Babies and Boardroom: You Can Have it All

Nov 05, 1998 |Anne Morse

You say you want a career and someday, children. How will you balance them? Today’s mommies and daddies are blazing the trail.

I had a meeting the other day with my male boss, in my bathrobe.

No, it's not what you think. I was at home spooning cough syrup into my 10-year-old, who was suffering from a cold. But I was also taking part in a morning editorial meeting with my boss and several colleagues some 30 miles away, in Reston, Virginia — via telephone.

I am a telecommuter — one of an estimated 40 million Americans who use modems, fax machines and telephone lines to reach out and touch their employers from home.

It's the perfect way to combine parenthood and profession — to have it all (or most of it, anyway). If we can believe the pollsters, telecommuting is becoming the work/parenthood balancing act of choice for the new millenium.

Though balancing career and children may seem a long way off to the average college student, it's not too soon to know your options — especially in light of what you're telling pollsters. One large insurance company just completed a study called "Generation 2001: A Survey of the First Graduating Class of the New Millennium." What do members of your generation see in their future? Kids! Ninety-six percent say they plan to marry, and 90 percent hope to have children — three on the average.

But the same survey also reveals that 82 percent of your age cohort believe that "two-income households are going to be important" — which means male and female college grads alike expect to work after children come along. The upshot is that even though you have yet to finish college, marry and have children, it's not too early to start thinking now about how you'll reconcile these two goals.

So what are your options? For starters, take a close look at telecommuting parents. At the Christian non-profit I work for, all four editors in my department — two men and two women — work from home offices spread out across Virginia, Maryland and Connecticut. Three of us have young children and the primary responsibility for their care. My colleagues and I keep in close touch by telephone, e-mail and fax, and over the years, we've become accustomed to phone conversations punctuated by the unprofessional sound of "Sesame Street" and the racket of children asking questions, asking for juice — or asking for a spanking.

In a sense, we've gone "back to the future" — back to a system of balancing work and childrearing familiar to past generations of parents.

A Blast From the Past

Nancy Pearcey, executive editor of Chuck Colson's BreakPoint radio program and a telecommuting mother herself, says telecommuting is helping parents "return to a more humane style of work" — a pattern of work reminiscent of how parents in generations past integrated work and family.

Think back to the colonial era. As Pearcey notes in "Rediscovering Parenthood in the Information Age," "It was a rugged life, yet one conducive to strong family bonds. With rare exceptions (e.g., sailors, soldiers) men worked in the home and its outbuildings or the surrounding fields. Husband and wife worked together in a common economic enterprise [and] trained their children in the diverse skills needed for survival in a pre-industrial society" (from The Family in America).

But thanks to the Industrial Revolution, this cooperative lifestyle began to disintegrate. Productive work began to be carried on outside the home, which led to "an inherent tension ... between the two fundamental tasks of making a living and raising children. The 19th century solution, Pearcey writes, "was to split these tasks between the sexes: Fathers began going out to work in factories and offices" while mothers stayed at home to raise the children.

"By the close of the 19th century, Pearcey writes, "most of the traditional female occupations — such as weaving, baking and brewing — had been removed from the home and transferred to the factory." Women at home were reduced from active producers to passive consumers, leading to a loss of a sense of self-worth.

The response of early feminists (like the feminists of today) was to urge women to join their husbands in finding work outside the home. "The opposite alternative, of course," Pearcey writes, "is to bring work back into the home" — to return to the pattern families commonly followed for thousands of years.

That's exactly what modern parents are choosing to do. A recent study (by Find/SVP) found that in 1990, some four million people worked from home. Today, according to the Washington Times, that number has skyrocketed to an estimated 40 million, and is growing by about 20 percent a year. Fifty-three percent of these telecommuters are women, many of them mothers.

Do these folks long for the collegiality, the bustle and excitement of a real office? Don't make them laugh. A survey conducted for Telecommute America revealed that these modem moms and dads are "extremely happy with their jobs." So happy, according to another survey, that they say "nothing would make me give it up." Except, possibly, a doubling of their salaries.

Even the Bible Endorses It

By integrating productive work with childrearing, telecommuting mothers are mimicking, not just their colonial forebears but a woman much more ancient: the celebrated working mom of Proverbs 31. This is a woman whose life is balanced between her home and the outside world. She tends her children and keeps her house in good running order. But she also goes into the community as a businesswoman, selling clothes she's manufactured at home and buying real estate with the proceeds.

This woman's income, it seems, is no mere pin money to splurge on a new bottle of myrrh. It's a valuable contribution to the family economy. We're told that "she sees that her trading is profitable"—so profitable that she can "laugh at the days to come."

It appears that modern mothers are longing to follow in her ancient footsteps. The polls repeatedly tell us that huge majorities of moms would prefer to stay at home with their children if they could afford to, or at least exchange their fast track jobs for part-time, "mommy track" employment. It may be that they're influenced by the slew of studies confirming that children raised at home are better off than children raised by unrelated daycare providers.

To anyone who reads the Scriptures, it should come as no great surprise that mothers wish to make child nurturing their top priority. We know God intended mothers for this role in part because the Bible's most powerful images depicting God's nurturing care and concern are those of mothering. In Isaiah 66:13, for example, we read: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." 1 Thessalonians 2:7 says: "But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children" (RSV).

How Children Change Feminists

Danielle Crittenden, editor of The Women's Quarterly, echoed this theme a few months ago during her testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. As Crittenden put it, "The fact is, when children come along, someone has to accommodate them. A woman who has carried the baby around for nine months inside of her finds it natural to do so — and often impossible not to." In poll after poll, she adds, "women express the desire to do so."

Most feminists vehemently disagree with this thinking — at least, until they have children of their own. A recent convert is Iris Krasnow, who gave up a top-flight career as a journalist (she's interviewed everyone from Yoko Ono to Billy Graham) to take care of her four little boys.

"Motherhood," Krasnow recently told Washingtonian magazine, "is about deciding not to fight that ancient and biological yank on the womb, that natural order of your soul that says you should be there." And she added somewhat defensively — after all, she was being interviewed by a fellow feminist — "If we don't want to work 80 hours a week in some office and get our family life eaten up, why should we feel as though we're selling out feminism? I'm a committed feminist, and there's nothing more powerful to me than refusing to abandon motherhood."

Krasnow now writes books and teaches part-time, in between picking scrambled egg out of the carpet and rocking her boys to sleep.

Krasnow is a delightful exception among feminists. That innate yearning to put children ahead of career is alien to feminist leaders, most of whom are — (need I really say it?) childless. As Crittenden explains, when conflicts arise between career and children, "feminist wisdom has been that the child should always be the first obligation a woman drops, even if it's the one most precious to her. She must never let drop any of the ones to do with her work."

In "Feminism is Not the Story of My Life," historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese says that while feminists insist that they respect any lifestyle choice a woman chooses, "it's difficult to find much feminist support for women who decide that their commitment to family must take precedence over their commitment to work." In fact, Fox-Genovese notes, feminists as a group tend to ignore the importance of children in the lives of most women. They don't understand that bearing and rearing children "might well be the most important and rewarding thing that most women ... do in their lives."

This anti-mothering message is likely heard on your college campus, where feminist professors bombard students and policy-makers alike with the nonsense that yes, children are perfectly happy spending 10 hours a day in paid care while their mothers pursue their careers. Cheaper and better daycare, feminists assert, is the answer to the childcare dilemma.

Rubbish. To again quote Danielle Crittenden: "Does it make sense for society to attempt to re-invent itself so that [mothers] can more conveniently and inexpensively delegate the care of [their] babies to strangers? It may," she says, "seem breathtakingly radical to phrase the question this way; to assert that the solution to the work/home dilemma involves imagining ways to help mothers of young children stay home."

Corporate America Responds

After five years of full-time working from home while also nurturing children, I can heartily endorse telecommuting as one of the best of those imaginative solutions — for mothers and fathers alike. And even if feminists don't get it, corporate America does. More and more companies are allowing employees to work from home.

As Jacqueline Sergeant writes in the Asbury Park Press, "a growing number of companies realize that to retain their best employees they have to provide policies and programs that help employees balance work and family life."

When they do, corporations often reap unexpected dividends: lowered absenteeism and a higher level of loyalty.

When you think about it, why wouldn't parents be loyal to companies that let parents feed a baby while researching the status of congressional bills, read Benjamin Bunny to a toddler in between faxing legal memos or spend lunch hour throwing a ball to a 5-year-old son? Quite often, we telecommuters can set our own hours, which means we can step out to see a child perform during a school band concert, or volunteer to take a vanload of sixth-graders on a field trip to a local television station — something I did myself just a few days ago. If necessary, we make up work time in the evening or on weekends. And if we're up half the night with a teething baby? We can take a nap the next day.

Of course, no job is without its drawbacks. Once in a while my boys begin screaming over the ownership of a Beanie Baby the moment my boss calls. And when a blizzard hits Washington and shuts down the roads, everyone else at the office gets the day off. Me? It's a little hard to convince my employer that snowdrifts have piled up between my bedroom and my office down the hall.

Not all jobs, of course, can be performed from home. And jobs with unforgiving deadlines don't mix well with young children. But you might be surprised to find out — thanks to technology — how many jobs can be performed from home.

For mothers, that God-given tug on our emotions — what Iris Krasnow colorfully calls "a yank on the womb" — means we're willing to try to make a few sacrifices (like adult company) in exchange for the privilege of caring for our own children. Remember, the creation mandate described in Genesis has never been revoked. A desire for children — and the desire to nurture them — is written on our hearts.

So my advice to all those young people on the cusp of adulthood who want it all: Choose a job you can perform at home, if only for a few years.

Because when you actually have those babies, you'll find they can't be fitted around a career, like a hobby, or put on your after hours "to-do" list. Raising up children who will honor and serve God will become the most important activity you'll ever undertake.

And for those millions of mothers who are already there — who know what it's like to be on the phone changing a contract bid while they're changing a diaper: Just think of yourself as a Proverbs 31 mom, gone high tech.

Copyright © Anne Morse, 1998. All rights reserved.

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