In her recent Public Discourse essay, “Authentic Feminine Excellence,” Angela Miceli laid out a beautiful vision for women seeking a holistic understanding of themselves as mothers and professionals. Here, I would like to continue the conversation by sketching out some practical guidelines for young women who would like to pursue a career that is open to motherhood.
First, I recommend that we leave aside the idea of “balancing motherhood and career.” It is not so much a balance as an incessant tug of war, a daily adjustment to the greater or lesser demands of one realm over the other. When we learn to see it as normal for these two realms to be in tension, we can focus on ways to manage that tension rather than question why it exists. It is possible to find great joy and personal fulfillment—a thrill, even—in this lifestyle, but to do so we must manage our expectations and share the lessons that we learn in practice.
Just as a game of tug of war includes players at both ends of the rope, working mothers should assemble a team at home and in the workplace to distribute the tension between family and career. If the mother is the only one feeling that tension, then something has gone terribly wrong.
A woman’s home team should consist of a supportive husband, a domestic assistant, and the use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). In your professional work, the team should consist of an employer with realistic expectations, and—if you are lucky—collaborative colleagues. Once you have assembled your teammates, structure the game so that the home team regularly wins and the professional team is limited in the ways it can pull.
The Home Team
The most important member of your home team is your husband. A husband’s emotional and physical support is indispensable. Husbands must be willing to give all kinds of sacrificial support, and women must be ready to receive it. Practically, this means that you must help your husband to feel the tension, the pull of the family and home life, as he tries to hold down his job.
Some women try to insulate their husbands from this tension, believing that they are being good wives by taking it on alone. This is a lost opportunity for inner growth and unity in the marriage, and it often causes the wife to feel resentful.
Husbands should feel the heat by sharing the responsibility to care for and mentor the children. Women must learn to ask for this help and accept it in whatever form it comes, abandoning the toxic “my way or the highway” mentality. Collaboration and compromise are the only ways forward.
Each married couple must determine for themselves how they will divide the labor, and there are countless ways to do this rightly. I have learned, however, that a man cleaning the house is the Holy Grail for most women. So, if you do not have the cleaning kind of husband, don’t despair. Hire a cleaning lady. Peace and love are more important than distributive justice. Moreover, you will provide another woman with employment, which is gratifying in all sorts of ways.
The domestic assistant is the next most important member of the home team. Many women try to get by without household help for financial or moral reasons. To the first concern, please consider that it is possible to hire someone for a few hours a week with a modest budget. It is a matter of priorities. Once you hire someone to give you that help, it becomes clear that this assistance is more important than countless other expenses. I advise couples to hire someone early in the marriage (for example, in the third trimester of the first pregnancy) so that the money is earmarked for this need as soon as possible.
The domestic assistant is so important because the mother is the star player of the home. She is the guardian of the relationships in the family, as Miceli pointed out. First, she must guard and strengthen her relationship with her husband, and next, the children’s relationships with their mom, dad, and each of their siblings. If mom can perform this most important job of caretaking the family’s relationships, then the benefits to the family spill over a hundredfold. If she cannot—if she is overwhelmed with housework, office work, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, landscaping, repairs, lack of exercise, and so on—she becomes stressed out, tired, angry, and depressed. As a result, everyone suffers. Give a mother the assistance she needs, and she can delegate other tasks and focus on her most important work: caring for the people in the family.
Besides financial concerns, some women have moral concerns about hiring domestic assistance. They feel that it is like bringing a servant into the house. They do not want to insinuate to the children that some people are beneath us. But it is possible to employ someone according to principles of equality, fairness, just compensation, gratitude, and a keen understanding of the importance of manual labor and housework for the relationships in the family. With this mindset, hiring a domestic assistant becomes an opportunity to communicate these values in the family, elevating the work of the home to a level it has not enjoyed for decades, while teaching children to respect and collaborate with other adults as well.
Turning to NFP, I cheer for natural methods of family planning and reject contraception for reasons of health and morals. However, it is vital to manage expectations with regard to NFP; we mustn’t expect it to give a girl the control one expects from an iPhone. In its basic charting-and-temperature-taking form, the method requires a clinical mindset throughout the day, which is a challenging feat for many busy mothers. For certain moments in the family’s trajectory, it is very helpful to have technology that makes NFP more ADD-friendly.
One leap in the right direction is a monitor called Persona, which measures hormones released during the different stages of a woman’s cycle and determines whether or not there is a possibility of pregnancy on any given day. This monitor is available in British and Latin American markets. We should ask for its sale in the United States. Another alternative is offered by Marquette University physicians who developed an algorithm and online charting site that enables women to practice NFP using the ClearBlue fertility monitor. These are technological developments to applaud.
Children are a tremendous blessing, and a large family is a roller-coaster of bliss and nausea that I would recommend to many parents-in-waiting. But it is also true that at certain times, we need to focus on the relationships we already have. NFP can help us do this.
The Professional Team
The professional team should consist of an employer who has realistic expectations of you and, if you are privileged, colleagues with whom you can collaborate. The most important matter on this end of the rope, however, is that you ensure that the professional team is limited in the ways it can pull so that your home team always has the advantage.
With your employer, set realistic expectations. Honesty is the best policy. It is miserable to be in denial about what you can realistically accomplish or to try to work for someone who refuses to give ground to the needs of a family. Thankfully, employers are increasingly tolerant, because mobile technology allows us to be more flexible and work when we are not at work. Other employers are consciously trying to be more family-friendly.
However, some women still must endure employment that is not friendly to the realities of family life. If you can possibly walk away from such an employer, strongly consider doing so. You will do yourself and your family a favor. Moreover, I believe more mothers should use their boycott power to leave anti-mother jobs, so we collectively put pressure on companies to give slack to the needs of the family. Mothers in elite sectors of our workforce bear an important responsibility here, thinking of mothers in less-privileged sectors of our economy.
For similar reasons, it is advisable to look for a mother-friendly employer as soon as you go on the job market, before you are married or have children. This allows you to have as much time as possible to prove yourself to be a hard worker and establish a long-term working relationship with your boss. Down the line, when you need to give the home team the advantage by reducing your hours or asking to work part-time from home, your boss will be more willing to agree, because you have already learned the ropes and proved yourself to be an asset to the company.
The main way in which you can limit the pull of professional life is by carefully selecting how many hours you agree to work and get paid for. Every woman’s circumstances will present different needs and possibilities, but here are some guides that worked in my case.
Phase I. For the first maternity leave, try to take time off from work for six months to one year, to allow you time to adjust to the wonder and fatigue of becoming a mother. Most women are caught by surprise by the tsunami of hormones that flood the female body when it gives birth to new life. We are designed to have a strong desire to bond physically and emotionally with our infants, and some women respond to this tsunami more easily than others. A large window of time gives you freedom to ride or duck the wave in the way that is most reasonable (or least painful) for you and baby. Even if you believe your boss would never give you so much time off, ask for it anyway. The more we collectively ask, the more it will become a possibility.
Phase II. When children are still very young (one to four years) ask yourself and your boss to consider five to twelve hours a week, or “quarter-time work.” Unless you have a special-needs child, children of this age can well handle being away from mommy for two to four hours a day, and some easygoing children can handle even more. You will still be with them for the vast majority of the day, but you give yourself much-needed rest and time to develop and apply your professional capacities. Your child will have an opportunity to learn to be with other caring adults, and you will better appreciate time together. However, because young children thrive on stability and a predictable routine, it is best to rely on one carefully selected babysitter, not a revolving team of caregivers.
Phase III. Once children are in school from 8:00 to 3:00, mothers often find they can incrementally increase their hours of professional work. However, I recommend that you try to be home when the kids get out of school. At this time, they often say the most interesting things. A friend of mine calls it “the great download.” They tell you what happened during the school day while it is still fresh on their forgetful minds. You can watch how they interact with their friends in play dates, car rides, or after-school activities and offer hands-on advice based on what you see with your own eyes. Mothers who work until 6:00 PM often find that they are so rushed to get through dinner, homework, and the bedtime routine that they miss out on—or must work harder to elicit—the stuff of 3:00-5:00 PM.
Finances. Lastly, and perhaps most difficult of all, sit down with your husband and structure your financial choices so that one income (ideally your husband’s) can pay for the family’s most essential needs, like the mortgage, food, utilities, and medicine. Your income can go toward more secondary things, like the domestic assistant who makes it possible for you to work, savings accounts, the “eating out” budget, etc.
In this way, if you and your husband suddenly find that you are pregnant with a special-needs child, or that one of the children is falling behind at school and needs more of your attention, you can pull back from work, or stop working altogether, without doing violence to the family’s cash flow. Sometimes, couples take on financial obligations early in the marriage that require them both to work. When life sends a situation that asks them to give more time to a person in the family, they feel trapped to keep working so they don’t lose the house.
I realize that, in our financial times, it is not always possible to rely on a single breadwinner. But it is also true that we often invent needs for ourselves that are not truly needs, which end up tying us down to things when we need to be free to serve the people we love. It may take you longer to get that house—or whatever it is that you want—but you will preserve for yourself the freedom to act in the way you believe is best for your family. The peace that such freedom gives is worth more than anything money can buy.
These basic guidelines have helped me to fulfill many personal dreams. I have seen my professional capacities grow. I have enjoyed the adventures of a large family with a wonderful husband. I have found that the limitations and lessons of each sphere enhance the operations of the other sphere, so that the tension results in a collaborative and combustive kind of motion that gives me a feeling of freedom. I have not been immune to life’s ups and downs, to exhaustion, to countless personal errors, or to marital, financial, and other stresses. But I frequently experience the kind of joy that makes one fall to one’s knees in gratitude for the tremendous privilege of being a working mother today.
Ana Samuel is a Research Scholar at the Witherspoon Institute. A graduate of Princeton University, she holds a PhD in political science from the University of Notre Dame and is the mother of five children.