There is a greatly underutilized resource in our communities: women who want to work manageable hours while still providing a stay-at-home presence for their kids. I have been fortunate for the last seven years to work for Westby Associates, Inc., an employer who is supportive of my split priorities, offering me part-time benefits and a flexible schedule that allows me to maintain a part-time professional life while still clocking serious hours on mama-duty.
My particular formula for financial survival and sanity includes having health benefits and the majority of kid expenses covered by my kids’ dad, limited exotic travel and extra expenditures, a tribe of other trusted parent figures, and a partner who works the days I don’t. I know that I am very privileged to be able to make ends meet in this way and I couldn’t fully support my family without the more substantial income of my partner who also is able to work part-time, and just this past year was granted benefits from their employer.
The day-to-day reality of our lives involves dizzying complexity and negotiation as we pass the baton of kid care back and forth between us and dads. Yes, it is easier if just one person is responsible for getting kids to school and soccer, staying home when they are sick, dealing with feeding and cleaning. A lot of extra communication is required to make sure no balls are dropped in the daily juggling act of caring for five children. But I know for me that not having to make an either-or choice is incredibly enriching.
When I was in college in the 80s, the clear expectation was that we would all, men and women alike, go on to have satisfying full careers and busy family lives. In retrospect, I have felt that those of us who might be bearing the children should have had a bit more of a reality check. Especially if we ended up with any major proclivity for attachment-style parenting or homeschooling. Or community activism, farming, alternative healing or other time-consuming creative pursuits. The fact is that many of us working humans have other interests and skills that may have to be neglected in the pursuit of the one job that allows us to provide financially for our families. And of course, our own health and wellbeing are too often also sacrificed to the time commitment, not to mention the benefits that could accrue to our communities if more people had more time to engage in work that doesn’t necessarily pay.
The other life reality I have felt unprepared to confront is the fact that, just as kids are becoming more independent, their grandparents are often becoming more dependent. To put it bluntly, parents and dear friends are becoming sick and sometimes dying and caring for them and processing grief is another very real and time-consuming part of the essential unpaid work that enriches our communities. Just this week, one of my “non-workdays” was spent in the emergency room with a very sick dear friend in Portland. When my widowed mom had knee surgery last year, I spent many hours in complex care coordination to make sure she was getting adequate care. Navigating healthcare systems – even if you are lucky enough to be well-insured – is frustrating and essential work that many of us will be called to devote time to. And in my experience, attending the dying is a precious, vital part of a full human life.
My two oldest daughters are now in college themselves, which means that the critical parenting moments are more unpredictable. Instead of checking in before bed or while driving to school, I get phone calls at irregular hours, with more challenging content. College in the 80s seems a cake walk compared to the expectations and hard realities young adults are facing now. And the workload alone seems to have exponentially increased. I hope I have encouraged and modeled a realistic work-life balance for my kids, and I hope the careers they pursue will also offer them that potential. After all, I might need them to take care of me someday. And beyond that, I think our world needs the full complement of their talents, not just the ones that pay well.
I know stay-at-home moms in our community who, in addition to being amazing caregivers, are incredibly capable and talented, with skills that would be valuable in professional settings. I wish more employers would consider meeting their business needs with part-time employees. And I wish there were more flexible options (with benefits!) for the moms, dads and humans out there who have divided priorities.
Ingrid Dankmeyer is an associate and grant specialist with Westby Associates, Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.