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Making Work Work

By my somewhat awkward title I am referring to how to make being a working mom work to the benefit of the family, including mom herself. Being an “old pro” at the game, I could probably offer two dozen tips. But, as I have been asked to give only a few, I am forcing myself to be brief.

Originally, I thought I would give about half positive and half negative tips. However, once I began writing I found I could rephrase my “don’ts” into “do’s” and have expressed them all in a positive manner. That seemed important to me, as so many negative things have been written about working mothers. As I indicated in another of my articles, “In Praise of Working Mothers,” we deserve appreciation much more than censure.

So herewith you have 10 golden nuggets that I hope will help many of you be successful and happy working mothers.

1. Take everyone’s needs and goals into consideration when you make your decision about whether, where and how often to work. Much is written about the minimal financial gain made when mother works, because of childcare expenses, gasoline, vehicle maintenance, a professional wardrobe, etc. That is all well and good. But, regardless of your salary potential, suppose that, after deducting these expenses, you bring in an additional $10,000 to the family budget. Such an amount is not to be sneezed at in today’s expensive world.

Then consider two other reasons cited for why mothers work: if they stayed home all the time they would be terrible mothers, and they feel they have to use their talents and training to help society. I have never been convinced of the validity of that first reason, as being a stay-at-home mom can be so enjoyable. But about the second I know a great deal. I was one of the first in my family to graduate from college and the only one to get a Ph.D. By the time I had my children I had had 10 years of productive and promising work in the field of child development. Even if I had not felt the need to repay my debt for my splendid education and the incredible opportunities I had had, many other people, including my husband, were there to remind me. Striking a proper balance is not easy, but it is possible.

2. Don’t wait until morning to get things ready. Let’s face it: the hardest time is in the morning. The kids are sleepy, you are grumpy and already beginning to think about all you have to do during the day, and everyone is slow getting down to breakfast. Then the guillotine blade falls: your daughter can’t find her jacket, your son is missing the most important part of his homework and someone brings out a long letter you need to study before signing. That’s why it’s important to get the family routine worked out so that preparation for leaving in the morning takes place the night before. And that includes you. Decide what you are going to wear and lay it out. If you have to make lunches, do it in the evening. See to it that baths and showers are not postponed until morning. These activities should be as much a part of the bedtime routine as teeth-brushing. Backpacks should be filled, jackets atop them and laid by the exit door. These routines will cut your and your children’s stress levels in half.

3. When you are not at work, be available to your children but save some special time for you and your partner. Protect family routines like eating dinner together. No matter how tired you are, find time for reading to the young ones, checking homework with older ones or just talking and laughing. And don’t let work carry over through the weekend. Save that time for the family.

It is critical that you find special time for you and your spouse or partner. Personally I think this should be as soon as both of you are home. My husband used to call the period from about 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. “The Gangrene Hour.” Not a bad designation. The kids are probably hungry or whiny. Give them a small snack and send them to their rooms for a while. They have probably been regimented all day and need a little free time on their own. Some will want to start or do their homework at that time. You should sit down and do some adult talking, enjoy a drink or watch the evening news. Intrusions should not be tolerated. Remind them when dinner will be served, tell them to save any homework questions until later and send them back to their rooms.

4. Make sure the childcare you arrange is of high quality. In all the research literature on the effects of working mothers on children, two findings appear over and over. One, if the mother-child relationship is good before the mother begins employment, and two, if the childcare provided is of high quality, chances are the child will experience no ill effects and may show positive gains. Unless we manage to find high quality care, we should indeed feel, when we go to work, what journalists used to love to taunt us with: “maternal guilt.” I’m not saying you won’t occasionally feel guilty about working, especially when your children are very young, but you can wipe out most of that guilt by providing high quality supplementary care. Don’t settle for the cheapest and most convenient arrangement you can find. Get the best. If you have to skimp, pay less for your working clothes. They’re not as important as your children.

5. If possible, always be on time when you pick up your children. Over years of running different childcare programs, I could see that having a mother come late to pick up a child almost always made the child anxious. Even young children who can’t tell time have a way of learning that “Mom should be here when the long hand is at the bottom (or top, left or right).” If Mom doesn’t show up at that time, many children become anxious and disruptive. Certainly there will be times when you are legitimately late because of traffic or an important meeting. But in these days of cell phones, you should call and make certain that someone lets your child know you will be late. Incidentally, this is an equally important consideration for your childcare workers. When you are late, they may have to remain at work longer and be late to get home to care for their own children.

6. From the time your children are very young, remind them that they play a role in keeping the family going. Give them chores to do as early as they can possibly handle them. They may gripe that they have to do more work around the house than their friends, so remind them that they also have more privileges than most of their friends have. I used to add to the standard biology textbook criteria of living organisms—“they eat,” “they breathe,” etc.— my own criterion: living thinks work. My kids hated to hear me say it, but they got the idea. Incidentally, I endorse the idea of a basic allowance adjusted to age, with bonus payments offered for extra jobs collectively agreed upon. I am not bothered by the accusation, “But that means you are paying them for things they ought to do, anyway.” That’s true. But most of us would not work without some compensation. Why should our children?

7. Involve your children in your work any way you can. The more your children understand your work, the more supportive and helpful they will be. This is important whenever you get any grumbling about how they wish you didn’t work and could be a room mother or always see them pitch. Don’t hesitate to remind them that the family couldn’t have gone on vacation last summer, or that they couldn’t do Taekwondo or have piano lessons without the income you bring in.

Even more important, help them understand the nature of your work. I will never forget the first time my son was about 10 and asked to be allowed to go along when I was making a speech. At the end of my talk, which dealt with the role of quality early childhood education in helping disadvantaged children become better learners, he raised his hand and timidly asked a question. I was thrilled, as were all the people in the audience.

When we got home, he commented, “I didn’t know that sort of thing was what you did, Mom.” I was chagrined that I had not communicated, in words he could understand, what I did and the importance of my work. After that, both he and my daughter listened to me give a number of speeches and visited my various worksites. They learned what their mother did and essentially became coworkers in the process.

8. Use work as a way of instilling responsibility in your children. This comes about as they develop a full awareness of the importance of what you do for the welfare of the entire family. Be sure to praise them when they’re responsible. They deserve it.

9. Take and use all the help you can get. When I was a young mother, women like me seemed to think they had to do everything by themselves. We had to take the children to childcare, pick them up, shop for meals, supervise all homework, get and serve dinner (and maybe clean up afterward), and see to it that everything was ready for the next day. Get the picture? Well, I am delighted to see that there is more balance in at least some families today. Negotiations like, “If I take the kids in the morning, you can pick them up in the afternoon,” or “If I am to get dinner, you will have to supervise homework” are common. And they are fair. To get them accepted into the family regulations, you may have to negotiate with your spouse. But it will be worth it.

10. Find time for yourself. This is essential and more than deserved. Whatever your “thing” is, set aside time to do it. Maybe it’s running, doing aerobics, taking a college class or volunteering for something at your church. Negotiate for the time, space and money to do it. You can’t serve your family without saving special time for yourself. After all, you have to grow and mature just as your children and partner do. Being a working mom does not mean that you are not a living human being. And, just as “living things work,” living things develop. Don’t let yourself provide an exception to that rule.

So here you have my 10 tips. Use and enjoy. And let me know what you think about them.

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education