Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Opting Back In

Last week’s article in Salon by Katy Read about the flip side of “opting out” of the workforce struck a chord with me.

The world was different when The Wife dropped out of the paid workforce in 2004.

When she made the decision to stay home full-time, The Boy was three, and The Girl had just been born. TW was already on a reduced-hours schedule, having gone to 30 hours when TB was born. TB’s daycare alone was over $250 a week, and that was seven years ago. We realized that with both kids in daycare, her entire paycheck would have gone to daycare, and we didn’t see much point in that. We both wanted to see the kids more than the dual-career shuffle would have allowed -- we had several years’ experience of that with TB -- and she wasn’t happy in her job anyway. So she dropped out of the paid workforce, taking her MBA and her experience off the market to give the kids the attention we both wanted them to have.

The plan was that she would stay home until TG was in school; at that point, she’d find something part-time. As the kids got older, she could ramp back up at work.

Then, shortly before The Girl started school, the economy had a meltdown.

Opting back in is proving much harder than we anticipated.

Part of it is the way that the public schools around here do their schedules. Beyond the obvious question of summers -- what do dual-career couples with young kids do in July? -- there’s a panoply of half-days, quirky holidays, and random breaks throughout the year. (And that’s not even counting the “sick kid” days or snow days that throw dual-career schedules into chaos.) The schools clearly assume that there’s a parent at home; when there isn’t, you’re suddenly doing some high-stakes juggling.

Worse, the few local employers who have shown signs of life have apparently been burned by Moms before. At one interview last Fall -- a very small business -- the interviewer told her point-blank that they’d grown weary of trying to accommodate the school/Mom emergencies the last woman had, and that they had no interest in going through that again. That was the end of that.

My job allows for occasional forays -- I’ve made every “lunch with the parents” event -- and a few days off, but it’s not part-time. Depending on the time of year, sometimes it’s more than full-time. I don’t have the summers at home that faculty have, or the freedom to leave at 3:00 on a regular basis. It’s a twelve-month, five-day-a-week office job, with some weekends and some travel. Since pay doesn’t scale on a linear basis with hours -- there’s a quantum leap from part-time to full-time, as any adjunct knows -- the only way to provide reasonable income for the family is to have at least one person work full-time. Two part-time positions add up to less than one full-time one financially, so “just split everything evenly” is not a realistic division of labor. Instead, we have to specialize.

But we’re finding that what felt like an open invitation to return has been cancelled. Even with her credentials and experience, TW hasn’t had a single offer, even for a part-time position.

The economy is not designed for parents.

The kids have had a level of attention that I wish more kids had. They’re great kids, and I’m glad they’ve had that. But we always assumed that when the time came, TW could return in some capacity as the educated professional that she is. Apparently, not.

Any younger couples reading this should probably know that opting back in is a lot harder than it should be. I don’t know that we would have done anything differently, but it’s certainly a cold splash of reality.

My SIL was out of the workforce for 2 years. She left as a manager, has an MBA and speaks fluent spanish. It took her ~5 months to find a job. She was switching industries so that complicated things. But don't loose hope, it just takes time.
My situation is unique as my wife is a school teacher. School is out she is usually off (save for professional development days). Snow days not really a problem. She also has enough sick days that she can take off if need be. Teaching jobs though have been hit hard. Not easy to find a position.
I'm a female science PhD in industry who just had my first child 8 weeks ago. Thinking about whether I'd like to have a second at some point a lot lately. This is certainly discouraging...

On the other hand, there's my mom, a lawyer who opted out when her third child was three years old to work part time for the church, and has successfully gone back to work as a lawyer ~12 years later (albeit a couple of years ago when the economy was in better shape.)

Though I look at her example as proof of what is possible, it is also a little scary -- she now says she wishes she'd stayed home with all her kids, and she is basically at the same level, career-wise, now in her mid fifties as she was when she left in her 30s. She used to make approximately the same amount of money as my dad, but years of promotions (many of which came with relocations, which required her to constantly hunt for new jobs when she was working) mean that he is now a senior manager, while she is still one step above entry level.

That said, I think that I personally won't be satisfied with my life unless I find a way to do both. To be sure, parenting emergencies are inconvenient for employers, but I really don't see that it's more efficient for society to have half the adult population sitting around at home to be available for school emergencies, while the other half works non-stop. It's just as productive for more people to work, and work a little less. And much fairer.

The above story is getting a little buzz; didn't know if you'd seen it or not.

Mary's mom's story is very encouraging.
I don't know about your area, but here in the Mid-Atlantic State That Likes Crabs, there are lots of pricey summer camps and activities for those days when kids are off school for planned days. The last-minute emergencies? Those are trickier, for sure. Good luck to TW--I have a friend with a law degree going through a similar experience right now.
first of all, MBAs are a dime a dozen. this may be a bit harsh, but an MBA doesn't mean diddly these days. the online market has cheapened the degree.

companies are getting smarter. why hire an MBA to work spreadsheets & perform analysis using software, when you can hire the CS (or a less competent MIS) grad who wrote the formulas in the spreadsheets, and who can write all kinds of software that you need?

both of my parents have started their own companies in the past few years, and both are succeeding. they hustle, but neither is complaining. my mother had a corporate job that was paying her hundreds of thousands of dollars, lost her job, and hit rock bottom (lost her house, retirement, savings...). so she decided to start her own company doing something she always wanted to do (and she had absolutely no experience in), and lived day-to-day. now she can live month-to-month.

i have another friend who quit his nice, padded job to start his own software company. he's struggling, but staying afloat.

my MBA friend couldn't find a job for 9 months, yet my parents (neither has a degree or any startup $) seem to get along just fine, and are making good money ($100k+).

i dont have sympathy for people who complain about not finding a job when i have 2 uneducated parents who have both made it work in their own way (and have done so in this economy). their future is completely uncertain, yet they're not complaining or worried, and aren't bitter that the world hasn't provided them a good, secure job.

and my MBA friend lived off of his wife's meager salary for 9 months, while the Subway down the street was always hiring. the fact is, jobs exist.

and if you can't find a job, and you really, truly think you are good at what you do, start your own company. if you're in a secure spot (such as DD's wife), what does she have to lose? make your own fortune.
Good luck to you and TW. You are absolutely right that workplaces and schools have not adjusted to the fact that most families no longer have a stay-at-home parent. (Most American mothers are back in the workforce by the time their babies are a year old, as of course are the vast majority of American fathers.)I'd love to stay home with my kid, but I love her having health insurance more.
Um, it's not exactly news that women who "opt out" of the paid workforce to do primary care for children have decreased employability, earning potential, and career prospects, and that recovering from those "years off" from paid work is very difficult if not impossible in terms of lifetime earning potential. This is one reason why women are disproportionately disadvantaged in divorce. And the data has been around on this since at least the mid-90s when I took a course called "The Sociology of the Family," so at least for that long it's been pretty standard information that there is not an "open invitation to return," regardless of what trend stories in magazines and newspapers might like to tell us.

I do wish your wife and your family the best as she attempts to transition back into the paid workforce, and I understand that the challenges of negotiating the personal and professional are difficult.
once opted out, you are out forever. The corporate world has no place for mothers.

My wife joined this group. Of all her friends from that set of mothers who took time to raise their children, instead of outsourcing, exactly none of them have been able to resume their careers. Some have been successful in starting their own businesses or consultancies; some are working low-wage part time jobs; but as you found, there are no decent jobs as such for mothers in the USA. Such is life under unfettered capitalism..
Complex adaptive systems, including economies, evolve, they are not designed.

That makes life difficult for mutations, but successful mutations, possibly including two-career families, develop evolutionary stable strategies.
Everyone I know who has found a job did so through their professional network. EVERYONE. So my advice to your wife would be to go to friends that know her and ask them if there are jobs at their company she can do. Get a linkedin account and populate it. Join toastmasters - anything to get out there with other working adults and network. The “Mothers and More” group may be psychologically supportive but sounds like a lousy place to network.

A temp agency would also be a good idea - not because that's her long term plan but because it would get her a resume with some recent experience and references that are less than 5 years old. It could expose her to a number of different local companies and if one of them liked her, they might find a way to take her on fulltime.

As for the weird schedules, find a stay at home mom who wants to earn some extra money and have an agreement with one or two of them to look after your kids on those weird schedule days so that the two of you can work – or, find a neighbor that you trust and make the same arrangement. My family did this with several different people and it worked out well. One year, we hired a laid off school teacher to pick us up from school and make dinner - it was one of the best years of our life. You could also talk to the childcare workers at your campus daycare about their summer plans and ask them if they are available to look after your kids or a group of kids during school breaks and the summer. Our local YMCA has winter and summer programs for kids with working parents who are out of school. You might also try to network with your Chinese friends (if they are very traditional) as they often participate in extremely academic afterschool programs, many of which pick up the kids from school and take them to the program. These typically include instruction in Mandarin, Math, English and have the option of including art and dance, sometimes for an extra fee.

No company wants to think that the job you are doing for them is your second priority - so TW needs to be able to approach her search as though the job is her first priority and that she will be flexible around what her work requires. Or she needs to work in a nursery school or other environment dominated by moms where her needs will be understood and supported. A non-profit might also be more flexible (working as a volunteer and moving into a paid position would be the goal there). She might also consider taking a time limited position on a grant as a staff member or program manager.

Last but not least, consider doing a split shift. I would talk to your local hospital admin folks about any workforce shortages they anticipate in the next 5 years and have her seriously consider training for one of those jobs with the goal of working at night. Consider applying for a unit assistant or other entry level position to get her foot in the door. Could she be an x-ray tech, ultrasound tech, respiratory therapist or phlebotomist? If you really want her to work during the day, does she know enough about IT to become a helpdesk person? Would she be willing to learn medical transcription or coding and work for a doctor’s office?

Good luck for TW – my mom was a doctor but worked part-time all her life so that she could spend time with her four kids. She’s happy with the choices she made, even though her career wasn’t as lucrative as it could have been. You guys are smart and will sort this out.
One thing I've heard- that I can certainly believe- is that daycares are much more accommodating than schools. By definition nearly 100% of their parents are in the workforce; not so true for schools. In that sense, the time to 'opt out' is *not* when your kids are small.

As far as the challenges of parenting and managing job be brutally honest, unless they were dealing with a single mom, that local company wasn't burned by the mom. The mom and the company were burned by the dad, who couldn't get into the mentality of taking responsibility for the kids.

Even though your work is much less flexible than faculty, I simply don't buy that you can't handle kid emergencies. You are not a surgeon where it is a matter of life or death if you leave. What would you do if (godforbid) your wife were to get extremely ill? You would make it a priority to have backup plans available for your kids. Set that system up first, so it's not nagging in the back of your wife's mind as she's trying to interview. Get a nanny. Or teenage babysitters (hey, the snow days might actually coincide!). Or talk to daycares, even if it'll cost you an arm and a leg (think of this reentry into the workforce as your wife's paid training- it might not be enough to come out ahead, when you factor in childcare, but it'll help her get to a point where she *will*).
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"The economy is not designed for parents."

I think you're missing the word "productive" in between "for" and "parents."

I've observed that those who opt to raise their children (many do not) and contribute to society are seemingly penalized for their good deeds.

On the other hand, the point of a business is to make money. By and large, businesses do not want to hear that their employees have to put work on the back burner because their child is (insert reason as to why they can't be in school).

The challenge, of course, is finding the right balance of family and work. A lot of the battle is remaining committed to the search and networking like hell.
The economy isn't designed for people who have a life outside of making money for a business, be they single or married or with children or now.
When I was a kid, my mom and the lady nextdoor both worked part-time and then watched each other's kids while the other one was working. It worked out well for us, but we were lucky to have nice neighbors and schedules that worked out that way.

My husband and I don't have kids and we don't know if we ever will because of the issues you brought up.
I opted back in, though admittedly I was barely out. Landing a position as a teacher with one kid at the same school as me has helped tremendously. But there's some good advice here about networking, lining up sitters. I used college students back when I needed to juggle. And I got my job through networking as well. I found out about it before it was posted--that's how it works these days.
What reassigned time said, except the class I took was called, "Women in the economy."

Opting out and then back in works better for traditionally female careers.
I have several friends who are from other countries (or ex-pats living elsewhere) who are completely blown away by our society's lack of support for parenting. When it's the LAW, companies magically manage to find a way to still make money even when parents have to be engaged with their children's needs.

We both work (raising our 4yo and 15yo granddaughters) and we've managed to find backup resources, but it's HARD. Boys and Girls clubs are often open to school-aged kids on school holidays, in-service days and snow days, but that doesn't cover kids 4 and under. We did find a good daycare that accept drop-ins, have been rescued by a friend who is on disability more than once, and connected with an RN who works long weekend shifts and is willing to do sick-kid care for us when they're too sick to go to school/daycare and too young to be left alone.
The one thing I can relate to is how clueless school districts are to the fact that both parents work. I live in a fairly affluent school district where it takes two incomes to support the lifestyle and the school's assume someone can be at the school at any time of day for a classroom activity. Most women I know have plenty to do running a household, taking care of small children or ill parents. Plus, I know many women that had to reenter the workforce when their husbands were let go due to the economy.

Summer camp is really the only option most working parents in my neighborhood have.
You're absolutely right - parenthood and work do not co-exist well at all. It is a problem that goes down to the very core of how we define work. The dominant mindset assumes that success follows from acting as though you don't have a life outside of work at all.

It's a shame that the issue so often pits parents and non-parents against each other, because it's not just about the kids. It's about balance. The childless have commitments and interests outside of the office, too. Of course a childless person doesn't want to be chained to his desk until midnight while a parent leaves at 3 to get Johnny from school, but the answer isn't to demand that everyone be at his desk until midnight. The answer is to take the shame out of leaving at 3. For everybody. A healthy balance benefits all of us.

So I agree with you as far as that goes. And I agree with you about a lot of things. I love this blog. But...until our institutions make this shift to a healthy work-life balance, the attitude you're espousing is part of the problem.

I mean, you've written it off as patently absurd that your schedule could have much flexibility. Your job is 9-5. Your career can not possibly adjust to child care needs beyond the occasional foray. So by definition your wife's career will have to, because somebody has to. Tag! She's it! Again! Do you see how much that limits her and sends her to the job-hunting slums? These are children that you both wanted and both agreed she would "off-ramp" for, but how is it fair that her career withstand a virtual meteor for the sake of the kids, while your job remains sacrosanct?

I know. Your job supports the family and pays the mortgage. You can't do anything to put it in jeopardy. I get that. But you're not Widget Maker #68 on the assembly line. You're part of the campus leadership. I don't think you could realistically announce that you're leaving at 3 for the rest of the year, but where do these changes in workplace culture come from if even the leaders shy away from admitting that their lives do have an impact on the number of hours they can sit at the desk?

Meanwhile, professional part-time positions have long been difficult to come by. I don't think TW is rare in that regard. If she is smart and capable and interviews well, she will get a job at some point, even if it takes a year or more. The world always needs good people. And if you're long used to living on your salary alone, she has the luxury of taking that time and only interviewing for jobs with ideal hours. However, she is much more likely to find something appealing and appropriate for her skills if her #1 consideration doesn't have to be the hours per week - if, in other words, she opens up the search to full-time work. If she really and truly wants to on-ramp, setting the requirement that she can only work part-time risks setting her up for failure.
Plenty of us do get by with both parents working. How do families manage? Some daycare centers cater to older children in the afternoon, busing them from school and setting up activities strictly for them; mom or dad just has to pick the child up. Or if you'd rather see the kids go straight home, a 3-6pm babysitting gig is perfect for a college student, or a SAHM in the neighborhood. If you have family in the area, a grandparent who couldn't watch a toddler all day might find watching relatively independent TB and TG manageable. As for summers, most parents where I live rely on camps that typically run the length of the school day.

But it is a juggle, and it is hard, and you'll worry about the impact on the children, and you might decide it's not worth it. That's a legitimate decision. But better to make that decision than to just feel like nobody wants you.

Incidentally, I do work to pay for daycare. Really, I net something like $200/month when you subtract the cost of child care. Most moms I know think I'm crazy to send away my little ones (18 months and 4 years) for this little financial gain, but your post is exactly why I do it. It's actually a lot easier to get part-time work once you're already in with an employer who knows you and doesn't want to lose you than to ask for part-time work off the street. That said, I did off-ramp for 3 years when I had my first child, and I didn't have too much trouble getting back in. But I applied to a lot - a lot - of jobs and earn less than my peers who never took any time off. It is very much a shame that the time I put in with my young children essentially has no value to this society at all. I'm sorry TW is hitting this wall as well. But it won't last forever.
I'm sorry your wife has had such difficulties. I guess I was starting to see some of this when I had my older boy: there is no such thing as a "part-time job" unless it includes a phrase similar to "You want fries with that?" I guess I've been extremely lucky that I was able to go to school part-time and my husband could support me when we decided to try this halfway through my undergrad. Ironically, I am working part-time now, but I also don't know how long this arrangement will last...I'm hoping until I finish my dissertation.
Here in New Zealand (different economy - more female friendly than the US) I've seen friends find a good balance via self-employment.

As TW has an MBA - she'll have skills to look at where markets are changing, where growth will come, and look into ways of making income. In your State you may find Elder Care is rising - and there'll be business opportunities around that.

If she works out what she'd like to do - as a solopreneur, or contractor - then I recommend networks like BNI - Business Networks International breakfast meeting. In New Zealand we have herbusiness networks - - there may be something similar near you.

Good luck! As Evil HR Lady Suzanne Lucas says - you get most work by networking. (I second Toastmasters too - great way to build skills and meet people - try a few clubs and she could find the best one for her)
On a personal level, I really feel for your wife. She made a huge sacrifice when she agreed to leave the world of paid employment and, while I'm sure it has been worth it in many regards, it must also be very frustrating for her right now. And what that business owner said about not wanting to hire another "mom" may well have been an example of employment discrimination (depending on laws in your state)- not that she'd likely get anywhere by saying so.

But really DD, I'm sort of surprised. A "culture studies" veteran of the 90s, and the persistent bias against women/mothers in our society surprised you? Did you not read any feminist theory? Or did you think that, somehow, it wouldn't affect you and the ones you love? Sometimes we academics are guilty of that - understanding a concept in abstract, but being blind to how it actually impacts us (until, all of a sudden, it does impact us in a big way).

Because this is not a new problem. Lots has been said and written about it. And I second the previous poster who took you to task a bit for assuming that your job could never be flexible at all and thus, your wife should bear the full burden. When she's in a position where you (maybe collectively) have defined her number one imperative as "child care giver" then it isn't surprising that she's having a hard time finding a job.
If the standard were six weeks of vacation, then some folks could use it for vacation while other folks used it for crises, and that would work well.

Not in this country, though; keeping productive people from being able to work due to risk issues is the essence of American capitalism.
Good luck to TW. When we moved here for my job, my husband gave up a lot, including a stable job. Since moving here almost twenty years ago, he's done everything (and I mean everything, including working road crew and sorting recyclables as well as retraining for his third degree, now!) but there's never been a full-time job on offer for more than a short term contract.

Having the kids, especially one with special needs, made it all the more crazy. Even to this day, we can't leave autistic youngest at home alone the way we could with her neuro-typical sibling at the same age.

We could move somewhere that we'd both find full-time work, but our overall family income would take a huge hit as I'd give up my professional salary. So he soldiers on in contingent part-time employment and I avoid taking on any additional duties that interfere too much with the child-minding that can't be fobbed off on casual hires.
If the standard were six weeks of vacation, then some folks could use it for vacation while other folks used it for crises, and that would work well.

Also makes things like medical appointments and shopping a bit easier.
DD, I hate to break it to you but if you've done your job effectively and trained your staff as good supervisors do then sneaking out early a couple days a week or really long lunch breaks will not be a problem. The place won't fall apart while you are gone. As long as you have boundaries with email, you can still be in communication while off site. My mom is in a similar leadership position as you. Normally, work hours were sacred. Our dad had the very flexible job. When I started college, she developed epilepsy. Her office (vital to the everyday function of the college) was well trained and functioned well during her extended absences and random doctor visits and just plain old exhaustion due to meds. Just think you could also be the mold-breaker for the rest of your campus.
I understand the need to be vague, but there could be some self-employed or consultant options for TW depending on what skills come with that MBA. She has one advantage that you might not recognize but that is well known among sole proprietorships in our city: she has health insurance through YOUR employer. The reduction in overhead is significant.

Small businesses have needs, such as bookkeeping or HR, that don't rate a full-time or even half-time employee. I know someone who does quite nicely as a contractor with a modest number of small businesses. (Just be sure to do it on a pay-as-you-go basis since some will go bankrupt.) Get out and network and there might be more work than the classifieds would suggest.

I'll also second the comment about the health professions and management of same. The cost increases you have seen for the past decades are not going to doctors, and slowing growth is not the same as ending it. Our health care businesses are hiring, but it might be on the second or third shift.
DeanDad, I have to agree with the commenters who say you are really passing the buck here. Your bottom line seems to be that TW is responsible for out-of-school childcare, and that's that.

Just for a minute, imagine you are a single parent. You would have to earn enough money to pay the mortgage AND somehow make sure your kids got to school, got home again, and were looked after when they were sick.

It's actually not impossible. I do it, and lots of other people do. But what makes is a heck of a lot harder is that the workforce is packed with men like you who think that there is no flexibility in THEIR job, thus creating a workplace culture where taking days off for kids' illnesses is questionable at best.

This kind of male privilege is the sort of thing that makes every engaged parents' life difficult.
Here from Grumpy Rumblings.

First, thank you. You are the first person I've ever seen comment on pay not scaling with hours. There are probably good reasons the relationship's not strictly linear, but the weird step function that exists in the US -- the division between "full time" and "part time" workers and the impact that has on, particularly, benefits, strikes me as one of the major remaining structural factors contributing to many of the problems you describe. I think that "equal pay for equal work" is impossible in such a framework, and why we've never stopped to question or challenge it is beyond me.

As for your own family's situation, I'm not clear about why TW is seeking to re-enter the workforce. Is it because your household needs the money? Because she wants the challenge, interaction, and/or independence, and/or something else? Lacking that information (and as I say, I'm a first time visitor) I have no idea what the best approach to her job hunt (or abandoning it) is, nor to the balance of responsibilities within your household.

I am perpetually stunned, though, at the inability of most people most of the time to learn from others' experiences and/or remember history. I'm assuming you're at least my age, meaning you were a kid in the 1970s. Did you really think the way things were in 2004 is the ways things would be, forever? Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I've made equally inane decisions and perhaps not even with hindsight do I recognize them (after all, if one's going to do inane things it's good to go all out), but still.
"there are no decent jobs as such for others in the USA" - i bet there are about a million mothers with good jobs that beg to differ. there are around 10 in my building; my [teacher] wife works with around 30 of them (if a decent job is one where you get 4 months off a year to be with your child, insurance, pension, & a decent salary). my mother raised me & my brother fine & made great money in a male driven corporate environment.

and if people want to complain that work won't let them check out at 3pm or take a 3 hour lunch, how about switching to an hourly wage (assuming you're not on one). that would solve everything. get paid for the time you're at work; get nothing when you're away (a novel idea!). most people i know have employers who operate this way (mine does). if i need to take my boy to the doctor, that's fine. i can make up the time that week, take PTO, or only get paid for 40-X hours. seems fair to me.

the problem is, you can't gear the system towards parents, as it is completely unjust to those without kids. why should i get paid for taking off for my son's tummy ache, when the single guy next to me wants to leave early to go to happy hour? why should he have to take an hour or two of PTO for that, but i shouldn't?

for most people, their check is formed around the principle of hourly wage * hours worked = paycheck. for you salary workers, hourly wage can be [roughly] derived via salary/52/40. if you cut hours, but paycheck remains constant, that is a verifiable raise or pay increase. letting people leave early for little things is giving them a pay increase, while keeping those who are still at work constant in pay. i don't know about you, but the idea of the guy next to me getting a pay increase for doing less work pisses me off.

it's not a company's job to be accommodating of kids. it's an employers job to make money, keep people employed, and make the owner & stockholders rich (crude, but true).

anyone who "opts out" of the workforce for an extended period of time is at a disadvantage, not just mothers. if you are in a coma for 5 years, or to serve as a missionary overseas for 10 years, then you will be at a disadvantage. the system isn't biased against mothers; it is biased against those who are unemployed for long periods of time. but that's the way it should be.

employment is based upon skills offered vs skills desired (for the most part). if what you have to offer isn't desired, learn something new and adapt. our local wal-mart, call center, landscaping crews, and just about every restaurant in town are always hiring. if those aren't worth your time, but you can't find work elsewhere, then maybe it's time to redefine your worth.
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