- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

Nancy Loftus knew what she wanted when she gave birth to her child in late 2001. She wanted a compromise back at the office.

“I wasn’t interested in working full time and being a mom at the same time,” says Mrs. Loftus, 34, who lives in Fairfax City with her husband, Connell, 34, and daughter Colleen, 16 months.

“I wanted to do the best I could at being a mom, but I was torn about keeping my foot in the door with my position. If I could have my cake and eat it, too, I wanted to give it a try,” she says.

Mrs. Loftus, an assistant county attorney in Fairfax, proposed splitting her responsibilities in tax collection and bankruptcy — as well as her paycheck — fifty-fifty with another lawyer, also a working mom. Their employers accepted the bid for an arrangement that seems to satisfy all parties in this work-life mediation.

Few decisions carry as much emotional weight with women as determining whether to work after the birth of a child. Many mothers leave the world of bosses and deadlines — temporarily or permanently. Some nail down child care and return to the office. Still others manage to negotiate flexible, part-time or telecommuting shifts or create free-lance businesses that allow them greater access to home and children.

No matter the choice, the mother’s belief that she has made the right decision positively impacts the way maternal employment affects children, says Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York.

“Not that kind of garden-variety ‘Am I doing the right thing or not?’” she says. “The deep-seated belief that you’re doing something that’s either right or wrong for your children tends to affect how you parent. If you can, listening to and following your beliefs is important.”

Alexandria mother April Braxton Selenskikh listened to her heart when son Alexander was born 18 months ago.

Ambitious and armed with an Ivy League degree in history, Mrs. Selenskikh planned a career in advocacy or pop music — whichever came first. She did not nurse a strong desire to get married and have children, she says.

“I was never really very interested in children before I had one,” says Mrs. Selenskikh, 29, who decided to step out of the work force to stay home with her baby. It’s a constant daily sacrifice, but one well worth the struggle, she says.

“I believe that I can give the best care to my child at this young age,” Mrs. Selenskikh says. “It’s very much an intentional choice. We’re living with my parents right now. We used to live in New York City, but we couldn’t live there on my husband’s income alone.”

Mrs. Selenskikh is expecting a second child in August with her husband, Sergei. She says she still has the drive and energy to accomplish her goals, “but I’m not purely self-focused anymore. That translated to wanting to give that love and nurturing to my children.

“I do empathize with the difficult and exhausting lifestyle of working moms, but I am not comfortable with spending more time at work than I do with my children. I advocate a more child-friendly and, by consequence, family-friendly option whenever possible.”

In fact, the American labor force is filled with mothers, and the ranks continue to grow, says Randy Ilg, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.

In 1992, the BLS reports, the total number of employed women with children under age 18 in the United States was approximately 21.1 million. Of those women, 26.2 reported they worked part time, although the statistics do not reflect any greater detail. Ten years later, the number of employed women had risen 17 percent, to 24.6 million. However, the percentage of part-time workers remained steady at 26.2 percent.

Many people, not just parents, are banking on greater flexibility in the workplace, and the corporate world slowly is meeting the challenge — despite the current recession, says Gail Aldrich, a mother of two who has more than 25 years of experience as a human-resources practitioner.

“A lot of employees are looking for greater flexibility because of dual-career families and having children later,” says Ms. Aldrich, a senior vice president at the Society for Human Resource Management. “It’s not only women. They are clearly the majority who will use the flexibility, but I’ve seen a dramatic increase in men who are using these opportunities as well.”

Such opportunities might include flexible schedules, flex time, on-site child care, reduced workweeks, telecommuting, elder-care allowances, job sharing and the use of family medical leave, she says.

“The key that is driving flexibility is bottom-line-oriented,” Ms. Aldrich says. “Flexibility can be tough when employers are being forced to do more with fewer workers following rounds of downsizing. However, despite the downturn in the economy, most employers do not want to lose good employees. They remember a few short years ago, when it was nearly impossible to fill some positions. Building employee commitment for the future when economic conditions change makes good business sense.”

Commitment and comfort

Tracy Ortolano has managed to synthesize family and home life with full-time employment. For Mrs. Ortolano, a day’s paid work as an off-site project manager for an electronic finance company begins each weekday morning when she kisses son Dominic, 1, goodbye, hands him to his nanny and heads to the basement office in the Vienna home she shares with her son and her husband, Jeffrey.

The arrangement is ideal, says Mrs. Ortolano, 34.

“Where we live, having a two-income family is pretty critical,” she says. “At first I had some twinges [about working] and then you kind of feel like you get the best of both worlds. I get to have lunch with my son and sneak away from my desk to see him when I need a break. We really avoid the hecticness of having to take him somewhere.”

Mrs. Ortolano concedes, however, that her value within her company, which is based in Portland, Ore., has been compromised by her remote status. She recently learned she had been passed over for a promotion; company executives admitted to Mrs. Ortolano that her off-site status was the reason.

She’ll take the flexibility over the promotion, though.

“Do I care? Absolutely not,” Mrs. Ortolano says. “I absolutely would trade being promoted and given titles and more responsibility for this flexibility at this point in my life.”

However, other mothers welcome the stimulation of the traditional work environment and the opportunity to advance.

Jennifer Anderson, 26, works a full day and then some as an office manager for an Alexandria real estate company. Afterward, she begins her second shift — shared with husband Seth Bundick — parenting three young sons, ages 8, 4 and 2.

Each weeknight she retrieves the children from the home of her mother, who cares for the children while their parents work. Once they reach their own house, the family has just enough evening left to “play for a while, jump on the tramp, bathtime, prayer time, book time and that’s about it,” Ms. Anderson says. “We have enough time, although I wish there were more hours in the day.”

Ms. Anderson says her lifestyle is her choice. She has tried it the other way, staying home for a year to telecommute part time after the birth of her second child.

“I realized that if I wanted to maintain my sanity, I had to get back into the work field,” she says. “I was always a big people person. I love my children, but I have to be able to communicate with people other than in baby talk, I guess.”

She points to the economic benefits as well. An Alexandria native, she says the high cost of living in this area requires her to contribute financially to the household so her family can live comfortably.

“I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t work — I don’t know any stay-at-home moms,” Ms. Anderson says. “The only person I know who is a stay-at-home mom is my own mom. Most of my girlfriends don’t have children. The ones who do don’t necessarily have to work, but they prefer to for the same reasons I do, I’m guessing. Some people are comfortable working, and some aren’t.”

‘Very individual decision’

Janet Kimberling sees all types of mothers in all sorts of situations in her capacity as a therapist and director of clinical services at the Women’s Center in Vienna. Some mothers work full or part time outside the home, and some have left the labor force entirely to stay home with their children.

“It’s a very individual decision based on many factors,” she says. “Some are happier being home full time, and some are happier being at work and having outside stimulation.”

Once women make their decision, they try to feel good about it, Ms. Kimberling says.

“Therefore, sometimes if another person makes a different decision it becomes threatening to us and becomes wrong,” she says. “People want to say, ‘I really made the right decision.’”

American University law professor Joan Williams has studied work and family issues since 1989 and serves as executive director of the Program on Gender, Work & Family, based at the university. Founded in 1998, the program is a research and advocacy center that focuses on economics, family life and the workplace.

This generation — men as well as women — places tremendous emphasis on family and home life, Ms. Williams says.

“There is substantial evidence that Gen X and Gen Y men are less likely than older men to want extremely time-intensive careers without regard to the impact on home life,” she says. “They want more balance, which makes them look more the way mothers have looked for a very long time.”

The mothers’ emphasis on family and home life is seen throughout history, says Ms. Williams, author of “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.”

“Mothers have always assumed that parenting is a time-intensive, 20-year commitment. The big change is that more fathers now are coming to see parenthood in that way,” she says.

“Why do mothers think that way?” Ms. Williams says. “Partly because kids have needs and mothers are attuned to be more attentive to those needs, and part is because women are judged on whether they’re successful in family and home life and whether they’re a ‘good mother,’ which even … very recent studies show is still defined by whether you’re always available for your children. A father is not defined in that way.”

Herndon resident Jennifer Conner has sampled a couple of alternatives in balancing work and life in the three years since she and her husband, Steve, became parents. An environmental consultant by profession, Mrs. Conner, 31, has worked full time outside of the home, worked at home part time and now is a stay-at-home mother to her two toddlers.

She says she believes all mothers are sensitive about the choices they have made.

“As a working mom, I was jealous of the stay-at-home moms,” Mrs. Conner says. “As a stay-at-home mom, I’ve got days when I’m jealous of the working moms, because if I had an office to go to and I could close the door and have some quiet, that would be nice.”

She is a member of Mothers & More, an international not-for-profit organization supporting mothers who have altered their career paths. Her stable of friends includes both working and stay-at-home mothers, and she says she sometimes senses an undercurrent of tension between the two camps.

“My friends who are working moms — they’ll joke about moms who are staying home — ‘Oh, isn’t it nice that you can stay home and make cookies with your kids.’”

Mrs. Conner doesn’t take any remarks personally.

“I would say that if a comment is made regarding the other group, it may be a reflection of the choice the person has made and whether they’re comfortable with their own choice. I’m comfortable with the decision I’ve made, so I try not to let it bother me one way or the other,” she says.

“But sometimes you can’t help but reflect on it.”

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