out that he was angry with his teacher and could not calm down enough to go to speech therapy. Ganten called the therapist to explain that her son would not be responsive that day and therefore would not be there (even though she had already paid for the class). By the time she was able to finish her work and get home, it was 7:30 p.m. She made dinner, had her sons call and apologize to the people they upset, and tried to get them to bed.

Most days, Ganten tries to get home for dinner at 6 p.m. "I get the feeling some days it's not seen very well," she said. Once the boys are in bed, she gets back to work, often until about midnight.

"I try to keep a very clear boundary between home and work life. I think that I've reached the point in dealing with the disabilities that I manage everything out of working hours that I can," she said. "Sometimes I think people take advantage of that situation and actually run their families from the office."

With a little more flexibility, perhaps employers would gain productivity. "Companies are very selfish. They don't do things not in their best interest," said Carol Evans, chief executive of Working Mother magazine and author of "This Is How We Do It: The Working Mothers' Manifesto." She said, "It's in their best interest to keep us happy."

Almost 28 percent of all full-time workers have access to flexible schedules, according to the Department of Labor. But what parents want "is a culture of flexibility without jeopardy," said Ellen Galinsky, co-director of the Families and Work Institute. "Being able to use the flexibility their employers offer without it harming their reputation as serious workers, and without putting them in line for the first layoff."

"Workers are feeling stretched thin," said Katie Corrigan, co-director of Workplace Flexibility 2010, a Georgetown University Law Center research group that is seeking ways to create a national policy on workplace flexibility. The group held a briefing with bipartisan sponsors this month on Capitol Hill to discuss how to create a flexible workplace and what role that would have in society.

On Thursday, the Work and Family Bill of Rights was offered at another Hill briefing. Those rights include: paid family leave, negotiable flexibility in work hours, national health insurance, affordable quality elder and child care, and a living wage.

"Most of what we're calling rights are viewed as benefits that, if you're lucky, you get from your employer," said Robert Drago, professor of labor studies at Penn State University and co-founder of Take Care Net, which held the briefing. "Our argument is these should be rights accorded to all people."

Until that happens, however, managers, chief executives and corporate leaders are going to have to create the right balances in their own organizations.

Karen Ambrose Hickey is senior director of marketing at SumTotal Systems Inc., which creates and sells training software to businesses.

As a mother, she tries to get home in time to make dinner and spend the evening with her two young children. But as a worker, she then logs back on to talk to employees based around the world.

And as a manager, she tries to help employees balance the two worlds.

"I try and be not only understanding, but tell them just because I'm keeping these hours, I don't expect it from them," Hickey said. She had a workaholic boss before. No matter how much or how little work actually got done, it was still just better to be at the office during the same hours as the boss. "That was hard on me," she said.

What does she get in return for the flexibility she allows her team? "I have happy, motivated employees," she said. They realize I'm giving that flexibility, and they work hard to make commitments."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to discuss your life at work athttp://www.washingtonpost.com. You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com. And don't worry, dads, your day is coming. Go ahead and send your wish lists now.

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