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Buss: Working moms want it all

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

‘Mommy working?” my 2-year-old asked earlier this week, pointing to my laptop and batting his long eyelashes. “Yes, mommy’s working,” I replied.

As I answered him I felt the confusing mix of pride, guilt, frustration and excitement that being a working mom has made into a daily experience. And I know for a fact I’m not the only one with those feelings.

My Facebook feed reads like a hospital nursery log, and many of my closest friends had babies just in the past year. So did I. And I have yet to find a woman who doesn’t feel torn between working and mothering, regardless of whether she’s chosen to stay at home or return to work.

Having returned now from two maternity leaves in the past two years, I am all too familiar with the feeling of dread that creeps up in the last few weeks, the tears that hit like a ton of bricks when you think about leaving your new babe for hours on end.

But they don’t stay little forever, and women have to consider long-term fulfillment in their lives as well.

So women can have it all, but they shouldn’t expect to necessarily like it all.

That’s not, however, what women hear from thought leaders — most of whom enjoy lavish salaries, in-home nannies and the notoriety to do whatever kind of work they please. Those women talk about climbing the corporate ladder like it’s the revengeful climax of decades of oppression.

To some, this may be what it’s about. But I’ve found it’s more about contributing to the mortgage, paying down student debt and retaining family insurance, while giving our babies as much love, attention and milk as humanly possible. (Excuse the sound of my breast pump in the background.)

Even as I considered staying home full time, it was painful to imagine losing what has become a significant part of my identity, my career. Yes, one can always re-enter the workforce, but with the pace of change in a global economy, jumping back in isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Certainly not every mother even has a choice whether to work. Single moms have to provide for their kids, and married moms increasingly contribute, too.

Today 70 percent of U.S. mothers work, up from about 50 percent in 1975. And the contribution of wives’ earnings to family incomes has increased 11 percent since 1975. With the increase in cost of living over the past several decades, it’s simply not as easy as it used to be to make ends meet on one salary.

It’s clear working mothers are here to stay. That’s a large part of the push for policies like subsidized childcare, longer mandated maternity and family leave, and universal preschool. But even those changes can’t erase the internal anguish of every working mom. They also don’t solve the problem at its core: a mom needs to be able to give her kids attention when they really need it, and be able to give the same to work when it demands it.

That requires a culture shift in the workplace, and it has to start from the bottom up. It’s not a government mandate.

I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and helpful family, as well as bosses who have always treated my situation with flexibility. I recognize not everyone has that option.

But above all, flexibility is what working mothers need. Flexibility to spend a couple extra minutes in the morning cleaning up various baby liquids, flexibility to read to their preschoolers before heading to work and flexibility to grow as a person and an employee as they experience the joy and challenges of parenting.

If the goal is to keep women in the workforce, flexibility is key. It’s the only way to help women truly have it all.

Kaitlyn Buss is the opinion editor at The Detroit News. On Twitter @KaitlynBuss.