The Working Mother's Juggling Act: Evidence It May Pay Off

By WomenAdvancing Archives
Cover image for  article: The Working Mother's Juggling Act: Evidence It May Pay Off

Sometimes you have to see someone else's reality to contextualize your own.

I stayed with public relations phenom Lana McGilvray and her family during SXSW. Over the 15 years we spent similarly navigating the media and marketing business, Lana and I became friends. In addition to her day job publicizing data-driven media companies, Lana is married and has a seven year old daughter.

I arrived at Lana's home Sunday evening. SXSW fell over their daughter’s school spring break. Lana and her husband scheduled a five-day gymnastics camp to manage the childcare they’d need while they were both at work. Monday morning arrives, their daughter is sick, gymnastics camp is out, Lana and I have a panel discussion in a couple hours, her husband has a full work day ahead, and there’s a lot of quick decision making and phone calls made to piece together the care of their daughter around their full work days.

It was exhausting and stressful to watch, and I briefly thought, “How do you do this?” Until, wait! I do a version of this juggling and piecing together every day in my own home.  And Lana and I are not alone in the juggling act -- nearly three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed.

I’ve had ten years of practice at the working mother routine, and I’ve gotten only marginally better at it than I was in my fragile return to work after my first maternity leave. My kids, however, know the drill. They have had, respectively, ten and eight years of practice being children of a working mother. My girls know when I walk in the door from work that I may not actually be “home” yet. I may have a quick call, may need to respond to an email, may say “Let me just focus on this one last thing and then I want to hear about your day.” They know I may miss an occasional school event, know I may be the only mom not to contribute to the bake sale (and if I do it will be brownies from a box mix) and know I am terrible about filling out and retuning permission slips. I honestly don’t know if this is awareness is a positive or a negative. I tell myself I am setting an example. But an example of what? Hopefully an example of a thriving professional woman in an industry she loves. More likely, my girls see an over-extended woman in need of a long vacation and a home organizer.

However, a recent Harvard Business School study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries shows mounting evidence of advantages for children of working mothers. Specifically, the study found that daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes. Daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers. And the study reports that sons raised by working mothers were significantly more likely to have a wife who worked, and on average they spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework than sons raised by non-working mothers. Essentially boys of working mothers grow up to become men more willing to split household chores and parenting responsibilities, making them both a better partner and parent.

How’s that for managing a working mother’s guilt over a missed field trip or two?

I don’t think my kids will care about the study results, but I do. I suffer the same feelings of inadequacy, disorganization and exhaustion that all mothers do, working or non-working. I’ll share this one small “win” for working moms with my community of parenting peers. In the meanwhile, my kids will continue to help me find my shoes in the morning, and that is everything.

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