Moms need better options for returning to work

Just past dawn the other morning, my husband was off to work and my 4-year-old daughter was crushed up against me in our king sized bed, which often ends up feeling like a twin due to her need for full bodily contact. (Yes, she still ends up in our bed most nights. We are working on this!) This particular morning she was attached to me like a limpet when my 12 year old son tiptoed into the bedroom. It was one of those ubiquitous “late start” mornings for the Olympia School District, which full time working parents deal with in creative and stress-inducing ways.

Having an extra hour, my son slid into the approximately five inches of space left between me and the edge of the bed. Before too long, both of my children were sound asleep, breathing in that totally carefree, deeply relaxed way that no parent can ever experience again.

I was a mommy sandwich. I had no room to move, my neck was in an uncomfortable position, and I was getting kind of sweaty. I was the happiest I had been in a long time.

Like most mothers, I usually exist in a different kind of mommy sandwich, trapped between the obligations and joys of parenting and the need for paid work. I quit my full time, good-paying state job five years ago, a questionable career move for a nearly 40-year-old professional gal. I wanted to be there for my new daughter and my growing son, and my brave hubby was willing to make the leap with me to give one-income life a go. Now my daughter is approaching kindergarten, the credit card debt is looking scary, and I’ve decided to go back to work.

Opting back into a career isn’t easy. It is downright intimidating. Kids’ lives take place largely during the normal 8-to-5 work schedule. Working full time is off the table if I want to be the one taking these future taxpayers to and from school (including late start and early release days), helping with homework and through emotional turmoil, and shuttling them to sports practices and doctors appointments. Bless the army of nannies, after school program teachers, and grandparents who do this for full time working parents. But for those who have the potential to both work and do those parts of parenting, choices are strangely limited.

Low-wage jobs rule the roost on the part-time employment pages. (Ironically, many such ads are for childcare, so other moms and dads can go to work.) Then there’s the cost of daycare, which can easily eat up wages from part-time positions. Even “full-day” kindergarten (that’s about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., folks) can cost several hundred dollars a month, which seems insane.

This isn’t a new problem or conversation, as any parent will attest. What gets me is the lack of progress we seem to be making to support working families. These aren’t mom issues. These are society issues. If we want healthy, happy families in our community, shouldn’t we stop penalizing parenthood?

In this region, state government has a unique opportunity for leadership on this issue. As I write this, there are 758 state jobs advertised on career.wa.gov. Of those, exactly 12 are listed as part-time (mostly nursing positions). A search for the term “job share” reveals nothing. There is room for growth here.

Moms I know are hard-working, multitaskers. Why aren’t they being actively recruited? Instead of employers worrying about the time moms might take to tend to sick kids or leave early for 5 o’clock soccer practice, they could choose to value parenting as a core business principle and create flexible hours.

There is no magic formula that will work for all parents. The key is to create more meaningful choices for families. Moms (and dads) will continue to work hard to finagle schedules that strive for some kind of parent-earner balance. Having been a working mom when my son was little, I know it won’t ever feel very balanced. It will feel kind of crazy.

But on that recent, late start morning, my cascading worries about returning to work and striking a manageable mom-work balance were momentarily silenced. Squished between the warm bodies of my children, I had no choice but to lie there, still as a robin listening for a worm, but hearing only the sounds of their sleep. I was happy to stay in that kind of mommy sandwich a little bit longer.