Cover Story: Successful or Not, Moms with Jobs Get Bad Rap

Can mothers who work outside the home cut it? What a ridiculous question, some CityBeat readers said with disgust. Everyone knows moms have been boosting their numbers in the work force since Wor

Jymi Bolden

Sallie Hilvers balances her career with raising two sons.

Can mothers who work outside the home cut it? What a ridiculous question, some CityBeat readers said with disgust. Everyone knows moms have been boosting their numbers in the work force since World War II.

To be more precise, in 1996, 61 percent of married women with children worked outside the home. Of women with children less than 6 years of age, 63 percent were working, according to statistics from the University of Cincinnati's Kunz Center for the Study of Work & Family.

That compares to the 53 percent of married women with children who held jobs in 1985. The trend — a 1 percent increase annually since the 1960s — appears to be continuing with no end in sight.

So what's the problem?

Many women, especially single mothers, don't have the support they need to manage all of their responsibilities without undue stress. Many are riddled with guilt for leaving their children in another's care.

Add to that the fact that mothers as a group often find themselves in conflict because they don't agree on whether working or staying home is best.

And all hope of consensus is lost when single, professional women who don't even have children throw in their two cents worth of sweeping judgment.

"(Working moms) won't truly succeed at work because their minds are divided, bent toward their true responsiblity and priority of motherhood," writes a respondent who says her views are based on watching her friends. "Women with small children who, as their choice, stay in the work force are selfish individuals who don't have their priorities straight."

Though some of us working mothers, in a different forum, would have some choice words of rebuttal, we should be grateful for such responses here. They courageously provide written proof of the conflicting attitudes working mothers face in society today.

"No one thinks what the other person is doing is right," says Judi Craig, communications and marketing manager for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), and mother of three children ages 3, 5 and 9.

Craig is among a multitude of Tristate women who are successfully managing work and family — despite contradictory attitudes — and there are factors this story will detail that allow them to succeed.

But first, women and men who truly care about the welfare of the next generation might do well to consider the facts. Foremost is that experts say the trend of mothers populating the work force is not declining as we head into the new millennium. And while all the long-term effects on children are not known, there are some clear findings to consider in 1999:

· As reported in the May issue of Parent's magazine, the largest long-term study in this area has found that there are no significant developmental differences between children of working moms and moms who stay at home, even when the mother works during the child's first three years of life. The author, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, followed more than 6,000 mothers and their children for up to 12 years.

· National Institutes of Health research has shown that inferior child care can affect children's cognitive and language development. Yet, a successful, united effort to raise standards or salaries for quality child-care workers has yet to emerge.

Additional, 1998 research focusing on Ohio by UC's Kunz Center helps shed light on factors that make or break a parent's ability to handle work and family. In surveys the center conducted:

· One-fifth of working parents reported that they had missed work in the month prior to the survey because of a problem with child care.

· A majority of Ohio husbands, though some show improvement from years past, continued to avoid responsibility for routine housework, though they support their wives in working. "Thus, many women work full time during the day, and then work a 'second shift' of household chores at night."

· Seventy-one percent of men and 76 percent of women reported having difficulty managing work and family obligations. Concerns did not diminish as incomes and educational levels of the respondents rose.

· Eighty-eight percent of Ohio fathers and 91 percent of mothers felt they were successful at work very or fairly often. As for family life, 77 percent of men and 84 percent of women said they were successful.

But David J. Maume Jr., Kunz Center director, says there are other factors to consider in interpreting the success question.

While respondents rated themselves fairly high in those areas, Maume points out that 52 percent of men and 51 percent of women said they would like to spend less time at work, while 16 percent of men and 26 percent of women said they fairly or very often had difficulty in managing work/family obligations.

"These numbers suggest to me that men and women stretch to meet their competing obligations, but they are reluctant to admit they are unsuccessful in doing so," Maume says.

Still, he says, there is room to extrapolate that fathers and mothers are successful at work and home as they report, and that they simply want more time with their families.

How is this going to play out in the new millennium?

Maume doesn't see more mothers opting to stay home. Rather, there is going to be more pressure put on employers to allow flexible work schedules, telecommuting and other "family friendly" practices, Maume says.

OKI's Craig, a 10-year employee who manages a department of five people, says the fact that her employer has allowed her to work a variety of full- and part-time schedules and to telecommute in times of emergency, speaks volumes.

But so does that fact that her husband does the cooking and grocery shopping, while she gets the children home well before dinnertime and helps them with their homework. Her school-aged girls are demonstrating "incredible grade-point averages" while her son considers his pre-school — a Blue Ash day-care center that the family has a nine-year relationship with — a place that is happy and loving, Craig says.

During OKI's Smog Alert campaigns, designed to educate Tristate residents on ways to reduce ozone pollution, Craig's children accompany her to variety of fairs and other places while she spreads the anti-pollution message.

"It could have only been beneficial for them," she says.

Still, she says, this is how things work well for her family and children, who are happy, relaxed and well-adjusted. She does not presume that it would work well for everyone. Nor does she paint a picture that every day is problem-free.

When illness strikes, for example, she and her husband have to juggle, and sometimes call in out-of-town family reinforcements, as a cold works its way from one child to the next with at least one child being home during a three-week period.

But these are family management issues, which in 1999, cannot be pinned solely on whether mom works.

"We're all running into the same problems," says Sallie Hilvers, public affairs director for the Metro bus system and mother of boys ages 3 and 6.

And everyone should do what works best for them, she says, without rendering judgments about what others are doing.

It's clear that the same three factors — quality child care, a husband willing to share work on the home front and "family friendly" practices at work — also have enabled Hilvers' success at Metro, which now has spanned nine years.

When she began having children, Hilvers knew that staying at home would not work for her. Being a woman — like most would claim to be in 1999 — who truly identifies herself by her own professional accomplishments, the social isolation and lack of positive reinforcement away from work had Hilvers "climbing the walls."

While at work, Hilvers and her husband ensured they had quality child care by keeping the boys at home with a quality sitter — something many working families cannot afford.

Now that her 3-year-old is in pre-school and her son in school, however, Hilvers' husband has moved his office home and is there when school's out.

This doesn't mean every day has been easy. Like Craig, Hilvers can recall many acts of juggling, including how she always included a business suit in the supplies she would gather for a trip with her sons to the zoo. With all the media calls she answers, there was always a good chance that she'd be doing an on-camera interview before the excursion was over.

Today, the fact that the boys are happy, relaxed and laugh a lot reminds Hilvers that they are thriving. And because the whole family is busy, she says she does not have time to be distracted by the lack of consensus in society, which has left mothers who work outside the home as well as those who don't without a seal of approval.

"I value the individuality of the person too much to judge ...," she says. "Even the men who have children in my office are struggling with the same issues."